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So, basically, telling them something will only hurt you and never help you. So don’t do it. Now, here’s exactly what to say when asked to name the first number:

At this point, I don’t feel equipped to throw out a number because I’d like to find out more about the opportunity first – right now, I simply don’t have the data to be able to say something concrete. If you end up making me an offer, I would be more than happy to iterate on it if needed and figure out something that works. I also promise not to accept other offers until I have a chance to discuss them with you.

And they answer, "Sorry, I cannot move forward without a number."


I've been there and maybe I just don't enjoy awkward silences enough but my strategy is to have two numbers ready:

1. My Public Number: the inflated number I give out when pressed. It's grounded in reality but vigorously optimistic. I'll often offer this up front just to anchor the discussion. I make sure it's a number I will be more than happy with, even it turns out that maybe it wasn't as much as they were prepared to offer. If the other side finds it out of the question, I've saved myself time and stress.

2. My Walkaway Number: in the event the offer is lower, which it often is, the number below which the offer gets rejected. I don't share this publicly.

These vary based on other factors of the offer. But I have them ready. And I stick to the second number.

I was asked once (and in a 15 year career, only once) in an interview "How much do you need, and how much do you want?".

This question was almost devastating to my otherwise composed and in-the-moment mindset because it was so shockingly frank and signaled a sense of authenticity coming directly from the owner I had never seen before interviewing for tech jobs. I gave them both. He in turn gave me something in the middle, but much closer to the 'want' than I expected. What was more unexpected was how quickly I gave him numbers-they weren't just random numbers, it was a range that I had decided for myself would be the moonshot salary and "thanks but I'll pass" salary floor.

It was definitely a first being asked such a critical question in such a tactical way-I appreciated it for what it was.

That job lasted for four years until acquisition. We all walked away happy with the accomplishments made, that owner and I are still great friends to this day.

Interesting, but I think how much you need is none of their business at the beginning of your relationship. How much you need depends largely on your healthcare needs, child or adult care needs including educational and developmental needs, current level of debt, etc. There's also a lot of subjectivity involved - do you need to travel across the country to visit your parents? Do you need to take a $1000 webinar to refresh/expand your skills? Do you need gigabit connectivity? Do you need a fuel efficient car?

How would he have responded to one of these replies?

"I need x dollars annually. That's also how much I want."

"How much I need is a personal question that I don't feel comfortable answering. How much I want is ..."

Or even,

"How much effort do you want me to put into my work? How much effort do you need me to put into my work?"

Oh, I hadn't considered that interpretation of "need." I thought of "need" as being "the low floor below which I wouldn't accept an offer," which has nothing to do with how much I "need." I need so much less than I make to stay alive lol, cause I been there before.

"How much effort do you want me to put into my work?"

I would hope that a candidate with that sort of response when handed an olive branch would have been screened out of the hiring process at an earlier stage than salary negotiation.

It's very easy to see how the want vs need question could be yet another ploy. For a small company I could be inclined to believe the owner asking the question, but could I ask them if they're living within their wants or needs? I think skepticism can be warranted...

There is also zero chance that I will accept an offer for the amount I need because there are plenty of people who are willing to pay me more than that.

The variation of this that I usually ask is, "What salary do you need to maintain a comfortable cost of living and what do you consider a fair salary given your experience and the job requirements?"

Depending on my flexibility in the hiring process I may give them a realistic estimate of my budget as well.

I want to set the stage for the best information symmetry I can (given the circumstances). This makes salary negotiations closer to a collaborative game than a competitive one. I've even told candidates that their ask is unrealistically low for their experience level.

Salary negotiation is the first moment in a trust-based relationship. To me it's very odd that we start that trust-based relationship with a very high-stakes competitive problem that relies heavily on information asymmetry.

It has nothing to do with trust. They just vetted your abilities and decided you can make them money. Now you're fighting for your cut. This also has nothing to do with how much you "need". I need a cabin and an axe. I want half of what I'm bringing to the table, and that's what matters to both of us.

What you said is "I don't trust you so i'm instead going to assume you are out to get me and screw me as hard as i let you".

That has everything to do with trust.

A twenty-two year old straight out of school might think you're his friend.

I know, and you know, we aren't friends.

Don't ask me what I need. That's none of your business. I don't need anything. Tell me what I'm worth to you, then pick a respectful cut. I already have a good idea about the right number, and I'll fight for it, because I've already made people a lot of money. They weren't friends either, but we've sure as hell shaken hands with genuine shit-eating grins on our faces because we're capable professionals, and we didn't pretend. That's the recipe for success.

You seem like the kind of person i would never hire.

