How to get paid more as a developer

by Peter Sergeant with Sandra Schmidtke

The Anatomy of a Technical Hiring Process

Money may not be your only concern for your next role, but getting paid more for doing a job you liked the look of anyway can’t hurt. This guide is going to help you to negotiate a better paycheck for your next JavaScript development role by showing you how to navigate a hiring process.

We’ve got behind-the-scenes info on what happens during the hiring process. Who’s who, how to handle the external recruiter, the best way to answer the dreaded salary question during interview—it’s all here. Knowledge is power, and after learning what’s really going on during the hiring process, you’ll be well-equipped to hack it to your own advantage. On your marks, get set, go get get paid more!

Introduction: What’s an Extra $10,000?

You, at your salary review

Money makes the world go ‘round. Cash is king. A dollar makes you holler. A penny saved—well, you get the point. But here’s the kicker:

Nobody cares about the number on your paycheque as much as you do.

What’s an extra $10,000 worth? Let’s look at some cold, hard math.

To you, $10,000 more equals:

  • An extra $6,000 after taxes, or $500 per month
  • 5-20% of your average technical salary
  • Ramen that isn’t prepared in the microwave

There are long-term effects, too:

  • Bigger bonuses, which are often expressed as a percentage of the current salary
  • A better starting point when your next employer asks for your current salary
  • A bank account that’s as full and delicious as a bowl of edamame

An extra $10,000 sounds great doesn’t it? No downsides for you—but what does it mean to the other people involved in the hiring process?

The External Recruiter

Me, profiting off your hard work

Let’s start with this guy/gal, who is coincidentally me. The External Recruiter doesn’t work for the hiring company directly, they work for a staffing agency / recruitment firm, and they work on commission. To an external recruiter, $10,000 more equals:

  • An extra $1,500 for the agency at a 15% commission
  • A personal commission to the recruiter of $375 at 25%
  • After-tax earnings of $225

That after-tax $225 buys a decent amount of ramen for the recruiter, but if the client chooses another candidate because you were too expensive—POOF. That $225 vanishes in a cloud of soy-scented smoke and the recruiter is not pleased that you cost him a commission.

Let’s face it: whatever you and the recruiter intend to buy with your newfound wealth, you both want to see a nice number in that letter of offer. Mo’ money, mo’ joy, right? But not everyone is looking to pay you as much as possible… meet:

The Internal Recruiter/HR

No more free lunches

Candidates flow from the External Recruiter to the Internal Recruiter/HR who does work for the hiring company, and is meant as the company’s first line of defense.

  • They’ve got to hire someone within a set time-frame and budget range
  • That LinkedIn post about “If you Think a Professional is Expensive, Wait until you Hire an Amateur” has them shook
  • The guy in the $3,000 suit said they have to hire “a rock star who knows CSS to build out the backend widget accounting system”—whatever that means
  • The recruiter takes them for nice lunches, but that doesn’t mean they’ll pick his candidate. Unless it’s their favourite bistro on the corner and then … the candidate’s in

An extra $10,000 a year on your salary doesn’t matter to the internal recruiter/HR at all as long as it’s within the range they’ve been given. If it’s outside of that range, it means they’ll need to exchange some emails with someone else in the company to see if an exception can be made for you.

The Hiring Manager

Hiring Manager, ad astra

The Hiring Manager is likely to be your line-manager (or a level up from that) in the role. She is (or was) probably a programmer like you.

  • Often, they don’t control their own budget, which means they don’t really care how much you cost
  • BUT The Widget Automation project is six months behind, and they’ve got to hire someone now or it goes up in flames
  • They can hire whomever they want if the salary falls within a certain range and can beg the boss for an increase if they meet a Widget Automation rock star
  • Hiring makes them hungry. When’s lunch?

An extra $10,000 a year on your salary mostly doesn’t matter to the Hiring Manager, as it’s not her money. But while the internal recruiter/HR will need to simply get someone to authorise going outside the normal salary range, the Hiring Manager will actually need to make the case for it. She’ll need to convince whomever does control the budget that you’re worth it … and that’s real, actual effort in a busy professional’s day.

