Salary and Career Growth

August 31, 2019

This week I hosted a lunch meetup for NW Tech Women in downtown Bellingham, where we had a discussion about building a career in tech and negotiating for a higher salary. There were some valuable insights shared related to local and remote working conditions, and how we could make the most out of our careers. To share those insights broader so more people can benefit, I’ve compiled some notes and published them in this post.

A new partnership: NW Tech Women and TAG NW

NW Tech Women recently became a community group in partnership with TAG NW, a local nonprofit organization working to strengthen the tech community in NW Washington state. As part of this effort, I’ve started to reboot their Women in Tech lunch meetings, which had stopped after running for a few years. This week was our first meeting all together, and it felt like a wonderful start with some fresh faces and helpful insights! Thank you to Faithlife for providing a free space for us to meet, and to TAG NW for their ongoing support.

The first NW Tech Women / WIT Luncheon

With 12 women in attendance, we went around the room to introduce ourselves and speak about what we’re doing in our careers and where we hoped to grow. Most everyone was working in tech in some capacity, either at a local business or in a remote job, and there was one student looking to network (fantastic!).

It was an interesting conversation that began with someone whose career as a software developer was coming up on the 2-year mark. They wanted to increase their salary by 10-15%: they’d just switched teams, were growing technically, and were beginning to have a broader understanding of employment in tech.

For another woman, her experience included moving cities - making adjustments for local regions, looking for remote roles that allowed her to live in Bellingham, etc. There was some talk about where “Hey y’all” would come from in an introduction if the person grew up on the West Coast (with a parent in Texas), and it turned out to be a conscious move away from the word “guys”–which can feel like you’re only addressing the men in the room.

A technical manager at a manufacturing company was working to make their value known on the job at a place where IT wasn’t their core focus. Perhaps surfacing customer email that communicates the value they’ve contributed in their experience?

For a remote developer working from Bellingham for a Silicon Valley company, they were thinking about upcoming performance reviews. When would be the right time to negotiate a salary?

For the Senior Director of Customer Success at a local Bellingham software company, she wanted to talk about salary negotiations, including handling it from the employer/hiring perspective. She had taken a lower salary in exchange for a flexible schedule and working from home, which was also indicative of the choices people make to work at local companies when there is sometimes higher-paying work elsewhere (or remote).

Some in attendance wanted to discuss solutions for improving your salary when you’ve been at a company for a while. What are some strategies for doing that?

And for someone who’s looking for work as a developer, data scientist, or project manager after time off to be a mom, what do they need to be thinking about to get the most out of the experience?

Local vs. Regional Job Scope

We talked about Bellingham salaries, which are typically much lower for local businesses than in Seattle. Depending on the company, they may or may not be competitive in pay based on city or state: something that’s made more difficult without wage transparency. To find out which companies pay local or regional wages, asking someone who works there could be a good strategy.

One person in an employer role had worked with a consultant who recommended adjusting pay by state instead of city (but they admitted it can’t be the only factor to determining salary). Adjustment of wages can get tricky with a geographical discrepancy, and gender/seniority can come into play in addition to other factors like race or disability. For example, a woman in a lower-paying market could end up making a lot less than a man with the same skills and experience for more than one reason: systemic underpaying of women (especially women of color) in addition to a geographical pay gap.

Government jobs have salary transparency by nature - at least salary ranges. The question was posed again, when is the right time to ask about salary? How about benefits and parental leave policy? They felt it was hard to ask those questions without putting your cards on the table about what’s important to you. Another person said if that dance is too delicate, perhaps you don’t want to work there; an interesting thought about the signals we can observe early in our job seeking/interviewing experience.

Determining your priorities in a job: and asking for them

For a recent coding bootcamp grad, they got a job at a local company after graduating. The company’s paradigm is to offer an internship and use a 90-day period to decide if something is a good fit, and typically they favor university Computer Science grads over bootcamp grads: but she got in and has worked there for a couple of years now. In getting hired, a full-time role was her priority over something like a higher salary or company characteristics.

