Career Advice and Salary Negotiations: Move Early and Move Often


Context

This following are hard-earned experience for advancing a career quickly. It applies exclusively to tech hubs, in particular London, the Silicon Valley and New York.

Your mileage may vary, especially depending on your location, your experience and your skill.

Disclaimer: I’m seriously biased toward good performers. There are people who can fizz buzz and people who landed on that blog by accident.

Introduction

The fastest way to advance your career is to move early and move often, especially when you’re young.

It’s a lot about money. The only way to get substantial raises is to leave your company. This is especially true when you just start out and/or you’re seriously undervalued (pick any combination: young, first job, naive, didn’t negotiate, just came from abroad, etc…).

It’s also about long-term savings. Not negotiating your jobs will cost you millions over your lifetime. You want to get to a decent level as quickly as possible, you’ll get to stay there for your future jobs.

It’s also about opening your eyes and widening your horizons. You learn the most when you change company, put in a completely different environment. Also, having had a lot of jobs gives you points of comparison to know whether you’re in a good place or not.


Disclaimer: This article will be about getting offers while threatening to quit your job. In business words, that’s call negotiating.

Lesson #1: ALWAYS negotiate.

Lesson #2: Negotiations are based on leverage.

Having a job and having competing offers are your leverage.


Chapter 1) Ground Rules

We’ll start with some ground rules and some myth busting.

Rules #1: You will NOT resign from your current job UNTIL you have a SIGNED contract with a new company.

(I’d put that as text size 20, bold, in flickering red if that blog allowed to do text formatting).

Rules #2: You’ve already got a job.

Having a job is the stronger leverage you have. If a prospective employer doesn’t give you the terms you want, you stay where you are. Nothing to lose.

Rules #3: Leverage.

Leverage, leverage and more leverage!!! A negotiation is all about leverage. The person with the most leverage gets what he wants.

Rules #4: No one cares. No one is gonna get hurt.

The HR/manager is hiring 10 guys a week, he’s seeing and negotiating all day along, every day, he’ll have forgotten your name by the time you leave the room or hang the phone.

Rules #5: NEVER underwrite yourself. NEVER talk yourself down. NEVER give away your positions.

Ever heard sentences like “It’s pathetic to pay so little because you know I have a family to feed and I don’t have a choice” or “I would like xxx$… <HR leaves a little silence>… but I’m willing to negotiate [down]“.

You’re actively playing against yourself when you talk like that. Don’t do it!

Tip: Whenever this sort of non sense comes to your mind, slap yourself very hard in the face. Over time, your brain will learn to think better. (I am a strong believer in Positive Punishment).

(Also works if you think hard about slapping yourself, without actually slapping yourself).

Rules #6: Paper is real. Talk is cheap.

The only thing that matters is official papers with a signature on them. Talking doesn’t engage anyone into anything. If all you’ve got is a verbal promise then you’ve got nothing.

Corollary: Assume everything you’ll ever hear from a recruiter/HR/manager is a straight lie. (But what about the 20% bonus I’ve been promised? Ahah. Never existed!)

Rules #7: Be relentless, inflexible and never give up.

As one mentor taught me once, the secret to negotiations is to “be an asshole” [1]. In essence, that means to be relentless and inflexible.

Think about it for a minute. A sales person’s only goal is to close sales, a HR’s role is to hire people. They’re the same thing. If one is talking to you and is really close to getting  you but not getting you, it’s a very frustrating position for him to be in. Remember, he HAS to sell. Eventually he’ll give up some slack to close the sale.

If you never lower your standards, you’ll never get less than your standards. But what if the negotiations goes wrong and everything is ruined? A negotiation cannot go wrong, at worst, you just call back the sales guy to accept the terms that he wanted to give you in the first place (and he’ll happily reply back because it’s closing a sale and he can’t refuse it).

[1] Then he went on to increase his stock grants by $10M while all the employees had peanuts. It was a significant learning experience!

