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Vaidotas Piekus
Vaidotas Piekus

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On Salary Negotiations

"Negotiate your salary - ask for more!"

This is one of those mantras that all of us hear all the time, but when push comes to shove, we rarely do it. Doubt besets us, we do not know what to ask or how to ask for it and we start fooling ourselves that company will offer us a fair compensation because "we are awesome and they will see it". We may be awesome, but we still need to market ourselves, work hard at presenting value and fight to get paid fairly.

In fact, as far as choices go, the choice to ask for more or not is one of the most impactful ones you can make in your career. Once you are hired, your salary is likely going to remain the same, with marginal adjustments based on inflation, promotions or bonuses (which are not guaranteed). If you are changing jobs every 2-5 years, the base salary that you sign on, will be the most important metric directly impacting your every day life. Do not waste the chance to significantly improve your situation. Having said that, successful salary negotiation is not as simple as "ask for more and they will give it to you". You need to approach it strategically, purposefully and with preparation. This article attempts to set you on the right path.

Before you start negotiating there are 3 pillars upon which you have to build your case: 1. Understand the market 2. Understand your leverage 3. Apply negotiation tactics.

1. Understand the market

Do your research - The worst thing you can do going into any sort of negotiations is to arrive without doing your homework. You must have a sense of what salary range is reasonable for your experience, qualifications, tech stack and area. Have a number of absolute minimum salary you would need to live comfortably, take into consideration your personal situation and existing commitments (family, parents, kids, pets, etc). You must have a number below which you will not take the offer.

Next step is to find out what other developers in your area with similar experience and qualifications to yours are getting paid. Here are some of the tools you should be using, use all of them and arrive to a range of salary. Just know that no tool is perfect and they all provide a glimpse into reality but not exact numbers, simply approximations. Use these to approximate and balance your expectations.

  • Your network - this is the most accurate and reliable source of information. If you are part of local tech network you can ask your fellow devs what should be your salary expectations. It is way more likely that you will get an answer to a question "Given that I have 2 year experience developing Full Stack applications in Rails, what do you think would be reasonable to ask for compensation?". You may not get far by asking directly how much other developers are making. Even though sharing salaries could do a lot of good for the community, a lot of people find it uneasy to talk about.
  • - Salary info is pretty accurate for larger companies and for more junior positions, going higher on the experience ladder, results will wary.
  • - It has reasonable estimations but only for major city averages, take it with a grain of salt.
  • - it can filter out to your level of experience and area which is neat. They also have a good number of data, even if it is all self-reported.
  • - can be a decent resource but I find that the range will vary wildly.
  • - This one has a nice report you can access, gives you a good idea of what to expect.

Your objective at this stage is to arrive to a salary range that applies to your situation. Top end will be something of a dream salary while bottom end will be your absolute minimum you would need to even consider accepting the offer.

2. Understand your leverage.

Leverage is very powerful when applied correctly, in a nutshell it is your unique value proposition and the reason why your should be paid more than you are being offered. This is highly personal and entirely dependent on your story and how well you can tell it, here are some of the most common value propositions you can apply:

  • "Passion" - I personally dislike that word and the connotation it has because it usually means extra work outside of your "normal" job or studies. This can take shape into multiple ways: Blogging, Tweeting helpful content, personal projects, participation in local tech community via meetups, open source contributions, etc. If you are doing some of these activities - great, build on that and advocate for yourself as an active and passionate community member. However, it can be hard to do this if you do not have ample time, maybe you are learning to code on the side, have dependents or demanding life in general. Not everybody can do most of these things but you certainly can blog or share what you are learning once in a while (even if it is once or twice a month).

  • Previous experience. A lot of us are career changers, going through the path of being self- thought or intensive bootcamp experience. It is likely that you currently have or use to have a non-technical day job. Do not discount that, leverage it to increase your prospects. Worked in a grocery shop? Great! You have good work ethic, handling difficult situations and remaining calm when the storm hits (somebody is yelling at you because they cannot find their favorite yogurt). Think long and hard about transferable skills that you honed in your previous job and that would apply to the tech field. You will be surprised how much will apply.

  • Current job achievements. If you already have a dev job and are simply moving to another - even better, you are half way there. But your resume should be full of evidence of your personal contributions, value that you brought to the company and projects and how productive you were. This is not a time to be shy and put your team first, this is time to take ownership and showcase that any company would be lucky to have you!

  • Multiple, competing offers. This one is uncommon and hard to get, but if you are actively interviewing and have a few offers on the table that you are considering, you can share that fact with the company you really want to work for and create leverage that way. Something along the lines of "I would love to make this happen and arrive to the offer that would be agreeable to both of us. If you would consider offering base salary of $XXX instead, it would make it easier to decline other offers I have from X and Y companies at the moment." Work with them on this, do not bluff, do not lie about what you have, ask them how can you work together to arrive at the agreement that is mutually agreeable and reasonable.