You'd never date me. You'd hire me at a fair price.

> What salary do you need to maintain a comfortable cost of living

That is a stupid question to ask. For anyone competent that I would ever want to hire, the amount that they need (unless they have a bad gambling habit or have made some terrible financial decisions) will be much less than the amount that they would ever accept.

Plenty of people, especially engineers with families, have lifestyle costs that exceed what a startup will comp in cash. (Lifestyle is supported by current job offering bonuses or liquid equity).

Maybe you and parent have a differing interpretation of what 'comfortable' means in such a context.

I mean, they’re welcome to the answer for this, but it’s not particularly applicable to the salary negotiation.

If I ever heard "What salary do you need to maintain a comfortable cost of living and what do you consider a fair salary given your experience and the job requirements?" I'd be walking straight out of the interview. That just screams "cheap" and gives off the impression that you don't value your technical talent. If I wanted a "fair" salary that just covered my cost of living I'd be doing something other than software engineering

Fairness is a good value to build a relationship of trust.

I worked with an engineer with this mindset of, "the company is out to get me" at an early stage startup. They left after a few years and started their own company. They couldn't recruit and grow. I turned down their offer because I didn't trust them. I didn't trust them because I was well aware of their distrustful mindset when working in a small group setting.

I had a different mindset during the early stages of the startup, one closer to a model of trust with the company on compensation, quality, and level of effort. I also left to start my own company and I've had no trouble attracting people, both employees and sub-contractors.

There is some merit to an adversarial mindset but it's a liability in the early stages of a company and it leaves a lasting impression on your reputation.

I've had a colleague with that mindset too. I didn't join his next venture. I'm glad I didn't.

And if your response to an open and honest question is to immediately assume a whole bunch of stuff about the intent/etc of the people asking, i'm pretty sure they wouldn't want you.

The only issue on the table is, what are the job and my skills worth? How I spend the money, as a job candidate, is an irrelevant personal question.

The employer is the one bringing the job and money to the table. I'm bringing skills and the potential for success to the table. No employer would imagine they could not describe the job, why is it they can imagine they can not describe the money? Its all in their court.

I'm with the folks who are suggesting, say nothing about the money, let them do the talking.

This is absolutely terrible advice.

I've had several very frank salary discussions with people I work for based on mutual trust. It doesn't always happen, but it's perfectly possible.

I am afraid that this whole "mutual trust" aspect is missing in the OP and some of the comments. As a person who hires more than quite a few people, I definitely do not like to hire people with the mindset "The company is out to screw me, and I absolutely will stick for the absolute best for myself". If the mindset is established "the company is out to screw me", I actually do not want that person, regardless of how hot they are or how low a pay they want to accept (at that point, it is not about the pay). That spirit of mutual trust has served me well and I believe has served the people I have hired well.

Trust is earned. You don't actually have trust when you first meet someone.

It's a savvy negotiating tactic to start with behaviors based on an assumption of good faith, but only if you aren't cutting your own throat in the process.

I'm not all that great at job hunting, so I have hesitated to jump in to this discussion. But perhaps that says something important. I mean, the fact that I'm pretty good at negotiating generally, yet not so great at the job hunting process. Perhaps that is important commentary in its own right on some of the problems in the job market with asymmetrical info and how that can impact job applicants.

This is an embarrassing comment. You were wise to use a throwaway. Not a single talented engineer would ever knowingly work for someone who thought expecting and negotiating for fair market compensation is an attitude problem.

You still don't get it here, and elsewhere. The parent you complain about is completely correct. As they said, if your goal is to view all of this as a completely adversarial relationship, with no reason to do so given to you by me, i probably don't want you. I want people who stop to understand the perspective and situations of other people rather than just assume them. If i'm adversarial, fine, i have no problem with you being the same. But you shouldn't assume it.

Interestingly, most talented engineers i know in fact operate the same way. They try to understand the perspective of the other person first (in a meeting, in a negotiation, etc) instead of assuming what it is.

Your framing of this viewpoint as an attitude problem does not look great. It's not an attitude problem, it's a way of operating problem.

You want to hire people who don't just say "well this other team that isn't doing what i want, so they are clearly stupid, etc". You want to hire the person who says "hey, i wonder why team x feels differently when we both probably want success", and tries to understand their perspective and how they can work together towards some goal.

That is what the most talented engineers do.

An honest actor doesn't ask irrelevant questions that just so happen to put you in a weaker negotiating position.

When you do this to a naive kid, you might win out. When you do this to a seasoned professional, you burn any chance of him assuming good faith (which is almost never the case to begin with, given that negotiations are inherently adversarial), and he's going to enjoy playing hardball with you.

