You can’t avoid negotiating—but you can make it easier

You’re looking for a new job, or feel like it’s time for a raise, or maybe you just want to set some boundaries with your boss. And that means negotiating, and you hate the whole idea: asking for things is hard, you don’t want to be treated specially, the idea of having the necessary conversation just makes you super-uncomfortable.

And that’s a problem, because you can’t avoid negotiating: employment is a negotiated relationship. From the minute you start looking for a job until you leave for a new one, you are negotiating.

And maybe you didn’t quite realize that, and maybe you didn’t ever ask for what you want, but in that case you’re still negotiating. You’re just negotiating badly.

But once you internalize this idea, negotiation can get easier.

That awkward, scary conversation where you ask for what you want is really just a small fraction of the negotiation. Which means if you do it right, that final conversation can be shorter, more comfortable, and much more likely to succeed.

To see why, let’s take the example of a job search, and see how the final conversation where you discuss your salary is just a small part of the real negotiation.

How your salary is determined

To simplify matters, we will specifically focus just on your salary as a programmer.

Companies tend to have different job titles based on experience, with corresponding ranges of salaries. Your salary is determined first by the prospective job title, and second by the specific salary within that title’s range.

The process goes something like this:

  1. When you send in your resume the HR or recruiting person who reads it puts you into some sort of mental bucket: “this is a senior software engineer.”
  2. The hiring manager reads your resume and refines that initial guess.
  3. The interview process then hardens that job title, and gives the company some sense of how much they want you and therefore where in that title’s salary range to put you.
  4. Finally, you get an offer, and you can push back and try to get more.

That final step, the awkward conversation we tend to think of as the negotiation, is only the end of a long process. By the time you’ve reached it much of your scope for negotiation has been restricted: you’ll have a harder time convincing the company you’re a Software Engineer IV if they’ve decided you’re a Software Engineer II.

Employment is a negotiated relationship

Negotiation isn’t a one-time event, it’s an ongoing part of how you interact with an employer You start negotiating for your salary, for example, from the day you start applying:

  1. You can choose companies to apply to where your enthusiasm will come across, or where you have highly relevant technical skills.
  2. You can get yourself introduced by a friend on the inside, instead of just sending in your resume.
  3. You can ensure you’ve demonstrated your correct level of problem-solving skills in your resume. If you can identify problems, it’s very easy to give the impression you can only solve problems if you don’t phrase things right (“I switched us over from VMs to Kubernetes” vs. “I identified hand-built VMs as a problem, investigated, chose Kubernetes, etc.”).
  4. You can interview for multiple jobs at once, so you can use a job offer from company A as independent proof of your value to company B.
  5. You can do well on the technical interview, which correlates with higher salaries.
  6. You can avoid whiteboard puzzles if you tend not to do well on those sorts of interviews.

All of these—and more—are part of the negotiation, long before you get the offer and discuss your salary.

You still need to ask (and negotiation doesn’t stop then)

Yes, you do need to ask for what you want at the end. And yes, that’s going to be scary and awkward and no fun at all. But asking for things is something you can practice in many different contexts, not just job interviews.

But if you treated the whole job interview process as a negotiation, that final conversation will be much easier because the company will really want to hire you—and because they’ll be worried you’ll take that other job offer you mentioned.

You’re not done negotiating when you’ve accepted the offer, though.

When your boss asks you to do something, you don’t have to say yes. In fact, as a good employee it’s your duty not to say yes, but to listen, dig a little deeper, and find the real problem.

Similarly, how many hours you work is not just up to your boss, is also about how you push back on unreasonable demands. And again, it’s your duty as a good employee to push back, because work/life balance makes you a better software engineer.

All of which is to say:

  1. You can’t avoid negotiating.
  2. Negotiation is far broader than just that awkward conversation where you make the ask.
  3. Being a good negotiator will make you a far more effective software engineer.

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