Rules #8: ALWAYS stay polite and courteous, no matter the circumstances.

When you receive an email that’s killing you. You write a response email that really puts that guy back in his place, then you go have a walk and take a breath. When you come back, you delete it and write the email you’re actually gonna send.

When you think “Fuck you“. You don’t say “Fuck you” but “[This offer] It is not satisfactory“.

When I suggest to you stand up in an interview and leave the room (Why doesn’t love a dramatic exit?). In practise, it’s concluding in the middle of the 4th interview round that “We are not a fit for each other. Let’s stop the interview there and save both our afternoons, shall we?“, then standing up, saying goodbye to your interviewer(s) and asking politely the way to the exit.

Rules #9: Getting massive raises is fairly easy and common.

And the secret to achieve it is to start incredibly low. If you think about it, it’s really nothing to brag about.

Look around you for a minute. Let’s say you’re an American working at a typical tech company. Chances are that there are people earning $80k a year next to people earning $160k a year, who are not much older.

How does the former quickly become the later? That is definitely not by being nice and waiting patiently. He can only progress quickly by being good and being bold. Meaning, move early and move often.

Chapter 2) Be Goal Driven

Your single and only goal during a job search is to get offers, as in paper offers.

A contract is the guarantee that there is a job for you, at this place, at this moment, at this price, at these conditions. It’s both leverage and knowledge for YOU. You’re ready to go work at C company for £XX, assuming you sign.

If it’s satisfactory, you can sign and go there right away. (Once in a while, there’s a good offer on the first try). Otherwise, you can keep it in your offer letter collection. Who knows, maybe you’ll reopen the conversation in 2 weeks when you’re ready to accept, given that the start date is moved back or that they match the other offer you had in the meantime.

Whenever an interview process is stopped before the contract stage, it’s wasted time for everyone. You don’t know whether it would get real. You have incomplete information. You can’t sign it and work there. You can’t use it.

Chapter 3) How Much Should You Ask For?

The only way to find out is to interview and get offers.

Basically, you need to perform a binary search. When you get an offer, you know that you can get at least that. Then you repeat the process a bit higher.

negotiation diagram
Binary Search applied to job offers

Note: Notice that the process goes on forever. In the real world, you may have to stop at one point. Mastery is not achieved when you know when to play (you’re always playing!) but when you know when to stop and make a move.

Chapter 4) Compensation Package

The only real thing in the universe is base salary. That’s the only thing you get at the end of the month for sure. That’s the first thing to negotiate.

Then comes the package which includes but is not limited to:

  • Base salary
  • Vacations, Sick days
  • Duration of your commute
  • Healthcare
  • Pension, 401k
  • Working hours
  • Food, Cafeteria
  • Shares, Stock, RSU
  • Bonus
  • Sign-on bonus

Some perks can only be known and guaranteed when in a contract (e.g. vacations). That’s why it’s very important to get to the contract stage. Some are variable and may disappear or worse, been a lie from the start (e.g. bonus, shares), these are very risky take and must be treated with caution.

You should negotiate base salary first, concrete perks (e.g. sign-on bonus, vacations) second, risky perks last (e.g. bonus, shares).

There are entire industries who get candidates by significantly over-promising and under-delivering (e.g. start-ups). To this day, I have never met a company that said they paid X amount of bonus and that amount was actually paid in full.

Usually, companies have a culture. Perhaps they promise 20% yearly bonus but in practise they’ve been giving 10% to about everyone for many years, still nice to get. The only way to have a clue is to get insider data, most of the time you can’t and you’ll have to take decision partially blind.

Chapter 5) How Much Can You Charge?

There is no such thing as a “market rate” or a “fair compensation”. All there is are individual companies who run a specific business, generating a variable amount of cash, who’d get a variable gain from your service, with more or less favourable compensation policies.

