"What are your salary expectations?" - How to figure out what really motivates you, besides money

Published April 10, 2020, 5 min read, tagged as: careermentorship

We're in the golden age of technology. The demand for developers and individuals that understand technology far outweighs the supply and it doesn't feel like this demand is going away for a while. This puts us in a great position. But it also creates a whole new problem, "churn". Churn is the frequent turnover of talent within an organization. In the US, the average length of time a developer spends at a company is between 12 and 18 months.

Depending on the situation, churn can be good and bad. For an organization, it's sometimes good to have a fresh set of eyes on a problem to bring unique perspectives. But it can be bad because with each person that leaves you lose some culture and knowledge. For individuals, it's nice to have a different problem to keep things interesting but that comes at the cost of instability and progression within an organization.

Even though I don't code professionally anymore, I still get contacted almost every day by recruiters looking to place me at different companies for ridiculous amounts of money and it's always tempting to hear them out. At first I did exactly that, but there was always something missing - happiness. Whenever I got asked that crucial question, "what are your salary expectations?" I never knew how to answer because I know after the first couple of paychecks it's not going to feel special anymore. So what am I actually looking for? What truly motivates me?

Eventually, I managed to verbalize what I want and categorize it into 3 things - the People, the Problem and the Pay. I want to dig into each one of these a bit.

The People

"We want to be in situations where we can learn from others, but also want to feel like we can contribute something valuable too."

This one's easy. To be the best you have to be surrounded by the best. There's a common feeling that most of us have at some point in our career. Some call it "imposter syndrome", others call it "resilience". Whatever you call it, the effect is the same - we don't feel good enough. But the irony is, most of the time we actually are good enough.

So how do we use imposter syndrome to our advantage? We surround ourselves with other smart, like minded individuals. We want to be in situations where we can learn from others, but also want to feel like we can contribute something valuable too. It's important for an organization to empower people and make them feel like they have a voice. It's equally important to create a culture of healthy conflict. I want someone to hear my idea and challenge it to make me think it through properly. I want to go into a room where everyone brings their own ideas, and at the end we come out with a whole new even better idea.

There's a reason why the people can make or break my excitement about an organization. Have the wrong people and the wrong culture and no amount of money is going to make me excited to get up in the morning. And if I don't want it, chances are I won't get it or be able to do it consistently enough to make a real impact.

What to look for:

  • Focus on the culture and core values. Is there a baseline to measure yourself and your peers against? Nobody wants to be on a bad team.
  • Make sure an organizations core values match your own. Do you believe in the mission? Will the culture set you up for success?
  • Team empowerment. Smart people aren't hired to be told what to do. Instead, we're given boundaries and left to solve the hard problems ourselves.
  • Put emphasis on the work environment. Are you able to continue learning? Do/will you have time for deep focus? Is your team open to collaborate?

The Problem

"The moment you're not being challenged your attention is going to go elsewhere and it's hard to come back from that."

For me, the problem i'm solving is almost as important as the people. Do I feel a sense of purpose? Is the problem hard enough to keep me entertained? For some people, it's about a specific technology, for others it's about the the companies mission. Whatever motivates you, make it known and focus on it. The moment you're not being challenged your attention is going to go elsewhere and it's hard to come back from that.

In my time, I've found there's a couple of ways a company motives developers. They either focus on a worthwhile mission, or they focus on developer culture. A worthwhile mission attracts people that put the problem before themselves. These are usually the selfless individuals that want to use their talent for the greater good. They tend to focus less on the "how" and more on the "what". Developer culture puts emphasis on technology and tooling to attract people. A great company will find a way to focus on both. Figure out what you want and you'll know how likely you are to stay happy.

What to look for:

  • What tech stack is being used? How quickly is better technology embraced? You want to find a balance between using technology that works and trying new and possibly better technology. A healthy company will find that balance between patience and innovation and coupled with the right people, they'll be the ones that are set up for success in the long run.
  • Make sure you're getting the right gear. Having to work on an old, slow computer just gives to time to get distracted and slowly eats away at your will to live. It's a small price to pay to get an upgraded machine but it's one that can have a significant impact.

The Pay

"Although pay can be seen as an expensive problem to solve, it's actually probably the cheapest because all it takes is money."

Sometimes talking about money is a taboo, but in the long run this mentality helps nobody. Although pay can be seen as an expensive problem to solve, it's actually probably the cheapest because all it takes is money.

Everyone has a different number. It's up to you to figure out the number that works for you and see if an organization is willing to meet you where you are. But don't focus solely on this number because it won't bring you contentment. Instead couple it with the people and the problem and you'll find yourself more likely to be happy.

What to look for:

  • Honesty. Put yourself in a place where you're happy with what you're getting and then stop focusing on it. Instead focus on the people and the problem and make sure you're getting what you want from those.
  • A successful career is built on 3 things - the Content, the Context and the Contacts. In other words, focus on what you're doing, why you're doing it and who you're doing it with and money will become a side effect of this success.

People don't come with documentation. What works for me may not work for others. The most important thing is to accept that theres probably not just one single motivating factor in your life, for example when I feel burn out I never feel like money will fix it. But by identifying the things that are important and putting myself in a place that puts emphasis on the same things I'm able to focus on the problem at hand because I know I've already taken care of everything else.

If you can get most of what you're looking for, you'll find yourself willing to compromise on the rest. If you're at a place where you're surrounded by people that challenge you and a problem that keeps you engaged, you'll be willing to take a slightly lower salary.

Find a company that's solving an interesting problem and paying well and you'll be more willing to deal with a few toxic people. If you get a good salary and are surrounded by like minded, smart individuals that are challenging you, you'll be ok with a less interesting problem to solve because you can engage yourself in other ways.

Whatever motivates you, it's important to vocalize it and put yourself in a place where you're doing things you love and are good at doing them. This is the best way to make sure you're the right person in the right seat.

I tweet about this type of thing a lot. If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy following me.

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