Guest Post: How to engineer a raise

You’ve discovered you’re underpaid. Maybe you found out a new hire is making more than you. Or maybe you’ve been doing a great job at work, but your compensation hasn’t changed.

Whatever the reason, you want to get a higher salary.

Now what?

To answer that question, the following guest post by Adrienne Bolger will explain how you can negotiate a raise at your current job. As you’ll see, she’s successfully used these strategies to negotiate 20-30% raises on multiple occasions.

This article will answer some common questions, and explain some useful strategies, to help you—a software engineer—engineer a raise from your employer. I’ll cover:

  1. Researching your worth and options.
  2. Expectation setting.
  3. Strategies that I have used—and helped others use—to ask for a raise.

How much are you “worth”?

At the end of the day, an optimized salary in a more-or-less capitalist market is the highest salary you think you can get that passes the “laugh test.” If you ask for a salary or bonus, and your (theoretical) boss or HR head laughs in your face, then the number is too high.

Note that this number isn’t your laugh test number: many people, out of fear of rejection, are afraid to ask for a 25% raise rather than a more “modest” sounding 5% raise. But sometimes the 25% value is the right increase! Your number should not be based on fear: it should be based on research.

There are several ways to calculate your “market value” to an employer. To start, take 2 or 3 of the following quizzes to calculate median/mean salaries based on your demographics:

How much could you be worth in the future?

Take the surveys a second time. However, this time, give yourself a small imaginary promotion: 2 years more experience and the next job title you want—Senior Engineer, Engineer II, Software Architect, Engineering Manager, Director, whatever it is. How far away is that yearly salary amount from the first one? A little? A lot?

This is an important number, because the pay market for software engineers is not linear. Check out this graph created by ArsTechnica from the 2017 Stack Overflow salary data.

This graph shows the economics of a very hot job market: people with relatively little experience still make a good living, because their skills are in high demand. However, the median salary for a developer between 15 and 20 years of experience is completely flat. This isn’t the best news for experienced developers who haven’t kept learning (and some languages pay more than others), but for early career professionals, this external market factor is fantastic.

With data to back you up, you can ask for a 20 to 30% raise after only a year or two on the job with a completely straight face. I did it in my own career at the 2 and 4 year marks at the same company, and received the raise both times.

Adjust expectations for your company and industry

If you’ve come to the conclusion you are underpaid because you know what your colleagues earn, then you can skip this step. Otherwise, you have a little more research to do.

Ask your company’s HR department and recruiters: when hiring in general, does your company go for fair market prices, under-market bargains, or above-market talent? Industries like finance pay better than non-profits and civil service organizations whether you are an engineer or an accountant.

The bigger the company, the more likely you are to get standard yearly pay adjustments for things like cost-of-living expenses, but a bigger company is also likely more rigid in salary bands for a specific job title. HR at your company may or may not be willing to share the exact high and low range for a job title. If they are not, Glassdoor can provide a decent estimate for similarly size companies.

When to ask

Again, know your company. Does it have a standard financial cycle, with cost-of-living and raises allocated yearly 1-2 months after reviews are in?

If so, time your “ask” before your formal review by 3-8 weeks. That might be November if your yearly reviews are in December, or it might be January if company yearly performance reviews occur in March, after the fiscal year results from last year are in.

Why do this?

The problem with waiting until a formal review is scheduled is that is ruins plans you can’t see or are not privy to. Even in the best case where you were getting a raise anyway, the manager giving your review already has a planned number in their head and their accounting software. Asking a month beforehand gives your boss time to budget your raise into a yearly plan, which is much easier than trying to fight bureaucracy out-of-cycle.

You should not ask for a raise more frequently than every 2 years. If you feel like you have to, then you probably didn’t ask for enough last time. Consider that if you find yourself afraid to ask for as much.

If you are debating between asking for a raise and going job hunting because you feel undervalued, ask for the raise first. I suggest this because job searching is a huge time sink, especially if you don’t really want to change jobs.

You owe it to yourself to proactively seek happiness. If what you really want is more money and to stay at your current company, then give your employer a chance to make you happy. If you ask and are denied, then at least you’ve done all the research into compensation when you go looking.

How to ask

Ask for a raise both in writing and in person.

As email is still considered informal, this is one of those cases where an actual letter—printed out and hand-delivered to a scheduled meeting with your manager—is a good idea. The meeting gives the chance to explain what you want a little more, but the letter is a written record of what you want that goes to HR, as well as a way to keep yourself from backing out due to nerves or stress.

I once requested a raise from a manager who (unbeknownst to me) was let go 2 weeks later. However, because my raise request was also in writing, I received the raise from my new boss with no confusion after the transfer.

The letter should be 2-3 paragraphs long and:

  • Be addressed and CC’d to your manager and HR at your company.
  • List your current length of service with the company and affirm that you like working there.
  • Detail exactly what you want: a 20% raise? A $5,000 raise? Tuition money for school? More vacation days? Do not leave it ambiguous.
  • Detail why you believe you deserve it, and back it up with available data:
    • Do you have more experience now?
    • Earned a degree?
    • Learn new skills or programming language?
    • Has it been 3 years since you got a review because you work at a 20 person startup?
  • The exception to the previous point is if you know you are underpaid because a coworker with the same responsibilities is paid more: it’s enough to say that in general terms. Calling a specific coworker out is unnecessary.
  • List, in 2 sentences or less, any recent accomplishments that were especially impactful. This serves 2 purposes: reminding your boss how awesome you are, but also making it easy on them to justify your (deserved) raise to the people they are accountable to at the next level up in the company.
  • End with a request for a meeting discussing the contents of the letter.
  • Be signed and dated.

The letter (and subsequent meeting) should not:

  • Imply you will leave if you don’t get what you want, even if you are planning on it. Bluffing here is a good way to get asked to leave anyway. Even if you are planning to leave if you don’t receive a raise, threats put people on the defensive.
  • Sound angry or imply you have an ungrateful or deficient manager/employer. Position yourself as asking for something a reasonable person should want to give you. Have the most gentle and peaceful individual you know read your letter to double check tone. If all else fails, try your local Buddhist monk.

The meeting

Once you ask for a raise and a meeting to talk about it, nerves may kick in. Do your homework ahead of time and come in prepared. Bring a copy of your letter and, during the meeting, re-iterate exactly what it is you want and why you deserve it.

It’s fine to be nervous, but do not attempt any weird “Hollywood caricature of a car salesman” negotiating tactics. Don’t be short-sighted; remember that you have to perform your day job with your manager once the meeting is over.

If your employer declines

If you asked for your “laugh test” number and your employer can only meet you halfway or can’t increase your compensation at all, your response should be “Why? And what can I do to change that?”

Be proactive in determining where the problem is. At a big company, if there’s a salary band, you may need a promotion before you can get the raise. If the company isn’t making enough money for raises for anyone, it may be time to discreetly look for another job anyway.

Whether or not you choose to accept a compromise or counteroffer is up to you—but make sure that you can live with your choice, at least short term, because it won’t make sense to ask again for another few months.

And that’s Adrienne’s post. I hope you found it useful: I certainly learned a lot from it.

Of course, reading this article isn’t enough. You still need to go and do the work to get the raise. So why not start today?

  1. Do your research.
  2. Pick the right moment.
  3. Go ask for that raise!

You might also enjoy:

» Learning negotiation from Jane Austen
» A 4-day workweek for programmers, the easy way
»» Get the work/life balance you need
»» Level up your technical skills