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5 tips for negotiating a raise as a software engineer

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Robert L. Scheier, Principal, Bob Scheier Associates

With all the headlines about sky-high salaries, signing bonuses, and perks, it's easy to wonder if you're getting paid what you're worth as a software engineer. But if you haven't tried negotiating a raise, you're not alone. According to the staffing firm Robert Half Technology, 89 percent of US workers surveyed believe they deserve a raise, but only half (54 percent) plan to ask for one this year. Close to a third would rather clean the house, 13 percent would rather get a new job, and seven percent would rather get a root canal.

Regardless of the state of your house—or your teeth—you deserve to get paid what you're worth. Here are five tips for negotiating a raise.

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1. Do your homework

It's only common sense to research the going rate for your skills before negotiating a raise. But it's even more important today because of significant differences in pay levels based on your skills, geography, experience, and the type of employer. Skills in the Angular web mobile development platform or big data "easily leads to a 20 percent or more increase" in pay compared to older technologies such as ASP.NET or Java, says Aubrey Bach, senior editorial manager at compensation tracking firm PayScale.

Startups typically have a far lower budget for pay and benefits than do larger companies, although they may sweeten the pot with stock or other deferred compensation. Also check to see if that too-good-to-be-true paycheck comes with an expectation that you'll happily work 60-70 hour weeks, says Bach.

A number of career sites, including PayScale, Robert Half Technology, Salary.com, and Glassdoor offer customizable information about what employers in your area are paying for your specific skills and experience level. (Glassdoor also provides feedback on working conditions from current and former employees.)

Entering the conversation armed with facts is particularly useful for engineers who might otherwise be reluctant to speak up. It can also help convince an engineer boss who is used to making decisions based on cold, hard data. "For someone who is an engineer, money can be an emotional topic...when you've done the research and are speaking to a lead engineer, you can take away that emotional sting," says Bach.

2. Prove your worth

It's common sense, but it's worth remembering if your head gets turned by all that talk about how hot the software engineer market is. Just because research tells you that a .NET developer with five year's experience earns an average of $65,000-$75,000 per year "doesn't mean you necessarily can get that unless you're worth it," says John Reed, senior executive director at Robert Half Technology. That value is based not only on your technical skills but also on soft skills, such as communications and teamwork. They're increasingly important as more developers deliver applications in rapid "sprints" with continuous feedback from their operations staff and business users.

Verbal and written communications skills are most important, he says, followed by an understanding of the business. "If I'm working on an application for the accounting department, an understanding of what the accounting department does and the acronyms and systems it uses makes a developer that much more effective and valuable," he says.

Also important, he says, are problem-solving skills and the ability to work with coworkers who have "...different styles, different work preferences, different ways of communicating."

The best proof of those skills are emails and other communications from coworkers praising your skills, says Reed. So is a list of coworkers who can describe how your skills helped the business.

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3. Know when to ask

It's easy to wait until your annual review from your boss to bring up salary. But it can also be the worst time to talk about money. Your managers have already formed their opinion of what you're worth, and together with their peers, they've already divvied up whatever money is available for raises.

The best time to ask for a raise is right after a big project that ended well, says Bach, such as one that was finished on time or under budget. That gives you the opportunity to describe how you contributed to the project and other successes you've had over the past six months.

Talking with your boss about your pay and performance throughout the year gives you an opportunity to offer a reminder of your successes and correct areas where he or she thinks you should improve. To start these interim discussions, schedule a time that's convenient—when your boss can focus on you.

When asking for an early salary discussion, Reed suggests avoiding words such as "review." They may allow your boss to brush you off with a statement such as "We do reviews at the end of the year.'" Reed advises using terms such as "performance discussion" and asking questions such as "How do you think I'm doing on the job?" Before having these conversations, make sure your research has prepared you with the specific pay you're hoping to get.

4. Be careful of how you use competitive offers

Don't be too quick to wave a big pay offer you received from a headhunter or competitor at your boss and demand a big raise.

First, determine how solid the offer is. "If someone tells you a [job] is available and you're a candidate, and it pays between 'X' and 'Y,' it doesn't mean that's a job offer," warns Reed. "It's just an opportunity"—potentially.

Don't make threats or try to back your boss into a corner. Ari Weil, vice president of product marketing at Yottaa, an adaptive content delivery network provider, recommends saying, "Though I'm happy and not looking to move on...I need to make some financial decisions, and maybe we could meet in the middle."

Pushing too hard can turn off both your current and potential employer. "We never engage in bidding wars," says Andrey Akselrod, CTO and cofounder of Smartling, an online platform for managing translation projects. "Once the salary is close to market, unless you have [a competitor] who is paying significantly higher, a small difference...is not going to make a huge amount of difference." If it does, he says, "It's not the right candidate for us."

Soliciting rival bids "puts a bad taste in your manager's mouth...as you can appear disloyal and uncommitted," agrees Tonya Shtarkman, lead technical recruiter at Riviera Partners, a San Francisco-based recruiting firm. Your boss may simply suggest you take the stronger offer, she says. But even if they meet your demands they'll likely start looking for a replacement for you. She instead recommends asking your boss what goals or milestones you must hit to get your target pay and documenting the conversation. "Once you've hit those expectations," she says, "it will be very difficult to decline you the raise you deserve."

5. Keep your cool

Life runs on relationships, and you don't want to burn any bridges you may need later.

"Don't make it a hostile exercise," says Luca Bonmassar, cofounder and chief product and technology officer for Gild, a SaaS platform for finding, evaluating, and recruiting technical talent. "Try to explain to your manager that you really like your role, you are committed, but by looking at market data, you are not where you should be in terms of salary." Make clear how you came to your conclusion, without demanding "You must do this or I'm going to leave," says Reed. "Don't get agitated or irritated or raise tensions by raising your voice. Let them know it's a discussion, it's a request."

And choose your battles, suggests Reed. "If your salary is $70,000 and the market says the maximum is $75,000, I don't know if you're necessarily going to walk in and bang on somebody's desk six months before your review if you're at 90 or 95 percent of the maximum." Save the hard push for when your research shows you're dramatically underpaid and are receiving numerous solid and better offers.

And if you do leave for more pay, he suggests, send a note to your current employer that explains "how much you enjoyed working with them and restate the good work you did."

Leaving on such a high note helps build the relationships that will come in handy when—not if—the market turns and you could be the one asking for a favor. As Reed says, "Paths cross...many times throughout a career."

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