Stories about Software


Salary Negotiation without Bridge Burning

Before the regular post, a bit of housekeeping.  I’m getting married tomorrow and then heading off for a honeymoon where I’ll be largely off the grid.  I’ve scheduled posts to go out during that time and social media blasts to announce them, but in case things get weird, know that the ship is on auto-pilot.  If you tweet/message/email me or submit questions, know that I won’t be back home and playing catch-up until late September.

With that out of the way, I’m going to make my last post before leaving a post about something people frequently ask me.  This actually isn’t a reader question submission, per se, but I’m asked about it enough that it might as well be.  If you’ll recall, a while back, I talked about how to negotiate with your employer by suggesting that you should negotiate for non-monetary perks with a lot more value than whatever pittance you’ll claw out of them.  But what if you really want or need more money?

I was reading this post on Simple Programmer by Xavier Morera the other day.  In it, he mentioned walking away from a job and having them offer to double his salary, and this struck a chord with me as a valuable lesson for how to negotiate with employers if what you really want is more money.  You’re probably thinking that a doubling of salary sounds outlandish, and, while that is unusual, it’s not as crazy as you think because of Xavier’s circumstances, which are likely different than yours.  They’re quite probably different because he wasn’t looking for the money and walked away from it.  You’re looking for it.

So how can you set yourself up to negotiate when you really want that money and you want to stick around the company for a while?

Remedial Opportunist Raise Negotiation

Something I still see people do that just makes me cringe is to secure a competing offer from another company and use it as raise leverage.  Often this happens after someone unsuccessfully pushes for more money, but they might just opportunistically go out and do it.  This is, strictly speaking, an opportunist move.  (If you’re not familiar with my definition of the company hierarchy, you should read about it to understand what I mean by “opportunist.”)  But it’s a move by someone who is bad at being an opportunist and probably destined for flameout followed by checked out pragmatism.  Opportunists are risk tolerant, but this type of leveraging is an extreme short term, prospect-killing play.

Put yourself in a manager’s shoes and imagine the conversation.  Bob saunters in, sits down and says, “so, I just got a really tempting offer from Initrode and it’s actually for 10K a year more than I make here.  I’d really like to stay, but it’s hard to leave that money on the table.  If you could match it… look, I’m sorry to put you in this spot, but it just sort of happened.”  What’s your next thought?

I’ll tell you what mine is in this situation.  “Yeah, it just ‘happened,’ huh, Bob?  You tripped, fell, called in sick here a couple of times, got dressed up in a suit, scheduled multiple rounds of interview with several people, received an offer letter, negotiated to a final offer and walked in here with it to show me?  Yeah, that’s a crazy coincidence!”  Bob is wearing a smarmy smile and insulting my intelligence.  This didn’t “just happen” — it was a calculated piece of leverage, executed at a time when Bob leaving would be an operational problem.  Bob’s strongest case for increased compensation was soft blackmail.


I don’t begrudge people taking steps to maximize their situations, so it’s not that I’d be resentful of Bob, per se.  It’s more that I’d think of him as a weasel — cunning, but not smart and certainly not strategic.  Think of it this way.  If Bob was mildly under-compensated and under-valued before, he’s corrected the compensation, but not the valuation.  It’s not like it’ll be a shock to any manager of technical talent anywhere that one of the people reporting to them could find another programming job for higher pay.  That’s just a given in this industry and economy.  And so, it’s not like the manager will respond to this piece of blackmail by thinking, “wow, now I see that Bob is worth an extra 12K per year!”  Instead, they’ll think, “wow, Bob’s quite a weasel, and now he’s an overpaid weasel.  Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if Bob left and was someone else’s problem.”

The wisdom you’ll often hear is that when you leverage a competing offer, management will start planning to replace you by letting you go.  That isn’t what happens.  You can keep working there probably indefinitely.  But you have triggered people in personnel management positions to imagine the world without you and to prepare for such a world.  They’re not going to initiate the rigmarole necessary to terminate you, but they will respond to your next negotiation with a smile and a “don’t let the door hit ya where the Good Lord split ya.”

You’ve negotiated your last raise and your last promotion at this company, in all probability.  And that’s why it’s a bad opportunist play.  You get a nominal pay bump in exchange for voluntarily arresting your own advancement.  So, please, don’t do that.

Forget Leverage.  Flash Value.

In fact, forget leverage altogether.  You might be reading this and thinking that you can avoid the “weasel” label by simply talking about leaving.  And, while that’s true, to some extent, you still create problems if you’re serious about your future.  Talking about leaving at a point when it would be a blow to the company is extracting leverage, plain and simple.  You spare your reputation the hit of having ‘cheated’ on your employer with another company, but you’re still saying, “I know my absence would hurt you and I’m going to use that knowledge to tie your hands and extort you.”  And that’s option limiting.

Get away from the idea of exerting leverage and think about how to cut an image of someone with value.  Your comp at the company will go up significantly if you’re suddenly perceived as more valuable, and it won’t even really be necessary to negotiate.  There are a lot of ways that you can probably go about this, but I’m going to offer one up as specific food for thought.

Tell your boss one day in a one on one that you’re thinking of going into business for yourself as a freelancer.  Assure her that you don’t have any specific date in mind and you’d never leave her or the company in the lurch, but it’s on your radar and you’ll keep her posted.  You’ve exerted no leverage and burned no bridges.  All you’ve done is plant the seed that you value yourself a lot more than the company does.  So much so, in fact, that you’re willing to invest in and gamble on yourself without the safety net that they provide.  That will get them thinking and subconsciously re-evaluating your value.