3. Negotiating tactics and pitfalls

Being uneasy about negotiations
This stuff comes naturally to almost nobody. You are in a warped asymmetrical power situation, you operate under limited amount of information, you really want this job and the person on the other line has been negotiating as their full time job (if they are recruiter). Having said that, with the research you have done, and the information you have at hand and understanding your leverage you are not hopeless, push past uneasiness and go for it.

What ifs that are in your head:
What if they retract the offer?
That hardly ever happens and if it does, you likely just dodged a bullet. Company that does not respect individuals who know their self worth and are not afraid to ask for it, may not be best environments to thrive.
What if I appear "difficult" and destroy my chances?
You won't. Unless you are being unreasonable and unprofessional, there is nothing wrong about discussing compensation and other benefits.

What if I am [insert your underrepresented minory which which you identify here], I am lucky enough to get an offer!
You got the offer because you are qualified and you convinced company that you would be a productive employee. Your next objective is to convince them that you are worth more then they are offering. Where one falls on privileged/unprivileged scale is irrelevant. Ask for what you think you are worth.

What if [insert anything else]?
The worst that can happen is that they will not budge on compensation question. You may want to give them an out and discuss other perks and benefits instead. Some companies have strict guidelines about base salary, but are okay discussing things like flexible work schedule, vacation days, commuting reimbursement and other perks. If they are not flexible, then that is just that, consider the offer as it stands and make the judgement.

Ultimatums are bad
There is a difference between confidence and reckless demands. Saying "I will not consider anything less than $80k" will hurt you in the long run, if company actually cannot offer that number, you just closed the door to negotiate other benefits and perks that would be part of the whole offer package. As a general rule - avoid using phrases like "I will not", "I do not", "I cannot". Always leave room for conversation and negotiation, always leave an out. On the flip side, if company was actually consider paying you something in the range of $70k-$90k, you just made a mistake that is called anchoring.

Anchoring is a thing
It is often the case that you will be asked very early in your application process the dreadful question - "what is your salary expectations?". It is hard question for two reasons: a) You may not have a good idea b) Your answer will most likely anchor you to the number you say and above which it will be hard or impossible to go. Let's say you answer with $60,000 as your wish right at the begging of conversation with recruiter, you will not be offered more than that at the end (offer stage). And if you ask for more at the that step in the process, you will look rather bad because they are meeting your expectations in the offer letter. You just boxed yourself in.
How to avoid anchoring? You will need to competently and professional deflect the question for as long as seems reasonable. If you are being asked right of the gate by the requiter - deflect it by stating that "I would like to see if this position will be a good fit for me before discussing compensation". Hopefully, by the time you arrive to the last step (final interview and offer) you will have a good idea what you should be asking and that question will not be so doubting.

Final thoughts and further reading

Negotiation is hard and for most people it is neither enjoyable experience or something they are good at. Unfortunately, for the most part in this world, if you want something, you have to ask for it. So do you research, understand your self worth and go into this with the confidence and objective of getting offer that matches your perceived worth.
Here are some further resources that will be helpful:

Top comments (2)

marissab profile image
Marissa B

The dreaded "What are your salary expectations" question is a fickle one - for me at least. Either I say a number and show my hand, or I give a fluff answer to avoid the number which is annoying.

My happy-ish medium is giving a range to play with and that seems to appease most as an actual answer with wiggle room. Something between "generic number higher than my previous job" and "nearly silly but not insane". Is it optimal in terms of numbers? Probably not, but it's easier for me to casually roll with in conversation and gives a solid start to negotiation. I've found that a fair number of employers seem to avoid making an offer in the lower end of the range and will go more middle-ish (maybe to avoid looking bad a little?), which is higher than the singular number I would've said originally.

Except my mother. Five cents per tech support question she asks me for nearly 20 years now. Don't negotiate contracts when you're seven...

dwd profile image
Dave Cridland

Loads of great advice here.

There's another two tricks in the negotiator's book you can use:

When I enter salary discussions, I always explain that while I'm happy to discuss salary and suchlike, my wife looks after the money in the house and she'll have to "do the numbers", so I leave final say to her. This is sort of true - we do discuss these things - but the key here in negotiation is never to admit you can make the final decision. This means they won't expect you to say yes or no in the meeting - which is useful to give you thinking time - and also that they have to use indirect negotiation. They cannot simply sell you on the deal - they must sell you on the deal so thoroughly that you will sell your wife (or husband, or partner, or parent) on the deal. This inevitably drives them upward. Most people avoid this tactic because they feel it makes them look weak - perhaps it does, but it has the opposite effect.

Secondly, never name a number. If you're really pressed, start listing reasons why the number should be high, but phrase them as reasons why the number is difficult to pinpoint. If they still press you for a number, turn it around and ask what sort of range they were thinking of. Eventually they'll probably cave, but if not then give a wide range with lots of caveats.