How To Lose A Job Offer

Remember, knowledge is power. Once you understand what’s happening in the background, you will be light years ahead of your competition. Key to your success is one universal truth:

Hiring people is HARD, so recruitment processes are inflexible

External recruiters, internal recruiters/HR, and hiring managers follow rigid processes they’ve been given, because when they deviate from these well-trodden roads, trouble looms.

About the best way to experience this first hand is to decide on 4:45pm on the last day of the month that you’d like the job offer you said you were likely to accept at $90,000 to pay $90,500 instead.

Who you’ve annoyed and how…

The External Recruiter

The External Recruiter thought he had his commission in the bag for the quarter, but now:

  • The Accounts Department are closing up the month in 15m
  • … which means this month’s sales target go the way of the Death Star
  • … even though he had a frank and detailed discussion with you about wage expectations at the start, you’ve decided to roll the dice at the eleventh hour

Frantic phone calls will be made to…

The Internal Recruiter / HR

The Internal Recruiter/HR had to fill out a lot of forms to get a job offer authorised:

  • He camped out in the CEO’s office for half of Tuesday to get authorization to offer $90,000.
  • Can’t get in touch with the CEO because she is at a technology-free week-long “Management Realignment Camp” in Tahiti.
  • Needs to jump back through all those hoops because now you want an extra $500.

It’s time to check with the Hiring Manager how much she really cares about hiring you…

The Hiring Manager

The Hiring Manager:

  • Was authorised to sign off on $90,000 because internal HR got it approved
  • Can’t offer $90,500 without a formal review, three pieces of paper signed in triplicate, and the blood of an albino bat, because it’s just over an internal company threshold that means the hire needs referring to the Board
  • Wants to make it home for dinner at least one night this week and has a candidate she likes almost as much as you who’s asking for $89,000…

Sorry, the other candidate got the job because you're not a good "cultural fit"

If you know how the recruitment process works, you can get paid more by working with it rather than against it. Help them to help you! Let’s rewind and examine the four stages of recruitment to see what happened to lead to that missed opportunity:

  • Hiring Stage 1: Before the Job is Posted
  • Hiring Stage 2: The Job is Posted
  • Hiring Stage 3: Interview
  • Hiring Stage 4: The Offer

Hiring Stage 1: Before the Job is Posted

The hiring manager didn’t wake up thinking, “My day’s looking a little slow—let’s hire a new employee!” The hiring process starts when a business need has been identified, and if you can find out what that need is, you’ll have useful intel.

Why are they hiring?

If the business is replacing an existing person:

  • They’re likely looking for someone with similar experience
  • They don’t want to pay a dramatically different salary
  • They probably want to use the same job title

In this situation, flexibility is usually low, but listen for an indication that the last person has “been there forever and needs replacing” or “wrote horrible legacy code and ran SQL ‘fixes’ against the live DB.” These can be indicative that the employer knows they need an upgrade in professionalism and skills, and this may be the cue to mention your professionalism, experience, and ability to deliver more appropriate methods for their business—at a price befitting those skills, of course.

If the business is hiring for a new project or team:

  • Somehow, somewhere, someone got a funding sign-off for this project
  • They’re likely drawing from a pot of money for the project or team, so they have the potential to make a few expensive hires (because who doesn’t want at least one rockstar on their team?)
  • There may be a leadership position that offers a big title and the big bucks to go with it

A new project or team has the most flexibility in hiring. They’re starting from square one, and they might as well start with a gem, like you. In an interview, take this as a signal to tout your past success in leading or collaborating on new and exciting projects.

What if the role is something between a replacement and a new hire? Say the business is undergoing incremental growth: they need new people, but aren’t ready to rain dollar bills on any developer who comes through the door. What do you do?

You ask questions!

  • How many people are they hiring?
  • Is this a new role? A new team?
  • Are you joining a team of people with the same job title?

At worst, asking questions makes you seem interested in their business. Not a bad way to make a great first impression.

