Jamie Gaskins

Ruby/Rails developer, coffee addict

The Taboo of Salary Discussion

Published Jun 19, 2014

The phrase "salary discussion" bring about weird feelings in me. My first thought is "salary negotiation", which always scares the hell out of me because:

  • Salary is considered personal and, therefore, something people don't really discuss with each other.
  • Because of that, I don't know how much a developer should expect to get paid.
  • As a candidate for a job, I don't want to ask for too much and the interviewer thinks "this guy has way too high an opinion of himself".
  • I don't want to ask for too little and the interviewer think "this guy cannot possibly be a professional developer".

The other thought that comes to mind is that, relating to the second bullet point above, in order to find out what other developers are getting paid, I have to ask them, which feels invasive. I don't know how anyone will take that question, so I'm always afraid to ask. I've always been told it's like asking how much someone weighs — it's personal.

The problem with that line of thinking is that, if you don't know what others in your field make at a similar level of experience, you don't know how much you should ask for.

I make $80k/year. I grew up pretty poor (single mother making barely over minimum wage), I struggled through college, even served in the military, so in a way that figure seems astronomical to me and it feels kind of weird to even think I deserve more.

Sometimes it doesn't matter …

I live with my roommate in a pretty cheap townhouse in the suburbs of Baltimore, MD (I didn't think it was all that cheap at first, but I'd lived a pretty minimalist lifestyle up until I moved here).

Since my expenses have been low, I haven't been really concerned with whether I've been getting paid as much as I should because I've made more than I need to get by. Worrying about that would've added stress that I just couldn't handle.

… but sometimes it does

I'm about to move into a new apartment in the city with my fiancée where the rent will be about $700/month more. Add to that the fact that I'll be going from splitting the expenses in a cheaper house with a roommate to being the only person with a paycheck in a more expensive place and my expenses/salary ratio just got a lot higher.

To clarify why I'm the only one with a paycheck there, my fiancée won't be able to get a job until she gets a US visa giving her residency, which probably won't be until after we're married.

Since suddenly money will be significantly tighter, I actually do need to know whether I should be getting paid more.

But I stiiiiiiill … haven't found … what I'm looking for

Before I got my current job, my entire career in programming had been freelance, so I have no idea how much money a full-time senior developer should make. So when thinking about this, I realized I didn't know how to approach researching it. I didn't think it'd be a great idea to bluntly ask my employer "Hey, am I being screwed here?" Though I imagine they'd probably be straight with me, even if I asked it like that, the idea of rocking the boat is really scary.

UPDATE: I want to clarify that I didn't mean "am I being screwed" seriously. I use a fair amount of hyperbole in my everyday speech, but I try to make it obvious and my usage of it here was not obvious. I know that my employers aren't intentionally short-changing me.

I asked my friend Alicia about it (she's an absolutely fantastic person if you ever get a chance to meet her). She told me she wasn't sure what a senior developer makes but that junior devs at her last job started at $70k/year.

That kinda stung a bit. A junior dev starts at $70k? My first reaction was: My more-than-a-decade of experience and my depth and breadth of knowledge of Ruby, Unix, and various front-end web technologies is only worth an extra 14%? But my first reactions are almost always pretty extreme and visceral.

So after I calmed down, I realized that maybe $80k was all they could offer at the time. I asked for $100k, but I was the first developer whose work they could bill for. Before they hired me, the only other employees were apprentices and they weren't billing clients for their work (quite commendable, since they acknowledged that it's unfair to charge full contract rates for inexperienced work). So the only money the company made was from billable time that the two of them (the business owners, not the apprentices) put in while also doing the business-development side of things. When I took that into consideration, it seemed a bit more reasonable. (UPDATE: They clarified for me that this was indeed the case.)

I had received offers from two other companies (one here in Baltimore, the other a remote position) and both were in the same ballpark, so I wondered if maybe the only jobs that were paying in the $100k range were in Silicon Valley making feline timesharing apps and you had to work 29 hours a day, 8 days a week. However, Alicia told me I should check payscale.com. When I answered their questions (location, experience, etc), this was what I saw:

Payscale.com results for a software developer in Baltimore

Well, shit. Now I'm really confused. After checking out the various graphs beneath that one, I confirmed that these numbers are for Ruby developers in Baltimore with experience similar to mine. So maybe I am getting paid 20% less than I should be?

Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash

So now I'm actually asking everyone out in the open. I'd like to know how much Ruby/Rails developers with a decade of experience are making in a full-time position. If you work in the industry, if you know someone who does, if you hooked up once with someone who does, I just want to know (well, not about the hookup, just the salary thing).

I don't want to know for the purpose of matching a person with a dollar amount. I'm more interested in finding out on a statistical level.

I'm also not asking because I'm looking for something better. I like my job. The people I work with are great. I'm curious because I'll likely be asking for a raise at my next review, and I'd like to have some numbers ready for that. However, if you're offering a significantly higher amount, you might be able to convince me. ;-)

Just as a closing thought: companies capitalize on the fact that people are afraid to talk about how much they make. It means that they can pay different people different salaries to work in the same position because they'll never know. It contributes to wage gaps based on gender and race. Help yourself and others in your position. Talk about it. By all means, tweet about it (I'll be monitoring the #DevSalary hashtag on Twitter or you can tweet directly at me).