At any point in time and space, there is always an endless supply of companies willing to hire for cheap. It’s fine when you first start out because your greatest quality is to be cheap and have low standards (we’ve all been there: you go where you can, not where you want).

As you mature and gain experience, you’ll request for more money and decent work conditions, there will be fewer places to work for.

Ultimately, if you’re a top performer and you’ve done your homework, you’ll reach a point where there is only a handful of acceptable companies in the area.

No matter where you are in your career, you should always know where will you send your resume next?

Never bother about the “how much?“. Your only concern should be the “where?”. You need to search, network and stay informed about worthwhile jobs and companies. 

Pick the companies you want to interview with and go play binary search with them, it will tell you the how much. If you have no selection criteria (WTF?!), just pick whatever company is in your area.

Note: The difficulty to get into a company has only a moderate correlation with how much it pays.


When there are 3 start-ups offering from $X to $2X and Goldman Sachs offering $3X. Your rate is $3*X +10k (cuz you negotiated!). It has little to do with an imaginary global tech market ruling the world and all to do with you pulling off your fingers and going into the wild to sell your service to the highest bidder like there’s no tomorrow.

if you want to have more you have to become more for things to improve you have to improve for things to get better you have to get better
One doesn’t get a rate, one makes it happen!

Chapter 6) Where To Work?

You gotta figure that out. Search, network, search some more.

For instance, let’s say I’m doing DevOps, SRE and system engineering for highly-scalable-low-latency-distributed-large-scale-systems.

In London, the easy money is usually in DevOps contracting (not to mention the neat flat tax rate). The hard money is usually in finance (ignoring that you can’t work in t-shirts). The usual big valley tech companies pay poorly (compared to contracting and finance).

For instance, if you hang around in the right pubs at the right time, you can overheard conversations like “A recruiter from Google contacted me to interview with them, I asked what’s their top range and they gave a number 40% less than I’m earning right now… Wow.“. Here in London all Google employees are easy fair pickings (please make sure your LinkedIn is updated!).

In SF/NY, the easy money is usually in big tech companies (Facebook, Google). A lot of the compensation comes from massive stock grant, so you have to negotiate stock hard and get it refreshed every year. (Note that the stock is liquid and publicly traded, it can be sold automatically monthly).

If you hang around on Hacker News for too long, you can find out conversations about Netflix not believing in stock and bonus. If you keep reading between the lines, you can figure out that they paid massive base salary in a big recruitment campaign to poach everyone from everywhere else.


Given my experience. There is no compromise to be made on compensation. The great companies are more successful all across the board, they pay more AND they have more money AND they treat their people better AND they have better work conditions AND more interesting projects AND …

Basically, there are the good organizations and the bad organizations, there is little middle ground. Given the choice, you always want to pick a 10x organization.


Chapter 7) Network, Network, Network…

Network in real life. Network online. Network at the pub. Network some more.

Do you know how much your current company pay other people around you? Well, you should!

Do you bring your co-workers one by one at lunch at a nearby pub to talk about secret compensations and office politics? Well, you should!

Do you have a LinkedIn up to date? Well, you should!

Do you have your previous co-workers on LinkedIn to follow-up on them and their new jobs, ready to message or be messaged if an opportunity pops up? Well, you should.

Do you regularly have drinks with your ex co-workers and ex-recruiters to keep up with the market and who’s where. Well, you should!

Chapter 8) Why Are We Doing All That?

We don’t negotiate salary because it’s easy, we negotiate because it’s important. Not negotiating your salary will cost you millions over your lifetime. Negotiate hard while you’re young and growing. It will impact the compensations of all your future jobs.

Have you ever asked around only to notice that 2 people performing the same work with the same qualifications have 30% difference in pay? Which one do you want to be?


when you life your life by poor standards you inflict damage on everyone who crosses your path especially those you love
Please negotiate your salary. It’s making the world a better place.

Chapter 9) Start-up Sucks

Disclaimer: I am in my “start-ups suck” phase.