A Challenger Appears: The Budget Controller

The budget controller is so money

Earlier we said “someone got a funding sign-off” for the project. This somebody sits somewhere in the hierarchy above where you ultimately will. This person controls their budget, and your salary is part of that budget. Their performance is often measured on the health of this budget. Unless it’s a small company, you probably won’t meet them at interview, but you need to remember this person exists.

Ultimately anything that involves your compensation may well need final sign-off by them – both during the interview phase, and on-going if you become employed there. If you get the job, it’s always worth making sure they know who you are – and that they like you – it’ll be much easier for them to sign off on raises for you if they’re able to match your intelligent and capable face to your name.

The Job Spec

After the job and salary receive approval from the budget controller, the job spec is drafted. Why? To release funds, meet legal obligations, and to establish the qualifications they want met. The job spec may look nothing like the eventual job ad, but it’s worth asking whomever you’re dealing with if you can have a copy. Why?

  • It could reveal unpleasant facets of the job like overtime, mandatory desktop support being part of your role, or on-call duties you didn’t know about
  • It may illustrate more about the role and the company that didn’t make it into the job ad (which is an advertisement, after all)
  • It proves the job exists because sometimes — gasp! — recruiters advertise fake jobs

Pete the recruiter says:

  • These documents are dull to both read and write.
  • I have seen developer jobs where the job spec included:
    • A 15-point “Core Behaviours” list
    • A section on the “Mental and Emotional Effort” required
    • A section on “Infection Control” (again, this was a JS developer role)
    • Really.
  • Somebody in the Legal and Compliance Department said it was crucial to have one
  • If you ever get fired, the contents of this job spec will become very important

Internal hires

Job spec in hand, the employer has the approval to hire, the budget to do it, a long list of criteria to narrow the search. Next up? They’ll check the internal ranks for someone suitable because there are benefits in staying close to home.

With an internal hire, the employer:

  • Saves on a recruiter’s fee
  • Can show their employees that they provide career development
  • Knows the answers to questions they can’t legally ask, such as an employee’s age, attendance record, and whether they steal pens from the supply cupboard

Life Hack: If you want to apply for an internal role, do it. You’ll meet all the right people, and if you do well in the interview, you’ll be on their radar as someone to watch even if you don’t get the position.

If the internal search comes up empty, the employer moves on to …

Hiring Stage 2: The Job is Posted

You’ve found the job listing. The perks, the location, the ten weeks of paid vacation—you want it. Have to have it—but to get it, you’ve got to go through…

The Recruiters!

via GIPHY

Internal and external recruiters may have a similar title, but there are key differences.

Internal Recruiters

  • Work for the company doing the hiring
  • Have the company’s best interests at heart
  • Typically draw a salary, but may receive a small bonus for a successful placement
  • Will attempt recruitment, but may focus on managing external recruiters

External Recruiters

  • Work for a different company
  • Are typically paid through commission and bonuses
  • Have their own best interests (read: commission) at heart
  • Submit candidates to the internal recruiter or, in smaller companies, the hiring manager.

5 Things to Know about an External Recruiter

  • Money talks. You are a walking commission
  • Most job postings are worked on by more than one recruiter. The first one to submit your CV to the client “owns” you, as far as commission is concerned
  • … and so speed matters! Your CV may only get a 30-second scan, so make sure the relevant information is easy to find
  • Make it easy for them to choose you. Don’t send a PDF that’s hard to edit. Use spellcheck. Don’t have a blog dedicated to overthrowing the government
  • In the EU, a recruiter needs your explicit permission to send your CV to an employer

An external recruiter expends time, energy, and money on finding quality candidates. The candidates they send to the client are those they think have reasonable expectations, the best chance of being interviewed, and a genuine shot at the job.

The internal recruiter receives CVs for these candidates. She rejects the one she’s seen from another recruiter and tosses out the guy who looks like a job-hopper, has a visa hassle, or shares the same name as the kid who was mean to her in school. The internal recruiter doesn’t need to justify who she picks, but she will send candidates to the hiring manager and her team, who choose some to proceed to interview.