Before you return to see what’s sprouted from that seed, you have a choice to make.  Either you can tolerate the risk of taking the freelance plunge or not.  If you can tolerate the risk, spend some time making actual accommodations for your new venture.  Set up a DBA or an LLC, build a website, etc.  If you can’t tolerate the risk, you needn’t bother with any of that.  Whichever you decide, return to the subject with your manager later and tell her you want to start becoming more specific about a transition date.  Obviously, you want to pick a natural exit point from the project you’re working on and, you hesitate to even bring it up, but you’d be willing to continue helping out, but as a contractor.  Leave it at that.  See what comes of it.  My bet is that you’ll find yourself getting overtures and offers that surprise you (this is all assuming that the company values your work, incidentally).

But here’s the best part.  You’ve exerted no real leverage and burned no real bridge, so you can always walk back at any time if you don’t like the risk.  “Yeah, I’d thought for a long time about being in business for myself, but I started setting everything up and researching things, and I never realized what a headache it would be.  So, yeah, think I’ll stick around.”  Your manager won’t bat an eyelash at welcoming you to stick around and she’ll probably even feel a kind of grateful relief that’s genuine.

I haven’t talked about opportunists outside of my upcoming book, Developer Hegemony, but this type of play is at the core of effective opportunism because it’s carried out with a classic bit of powertalk.  The literal message is the benign, “I want to strike out on my own,” but the underlying messages for those clever enough to grab them include “I’m willing to bet on myself because I’m a smart bet,” “I don’t really need you as much as you think I do,” and “I’m willing to partner with you, but I know my worth.”  Contrast this with bumbling leveraged offer, which is literally, “this better offer came out of the blue and I took it” with underlying messages including “screw you,” “I think you’re dumb enough to believe I didn’t manufacture this situation,” and “I’m willing to mortgage my career advancement for a petty sum.”

And above all, remember that value (or at least perceived value) has to drive any meaningful negotiation.  Don’t create situations where people have no choice but to fork over money to you.  Create situations where they’re hustling to do it while considering it a bargain.

By the way, if you liked this post and you're new here, check out this page as a good place to start for more content that you might enjoy.
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Michael Borromeo

Great post, thanks!!

Erik Dietrich

Glad you liked!

Jorge Silva
Interesting read. What has happened to me multiple times is: Have a 1 on 1 meeting and say I am worth more money and ask for a raise Raise gets denied I go to interviews and say I am leaving Company tells me they will match the offer I quit even when they offer me even more Hell I’ve had a PM saying I was useless and it was lucky to have a job, when I asked for a 1 on 1 raise. Got 20% pay raise the same week on another company, quit 3 days later because it seemed… Read more »
Erik Dietrich

I think your path is the more standard (and advisable one). If org X doesn’t value you as you think appropriate, find one that does. Make no mistake — I have no issue with people jumping to another company to get better pay. I was cautioning people not to use a competing offer as leverage with the existing company and stay.

As for “the other side,” can you explain what you mean? Like, as in have I made posts about securing better offers at other orgs?

Jorge Silva

Other side as in, what do the companies do to avoid these things.
Why do “most” companies prefer to pay lower wages until the person asks for a raise rather than pro-actively talk to the person and pay what he deserves.
I’ve loads of stuff like this happening. It’s like the companies are holding back as much as possible to now give raises. Basically it all sums up to meritocracy. Companies use that key word without ever using it.

Erik Dietrich
Trying to resist the urge to type a novel here… 🙂 Tl;dr with my take on this is that companies avoid fair market adjustments because it’s the rational play. The employee-employer relationship is intrinsically adversarial, zero-sum. Their goal is to pay you as little as possible to get you to do as much work as possible and your goal is to get paid as much as possible to do as little as possible. That’s really the bare, honest truth. Employer-employee relationship is more like shopkeeper-customer than partner. If I walk into a widget store, I want a discount and they… Read more »
Looking back on my career of almost 30 years as a SW engineer, I must disagree with your post to a certain degree. Of course it is important to be polite and honest and not to forget you’re asking for something. It is all human do deny request mad in an unfriendly manner. But: Many developers are are talking about leaving the company, but still shy away from actually doing it. And managers know that. So many of them will not really enter negotiation, but just wait and see if there is action following the words. As Jorge has stated… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
I definitely agree that the existing, standard valuation model for software developers is broken (am even writing a book about it). And there’s a “race to the bottom” effect going on anywhere that waits passively until developers are about to leave and then tries to perform diving saves with counter-offers. It’s a deeply flawed system when the best way to manage your career is via serial-quitting (and, I say this seriously — I once advised software developers specifically to job hop as the best career strategy: https://www.daedtech.com/notes-on-job-hopping-you-should-probably-job-hop ) By all means, job hop. My focus here was specifically on people… Read more »

Erik –

Who wants to stay put in one spot for long enough to negotiate? In our industry the grass is aways greener, right?

Erik Dietrich

It seems that way. I think I just read that the average tenure for a software developer at a company these days is either one or two years. Either way, remarkably short.

Dirt Mcgirt

Good post, Erik! Informative and entertaining

Erik Dietrich