It was observed from an employer that men do ask more for salary increases than women because they’re like, “what do I have to lose?” A male employee had said “I think I should make $1000 more” and they were the only man on a team of 20+ women. She gave them kudos for asking even if they didn’t ask it in the right way, and they saw it as a great coaching opportunity. They also wished that more women would ask for a raise along with conversations about their value and contributions as employees. For us, there’s always a worry about discrimination, even from women employers, so some fear and anxiety comes with asking a lot of the time. A good question to ask and feel out a potential company was proposed: “are there people with families?”

Some companies require women to not take a paycheck during maternity leave in the United States, and pay back their insurance costs for the time they weren’t collecting a paycheck (!!!). Washington State laws are changing - if you live and work in Washington state, a portion of your paycheck now goes to a tax for a parental and family leave fund. To learn more, read about FMLA coverage.

Negotiating for a salary, including ranges

At the time of a job offer is smart to ask for more money–especially since the starting salary can set the tone for your tenure. Can you write to someone at the company and get insider information that could help you in the interview process, including a salary range for a given role? Do you have a range for yourself that you need for the job to be worth it?

As women and people of marginalized genders, it’s important that we project confidence and aim high while finding an appropriate range for our potential contributions. Sometimes it can help to start out by saying “I’ll entertain any reasonable offer” when they ask you for a number. If you then ask for a range for the position, that can help you calibrate your expectations and know where to go next. And remember that benefits, bonuses, commissions, equity, time off, family leave, and more can contribute to the decision depending on your priorities.

Once you’re established in a company, someone asked how can you negotiate up in salary/title. Someone added that having advocates at the top–especially women–can help. Asking for salary parity with your peers is a good approach. As managers, we should be making sure that we counter systemic pay gaps by paying people well for the work they do no matter their gender, race, disability, or some other protected characteristic.

Asking for raises and factoring in levels

Someone asked how you can find out about levels in a company, i.e. “senior” vs. “staff” roles. At any point, creating a portfolio and doing competitive research can help to bring to your company leadership as data to support you getting a raise. You could go to HR and ask about a range ahead of a meeting with your manager - most HR people would be interested in working with you, especially if women aren't asking for raises enough.

In terms of asking for a raise after doing your homework, ranges and percentages can help! After you ask, let it simmer and don’t jump in too soon–this is often where people sabotage their hard work and lose leverage out of fear.

At Gatsby we’ve published our Engineering Level Guide and shared it with those who are interviewing for roles, which can really help to understand where one would need to grow to make it to the next level as a software engineer. I think more companies should do things like this to more effectively communicate expectations about roles and leveling, huge factors in establishing salaries and raises. (Pay transparency, too! I’ll see what we can do about that. :)

Communicating your contributions and value

As an employee, it can help to make your contributions and desire for growth known over the year with your manager: especially in writing, which creates a paper trail. It helps to advocate for yourself and show value you’ve already contributed. Keep good notes about your successes, especially for things in addition to what you were hired for. Advocate for yourself internally if you can so other people see value, too. And ask yourself do you say “we” too often when it was really all you who did the work? It's good to be a team player and uplift your colleagues but keep your own career in mind, too.

Make a habit of collecting data on what you've done to add value to the company. It may help to understand what matters to the person who’s hiring or promoting you regarding company objectives and goals. What do they care about? As managers at Gatsby, we write “headlines of awesome” for product updates including how we’re supporting quarterly goals or initiatives. I proposed people do this for themselves, too. Keep a journal for what you learned each day or week.

It can also help to document and share the things you’ve learned along the way for less experienced people. For those who need motivation to write regularly, consider having a colleague hold you accountable for deadlines. You could also set up a video chat with a friend to force yourself to do it. Another reason to write? Contributing blog posts on your company’s website can show your value: a hard data point you can use in your next performance review.

Until next time...

For the first meetup of our combined groups, this was a fantastic outcome. We’ll continue to have luncheons like this in the future, and I’ll be compiling a list of discussion topics and doing more outreach to diverse groups in our small city. A bigger goal I have for NW Tech Women is to connect members as volunteers to organizations needing technology help, and provide support for design/code review at our meetings. But the social aspect has been the biggest driver for keeping this group going, and it’s exciting to see it grow.