Hiring Stage 3: The Interview

The interview is going well. Your cousin Ines is best friends with the hiring manager’s lawyer. You both love Doctor Who and agree you’d travel by Tardis over the tube any day of the week. You have all the qualifications the hiring manager wants—and then she brings up compensation. Gulp.

In an ideal world, the external recruiter has confirmed that your expectations are in line with the employer’s budget. In fact, they may submit you at a higher salary than you asked because they think you’re worth it — and because they’ll get paid more. On the converse, they may have put forward salary expectations that are lower than what you asked for because they think you’ll take it. It’s icky behaviour, but it does happen. So, what to do?

Don’t panic. Here are two questions she might ask, and the answers you should have in your back pocket:

What is your current salary?

No white lies — this is one of the few verifiable facts on your CV. Answer honestly, and if you feel you’re getting paid too little in your current gig, say, “My current salary is $80,000, but I think they’ll counter-offer with $90,000 if I tell them I’ve accepted a new position. That said, I’d really like to work for your company and if we can find a number that works for us both, I’m happy to accept.”

What are your salary expectations?

There’s little chance you’ll get more than what you say you’ll accept, so proceed with caution. You might say, “I’ve seen that the market rate is between $85,000 to $95,000, so I’m targeting $90,000.” If you’re asking for slightly more than they’re offering, they may counter-offer through the external recruiter after the interview. Don’t want to wait that long to see if your number is too high? Ask! Follow up with “Is that salary inside the range you’re offering?” and see what they say. If they can’t offer more money, maybe they can tack on an extra week of vacation.

When you leave the interview, a delicate dance begins…

  • The hiring manager talks to her team, and it’s positive
  • The hiring manager calls the internal recruiter/HR, and says she really liked you
  • The internal recruiter/HR calls the external recruiter
  • Does the external recruiter think you’ll accept an offer of $90,000?
  • The external recruiter may call you to discuss.
  • What do you think of $90,000?
  • You think $90,000 sounds like all that and a bag of chips
  • The company prepares an offer

Once an offer has been made, changing it can be difficult and time-consuming. Remember what we said about needing signatures in triplicate and the blood of an albino bat? Right.

Make sure expectations are correctly set before a formal offer is made!

Hiring Stage 4: The Offer

They’ve made an offer. Bravo!

This means:

  • Someone at the top has agreed with the recommendation of the hiring manager and the internal recruiter/HR, and has rubber-stamped the offer to bring you on board
  • Flexibility on salary has decreased to almost nothing because the amount they’re willing to pay has now been engraved in marble

Psst, quick tip: If you’re hung up on a small salary difference because you’ve always dreamed of making exactly $90,500 per annum, why not ask if they will formally set a salary review after six months? You’ll have the chance to prove you’re worth that extra dinero, and they have the wiggle room to decline at the six-month mark.

If you’ve decided the amount they’re willing to pay will buy you more ramen than you’ve ever dreamed, what’s next?

Ask for a copy of the contract

Have a quick scan over of it for anything that looks weird: overly-restrictive intellectual property clauses that might impact your open-source work and side projects, or a requirement to name your first-born after the company’s mascot.

There’s usually some flexibility in getting random terms of the contract changed before you show up for work on Day One, but as you hone in on that date, flexibility will evaporate. There’s no need to signal how on top of everything you are by querying every little piece, but it’s as well to know if the company T&Cs are going to stop you contributing to your favourite open-source projects.

If the contract appears to be in order, sign it, turn it in, and get ready to pop the cork—you’ve scored the job of your dreams. CONGRATULATIONS!

via GIPHY

tldr; summary

  • Find out why the company is hiring. New role, replacement, or something in-between? Each of these has different levels of flexibility around pay
  • Apply for internal openings at your current company. It’s a positive career move
  • Ask the external recruiter for a job spec; who knows what you’ll find?
  • Don’t wait until the eleventh hour to ask for the salary you want. Be clear in your expectations from the start – flexibility in every part of the process decreases as time goes on

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