You're crap and paid too much for the little work you actually do
A recruiter's guide on how to get mo' money...
You’re not getting paid as well as you should. I know this not only because you’re bothering to read this, but also because most techies are crap at extracting cash from their employers. It shouldn’t shock you too much to learn that I, as a City headhunter and former contractor, focus quite hard on money - so here's a few ideas that will help you even in tough times.
Continuous Visible Productivity
The first thing you get wrong is spending too much time on things no one sees. No one really cares if you’ve made the backup process run 50 per cent faster unless it’s stopping work, so don't waste your time on this until some politically powerful person or business unit asks. That’s a tactic: the full methodology you should adopt for all your work is Continuous Visible Productivity (CVP).
Plan your work in terms of things other people can see; forget agile dependency modelling, GANTT, etcetera and prioritise with respect to how many useful people see the result.
The joy of CVP is that its cynicism is so pure you can openly share it with your boss – he is under constant attack for the cost of IT which to “the business” seems so rarely to actually produce anything. A staffer who makes him look good is far more valuable than one who knows more C++ syntax, so his fear of you leaving goes up without you doing anything. The highest paid contractor I ever met composed Reuters pages for directors of the bank. That’s drag-and-drop level work and she was a proper techie – so it was far beneath her – but every time she wanted to quit they’d throw money at her, such was the power of her visible productivity. You might not have that option, but making sure your system can easily and quickly support new pages makes you look good, especially if it’s not a documented feature ...
Why you are paid
Your pay is an equilibrium between their fear of you leaving and greedily keeping the cash they could pay you. Do not kid yourself that your pay is a reward for work you have done, employers have less memory than a goldfish and your only lever is what you’re going to do. Any pitch for money must contain a mix of opportunities for your boss to look good flavoured with just enough fear that you might be leaving. The past is evidence for a pay rise, not a cause.
One of the best paid IT guys I know says that he doesn’t sell “solutions”, he sells pay rises; your boss must see it in his interest to fight the battles. Be aware that it’s just pub talk to leave a recruiters card “accidentally” on your desk, if they think you’re definitely going anyway they won’t bother to try and keep you and optional items like bonuses and training won’t be wasted on a lost boy. The last thing your boss wants is to fight for your pay rise and let his bosses see you quit anyway.
Note that the title is “get more money”, not “earn more”. I can’t make you better at your job, my aim is to get you better rewarded for it. You are worth what you can get, not a penny more or less. In negotiations it is useful to use the word “fair” so that the other side doesn’t feel too blackmailed, but never kid yourself that it means anything.
Screwing up to get more money
One serious programmer explained to me that “if the system goes down for 30 minutes, you’re incompetent. Bring it back after five hours and you’re a hero”. They key here is that you’re making a difference when it hits the fan, that’s not someone they want to lose.
Your boss has no idea if you’re good at your job. Even in the unlikely event he knows much about database replication or wrongly aliased pointers, he doesn’t have the time to properly measure your performance – and the structure of many IT groups means that the greater their decision-making power, the less the individual understands computers. They use proxies for competence and productivity, working on the principle that a cheerful techie is delivering the goods. They also like cheerful people because it means the team is functional, which is part of...
The richer brother of political correctness, every firm has a bunch of things that one has to pay lip service to. As a techie you are crap at even noticing these and when you do, they form the butt of your acid humour.
You need to say: “We’re a tier one supplier to the NHS,” even when you know it’s a delusion believed by no one outside marketing. You don’t have to believe it. There’s a whole pile of bullshit words you need to use more, such as “business”, “delivery”, “savings” and “revenue” – but most important is “team”.
EDS did a video – “Herding cats” – which beautifully captures how your bosses see IT people...
At many firms they genuinely believe that one day they will have to deal with an outbreak of physical violence in the IT department – and quite a few already have (the time I was punched at IBM’s labs was my own fault).
Say supportive and positive things at meetings
A big reason you earn less than you should is that you seem to genuinely believe that meetings are something to do with managing projects and planning future work. Serious decisions aren’t made at meetings; the bigger they are the less likely anything will come out. Instead this is done in clusters of two or three, and you’re not invited because you’re like me when I was 30. Along with most techies I saw meetings as chances to score points off others and a waste of time. I’ve gradually built the skill of asking questions that help the speaker sound good, enough that I get notes thanking me for my contribution. You don’t, do you ?
When you thank someone publicly you help build allies, look like a good team player and associate yourself subliminally with success – but you don’t do that either, do you? That’s at least 10 per cent of your income you’ve squandered. Your mother told you manners were important, and she was right.
As techies (I’m a C++ developer as well, live with it), our work focuses on solving problems and this has led to a culture where pessimism and black humour over major screw-ups is seen as cool. At one bank where I was managing a project, a member of the board decided to sit in on a meeting as it was really important. He had no experience of IT people and so took me aside afterwards because he was worried that two of the developers would "self-harm". It was a bank so he didn’t care about them much as people, but he worried about my attitude that this was just normal programmer pessimism. Later at a status meeting one of my development managers said (and I quote) “... the server will die and we will be hunted down and killed like dogs”. Given that we were betting the firm on this system, it probably doesn’t shock you that the board member demanded I demote him.
Yes I know this all sounds like I want BOFHs to sound like MBAs, but there is a reason my MBAs earn on average rather more. You want to spread gloom, fine, you want to live in a house as big as mine, smile a bit more.
You have to find out how the pay cycle works at your outfit. Demanding more money two weeks after the decisions have been made just annoys your boss and since you don’t quit because you don’t get the money he can’t give you, this gravely reduces his fear that you might quit.
Visible Productivity 2.0
How do people know if what you’ve achieved is great? Even if you work for Capita, you occasionally actually finish something useful so you must let people know. The logic is simple: if you invite a bunch of people for a quick beer to celebrate the completion of the data ingest module, then it must be good. The fact that it’s a VBA macro to import CSV files into Excel is not the issue, the message is that it’s working great. Each victory over the formless hell of Oracle is worthy of you picking up a box of chocolates from the supermarket and sharing them with people passing your desk. The £10 cost pays back very well as you build up an aura as “someone who gets things done”.
Finally, an Industry Standard Lie
“You’ll be taken care of,” when the next pay round comes along. It’s not provably wrong. In one large firm this year, every single IT headcount got exactly the same percentage pay rise. Note the word “headcount”; employees were cells on the spreadsheet of an accountant, the kind of person who so admires techies. Maybe a few thousand people performed exactly as well as each other, but realistically there are two lies here.
I flatly refuse to believe they all got the same raise – even though I was told this in good faith. I believe that people whom they really wanted to keep got more money and knew to keep it quiet. Try applying what I’ve shared here; the test for success is being sworn to secrecy. ®
Dominic Connor is a City headhunter at QF Search with a sideline in teaching C++ to bankers.