Start-ups are a workaholics’ paradise. You’ll work a lot, for little money, with no healthcare and zero pension. All so you DO NOT make 1 million later because your company went bust, and if it didn’t your shares are worthless anyway.

The era of breaking the bank as a startup employee is long gone. Don’t expect to become a millionaire with that. The VC and the executives get all the returns if there are any, the employees get nothing. (Note that shares can have a negative value, they may cost you money to acquire and/or generate taxes).

Think for a minute about how much pay cut you took? Do you have bonus at all? How much your shares are REALLY worth? What’s your pension and healthcare plans? How often are you on call? How many hours a week do you work? When is the last time you had to work on a week-end?

While these issues are typical of start-ups, they can be found in any companies. Take a minute to think about your current situation and where you want to be (or not be). Would you be better off at a big tech company or a big financial institution?

Chapter 10) How Much Do You Want?

Question: “What salary do you want?”

The only acceptable answer is: “It will take xxx$ base salary to leave my current company.

Question: “What salary do you want?

Answer: “It will take xxx$ base salary to leave my current company.

Question: “What is your current salary?”

Answer: “It will take xxx$ base salary to leave my current company.

Question: “What is your current salary?”

Answer: “It will take $xxx base salary to leave my current company.

The only alternative answer is: “I need to know what kind of perks, hours and pension you have to give you a number? Let’s begin with what pension plans do you have?” [1]

You must figure out what you’re worth and you must ask for it. You won’t know at first, you’ll have no idea what their perks may be, you won’t know what you’ll work on. The entire point of this article is that you need to go get offers to find out. More interviews, more job offers, more binary search!

There is a myth that you should not give a number first, it’s 100% bullshit. If you let an employer gives a number first, he will low ball you every single time. (General rule: If an employer says a number, it’s guaranteed 5-10% under what they’re willing to pay without question). It gets worse, the conversation will be anchored to the first number that pops up, it can be very difficult to negotiate up from there.

Give a fix number, never give a range. Ranges are evil. Whenever a range comes up, the employer thinks of the bottom, the employee thinks of the top. You’re both pretending to be in agreement, while really ignoring each other.

[1] I’m fairly confident I’ve got the best one in town. I’m fairly confident I’ll reply to their reply with an egregious comment.


What do you have to lose by doing that? Absolutely nothing. Remember rules #1. You already have a job and you ain’t leaving until you get the terms you want written down in a contract. That’s your leverage.

I once had a conversation with an HR person in where he repeated the same question 9 times (the last 4 worded slightly differently). I repeated the same answer 8 times (then I changed the topic). This is a perfect example of being an asshole (read: relentless and inflexible).


Chapter 11) Move Early And Move Often

The average tenure for [young] qualified employees is around a year.

On the one hand, I can’t think of a single manager/HR who gives a fuck about keeping employees. (I can think of many who pretend to care, but none who would actually lift a finger if necessary).

On the other hand, I can’t think of a single manager/HR who wouldn’t poach an employee from somewhere else [1].

The combination makes up for a very aggressive environment. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

You can’t fight it, the best you can do is embrace it. Thus the best advice I can give to youngsters is to move early and move often.

[1] I loved that day when I joined a new job, only to find an email in my LinkedIn this evening from a Facebook recruiter inviting me to interview with them.

[1] I loved that day when I interviewed with Facebook, only to find an email in my LinkedIn this evening from a new finance shop in town that’s expanding by massive poaching.


It seems that short tenure is an evolutionary trait of the industry as a whole. There is no sign of it ever getting longer any time soon.

In fast paced companies, a sizeable chunk of work can be done in 6-18 months delivered to millions of customers. It’s very project-oriented, a project is executed, quickly. In fact, even if people would like to stay, it’s not necessarily that simple, they may have to move internally or externally.

Despite the incredible turnover, it’s good enough to deliver and make huge profits. Sure it’s not optimal. A business only needs to be sustainable, not optimal.

