Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Money Doesn't Matter Myth

In between bouts of learning Adobe InDesign, I've been helping a few engineers negotiate compensation. One of the strangest things I ran into at Google was a number of people telling me that they didn't care about their career path, their compensation, or something like that. This was usually used to justify their apathy towards promotion systems, or to justify taking on an assignment that they knew would not help their career.

Coming from an engineer towards the end of that career, I can understand that attitude. If you're in your 50s or 60s, an extra promotion might not matter very much: after all, any additional compounding effect on your income will be dwarfed by matters such as job-satisfaction, or even such fringe benefits as health insurance.

For young engineers, however, that attitude is ridiculous and stupid. First off, an incremental 15% raise at this point in your career will compound over the next 4 decades if you're in your 20s. This makes a difference of a few million dollars. Secondly, as anyone who has bought an expensive luxury item knows, spending more on something makes you value it more. There are very few people who would bad-mouth their recently-bought expensive BMW or MacBook, for instance. (Yes, and I'm aware that I am one of those who would bad-mouth something I just bought, but I'm weird that way)

One engineer I advised got a substantial counter-offer from his current employer. After the counter-offer (but before he accepted it), he mentioned that his manager and tech-lead started treating him differently. This was a natural effect: once he got his counter, he started being too valuable to spend doing crappy work and writing unit tests: he'd have to be put to work doing more highly leveraged activities. A few more cycles of this, and he'd have enough work to justify a promotion, and a virtuous cycle will start.

So even if my book doesn't make you want to work at a startup, interviewing around to seek your market value is very likely to pay off, not just in terms of compensation, but in other intangibles as well, such as job satisfaction, or just getting out from doing work you don't want to do. It always surprises me that talented engineers put up with an unsatisfying job: the Valley is as hot as I've ever seen it, and it's currently a seller's market for engineering talent. If you don't take advantage of the situation now, another such situation may not arise for another 5 years.
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