You are not a commodity

Recently a reader wrote in with a question:

I’ll be going to [a coding boot camp]. [After I graduate], my current view is to try hard to negotiate for whatever I can and then get better for my second job, but both of those steps are based on the assumption that I understand what an acceptable range for pay, benefits, etc are, and I feel like it’s leaving money (or time) on the table.

I’m not even sure if entry level jobs should be negotiated since they seem to be such a commodity. Do you have any advice for someone standing on the edge of the industry, looking to jump in?

What I told him, and what I’d like to share with you as well, is this:

  • Don’t think of yourself as a commodity—you’re just undermining yourself.
  • Don’t present yourself as a commodity—it’s bad marketing.
  • You are not a commodity—because no one is.

This is perhaps more obvious if you have lots of experience, but it’s just as true for someone looking for their first job.

We all have different strengths, different weaknesses, different experiences and background. So when it comes to finding a job, you should be highlighting your strengths, instead of all the ways you’re the same as everyone else.

In the rest of this article I’ll show just a few of the ways this can be applied by someone who is switching careers into the tech industry; elsewhere I talk more about the more theoretical side of marketing yourself.

Negotiating as a bootcamp graduate

Since employment is a negotiated relationship, negotiation starts not when you’re discussing your salary with a particular company, but long before that when you start looking for a job.

Here are just some of the ways you can improve your negotiating strength.

1. Highlight your previous experience

If you’re going to a coding bootcamp chances are you’ve had previous job experience. Many of those job skills will translate to your new career as a software developer: writing software as an employee isn’t just about writing code.

Whether you worked as a marketer or a carpenter, your resume and interviews should highlight the relevant skills you learned in your previous career. Those skills will make you far more competent than the average college graduate.

This might include people management, project management, writing experience, knowing when to cut corners and when not to, attention to detail, knowing how to manage your time, and so on.

And if you can apply to jobs where your business knowledge is relevant, even better: if you used to work in insurance, you’ll have an easier time getting a programming job at an insurance company.

2. Do your research

Research salaries in advance. There are a number of online salary surveys—e.g. StackOverlow has one—which should give you some sense of what you should be getting.

Keep in mind that top companies like Google or some of the big name startups use stock and bonuses as a large part of total compensation, and salary doesn’t reflect that. Glassdoor has per-company salary surveys but they often tend to be skewed and lower than actual salaries.

3. Get multiple job offers if you can

Imagine candidate A and candidate B: as far as the hiring manager is concerned they seem identical. However, if candidate B has another job offer already, that is evidence that someone elsewhere has decided they like them. So candidate B is no longer seen as a commodity.

Try to apply to multiple jobs at once, and not to say “yes” immediately to the first job offer you can get. If you can get two offers at the same time, chances you’ll be able to get better terms from one or the other.

In fact, even just saying “I’m in the middle of interviewing elsewhere” can be helpful.

You are not a commodity, so don’t act like one

Notice how all of the suggestions above aren’t about that final conversation about salary. There’s a reason: by the time you’ve reached that point, most of the decisions about your salary range have already been made. You still need to ask for more, but there’s only a limited upside at that point.

So it’s important to present your unique strengths and capabilities from the start: you’re not a commodity, and you shouldn’t market yourself like one.


You might also enjoy:

» Work/life balance and challenging work: you can have both
» How to find a programming job you won’t hate
»» Get the work/life balance you need
»» Level up your technical skills