I joined popular web company then I realized it wasn't the right place for me so i left. In the 3 weeks I've been there, I only had time to find and fix a few bugs, one of which in particular is expected to increase revenues by 187 million dollars this year
A guy I interviewed once, who keeps that 3 weeks job on his resume just so he’s asked about it and can tell the story. There’s evidence that gigs could get a lot shorter and still be highly profitable for companies.

Chapter 12) Should I Accept A Counter Offer?

Do you want to stay at your current company? If “YES”, then yes you should accept a counter offer. Otherwise, no.

Should you even bother asking for a counter offer? If you’d like to stay then yes.

Obviously, your life and your decisions depends on you so there is nothing we can say to help you there.

Please don’t trust articles which say that all people who accepted a counter-offer have left short afterwards anyway. All these articles are written by recruiters who get a massive $20k-$100k commission only if you leave your company. If you prefer to stay, stay!

Note: Don’t trust recruiters. They will say anything to get you to leave your current job. They get a massive amount of money if they get you to accept ANY job from them. Doesn’t matter if the job is terrible for you or a huge step back compared to what you have now.

Chapter 13) How To Ask For A Counter Offer?

Go to the people in the position of power, usually your manager (but not always, politics can be tricky). Tell him that you have a counter offer for $xxx and he needs to match, and he needs to match NOW because you’ve got the contract from the other company in your email ready to be signed (I love DocuSign) and you’re not gonna wait (I hate waiting).

If you’re a player: Print the half-page of the contract which contains the numbers to be matched, highlighted in bright pink, with the phone numbers written in the corner for your director and people he may want to call.

It should only take 3 minutes to expose the situation. Speak calm, don’t argue, don’t speak more than necessary. This is a perfectly normal business talk. Businessman do that all day along, every day of the year. (Don’t worry. You’re not doing anything wrong, you’re not taking anyone as hostage and you’re not hurting anyone).

There isn’t a single thing he says that could matter. An experienced manager will probably have a script for that, don’t bother listening. It’s sure not the time to be manipulated into thinking the company has a limited raise pool or whatever he may invent.

Basically, he’s gonna need the day to talk to a few people and take a decision.

If he wants to pay, he’ll pay. If he doesn’t want to pay, the only two cards in his hands are to stall for time and to make [fake] verbal promises. Watch out for these two red flags!

You need to have a written salary agreement, signed, by the next day (2 days top). If you don’t get one, they’re not interested in keeping you, get out. (Again, I believe in  Punishment).

Chapter 14) Counter Offers Will Go Wrong

Disclaimer: I have biased toward good performers.

So far in my life, I have never seen a raise request or a counter offer go well. Or well, to be fair, I have seen a lot of 5-10% raises for a lot of people [1], and a few bigger ones.

There is a sizeable amount of them which are okay. There is also a sizeable amount of them which are for people who are seriously undervalued, who’ve been underpaid for years, still are after that raise, and would get outmatched easily by walking to the other shop across the street.

When you find out your company has undervalued you the whole time, the entire payroll is underrated, and the raise you’ve been given barely puts you on par with the low-end of other opportunities. You are sure leaving the hell out of here, possibly looking for blood and revenge in the meantime.

Remember: Blood and revenge are drama and drama will not help you. Go for a walk and when you come back delete your inflammatory goodbye email that was supposed to reveal the evil nature of your management to all-employees@fuckyourcompany.com [2]. Stick to a short goodbye message and make sure to insert your contact info and LinkedIn so people can add you. This job is over, networking just begins!

[1] If you’ve got someone for a steal, ensuring they get a 5-10% yearly raise or a 5-10% one-off bonus is the cheapest way to make them feel appreciated and keep them for a while, while really paying peanuts.

[2] The last placed I worked at really owned that domain and sysadmins had email and DNS management.

herding sheeps
Given my experience, that’s about how many people will follow your path, very soon!

A Personal Story:

I remember one raise I asked once, a meagre 33% that was perfectly reasonable (actually, quite low). They’ve invited me to a meeting with the other managers and it was a fucking disaster, I’ll spare you the details. At one point, my phone rang in the middle of the meeting. Some people barraged the request hard, be it for personal reasons or because it’s allegedly crazy to give a two digits raise to anyone. Everyone left the room in shock and despair.

I checked my phone, the missed call was from another company I interviewed with, to confirm I got the job. I called back to confirm my name/address and had a contract signed the next day for a substantial raise (plus additional bonus and perks).

My manager came to my office the next day –interrupting me while I was setting up the printer to print my resignation later– to say everything’s fine and I get half the raise I asked for, I nodded, then I gave my resignation the next morning..

My last action at this job was to publish a job posting for my role at £120k base, which was more than any of us was earning. The rest of the team quitted promptly.

gif - plane take off going wrong.gif
It was a fucking disaster.

And with disaster, comes evolution! That experience taught me 3 valuable lessons:

  1. Show a competing offer. Don’t talk. Don’t argue. Don’t listen. If you do, it can only go downhill.
  2. Imply only the single person that’s needed to bring the cash. More people can (and will) only cause troubles.
  3. I’d be earning £120k soon.

Disclaimer: I expect all counter offers to end up in a gigantic fuck up for a while. Truth be told, I’m looking forward to my 10th job in the industry, in the meantime, I’m just gathering materials for a future blog article: “Salary Negotiations Gone Wrong: 10 years of disastrous fuck ups and still counting“.


Chapter 15) Join The Recruitment Process

Become part of your recruitment process. That’s the best way to learn about recruiting, negotiations and one hundred other things.

For instance, after the 3rd dude in a row who failed to write a program to print number from 1 to 100, you’ll feel less like a fraud. Whereas there’s no such eyes opener as making an offer to a senior people who already have a job, only to have him reject you like a complete troll, stand up and leave the room.

Also, if you’re an idealist like me, that’s the only way to improve it: from the inside. And if you’re chaotic neutral idealistic like me, it can be a lot of fun, you get to see plenty of interesting people, while helping them, yourself and your company at the same time. (Chaotic Neutral Fact: Companies are ephemeral but what you learn for yourself is forever).

You’ll get a much better understanding of many things you couldn’t possibly dream of, with plenty of incredible and disastrous stories to tell (and recycle as leverage for yourself).


yeah that aint happening
When you’ve been recruiting for a position you’re qualified to for 6 months and that’s the only answer you got, from the only candidate (out of 6) that passed the bar.

Look for the obvious signs, when this sort of things happen, it’s time to either get a raise or jump ship.


Conclusion

If you’re negotiating an offer, the thing that’s critical isn’t to be some kind of super genius. It’s enough to be pretty good, know what the market is paying, and have multiple offers.” — Dan Luu

Always be on the look out for better opportunities. Negotiate. Get competing offers. Get counter offers. Jump ship.

And remember that nothing can go wrong, you’ve already got a job, you’ve got nothing to lose.

the first year I was in London my compensation took 105 percent which really pissed me off because it was just shy of 10 percent a month
Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.

References:

Salary Negotiation: Make More Money, Be More Valued, patio11 blog.

Don’t Call Yourself A Programmer, And Other Career Advice, patio11 blog..

Big company vs. startup work and pay, Dan Luu blog.

Developer hiring and the market for lemons, Dan Luu blog.

Salary Negotiation and Job Hunting for Developers, Twilio blog.

H1B Salary Data, base salaries are public for all H1B visa, at all companies, in all USA cities.

Rffffff
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3 thoughts on “Career Advice and Salary Negotiations: Move Early and Move Often

  1. This is spot on! I know so many people who are held back in their careers because they are afraid to negotiate or fear making a job change! I was thinking of writing a post on this exact topic but I think I will just link to this article instead!

    Like

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