Listen, I know how this works. And I tell your employees and potential employees because I like when knowledge, dedication, and skill enrich people, and I hate when lesser-minded snake-charming enriches people.

Asking a question that directly changes the negotiating relationship is adversarial from the start.

I think there's a world of difference between "the company is out to screw me" and "I want the best possible result". And I think that the throwaway account you're agreeing with has trouble differentiating between the two (see my other responses to him).

It is absolutely reasonable to enter a negiotiation with the intent to base the resulting partnership on mutual trust. But "I will renege on this offer if you attempt to negotiate" doesn't scream trustworthy to me.

I would.

Self-abnegation can work for people who don't have to worry about their family or retirement.

The mindset isn't "The company is out to screw me." The mindset is closer to "Some companies are out to screw me. I don't know what kind this is." They aren't assuming the worst of you.

Hell, I don't think they're even necessarily assuming that the worst is common. They are assuming that it's common for employers to not pay them fairly if they don't take these tactics. They aren't assuming you will do that, but they are just worried you might might be.

What mutual trust?

We live in a capitalist society where the literal goal of an enterprise is to exploit the labour of workers and pay them less than what they create in terms of value.

There are young graduates who haven't worked that out yet and there are veterans who know the game well. At no point is trust involved in this equation. Employment is a mutually beneficial arrangement where the worker's self interest to maximize their wealth is always orthogonal to the employer's self interest of maximizing their wealth.

Just be a grownup and negotiate a fair cut. I fucking hate employers acting like we have some kind of trust, or worse, friendship. We're in a business arrangement. The only mutual trust is that I will do what I can to make as much money off you as possible, and you will do what you can to make as much money off me as possible. So long as that arrangement benefits us both, we have a working relationship. There's a reason why you will find a paragraph along the lines of 'don't be friends with your employees' in every book for founders.

People who say stuff like you're saying fall into one of two categories: the naive who haven't yet figured out how the world actually works, and the disingenuous preying on the naive who haven't figured out how the world works. I won't work with either.

That's interesting. I could see it having the same effect on me. Glad it worked out for you.

If I got that question I’m not sure I’d say it was “frank”. Sure, it’s asking me to be honest, but that isn’t the same thing.

Maybe just me, but I don’t think asking the same question in a different way should be expected to elicit a different answer. My bottom number would be whatever it would normally be and the top number would be a bit higher.

I was there with Ticketmaster. It was hilarious. We went back and forth for a good five minutes (that's a long time in a phone call) with our entire arsenal of canned responses. I was a recruiter in the past so I could just hear her going down the list. It got to the point where I don't think she realized I was looking for an out by saying things like "it's ok if we can't reach an agreement, we don't have to proceed with employment discussions." I had to eventually hard end the call with something like "I'm no longer interested in the opportunity."

Still goes down as my favorite recruitment call. No better way to practice "never give a number."

Can you please share at least some of that arsenal? It would be good to have a few more backup phrases that work in a pinch.

"I can't really effectively talk hard numbers before I've even tried the commute out, which I'll do if we do an on-site interview."

"I haven't had a chance to check over how your health benefits work, so can't speak to any hard numbers."

"What's the range you're looking at?"

"I haven't even had a chance to meet the team and guage my interest in the company, so I can't speak confidently to what I'd need for this position"

"I'm not sure what the job entails exactly so I wouldn't be comfortable speaking numbers yet"

Edit: check later and I'll have added later-stage-strategies

"I'd be more comfortable talking numbers after having an idea of your range"

"What's your comfort level?"

"What are you offering for this position?"

"What do you typically offer for (job) at this skill requirement?"

"I don't like to get caught up in details without first knowing your comfort level"

"I don't come to the table with a hard salary requirement - tell me what you're looking at and I'm confident we can work it out"

"The end salary isn't nearly as important to me as good team fit. If you have a number you're comfortable with, let me know and I promise I'll be able to fit within reasonable expectations"

"I'm sorry, I don't give a number at any stage"

I love that last one. In my head you've run right through the checklist, popping out a new reason not to offer up a number first, before hitting the last one and just coming right out with it.

Haha pretty much. I've only ever once had to run through the whole list and it was with ticket Master. My end is "if you aren't able to proceed with the interview process without having a range for me, that's ok, I'm happy to separate now on mutual good terms."

She wouldn't even relent with that though... I had to hang up on her. Never seen anything like this before or since.

I did the same last month. I was pressed for a number in the in-person interview. I dropped my inflated public number (which was $30k more than my walkaway), and lo and behold, they offered it to me!

It turns out I was way undervalued :)

And this is why you should not give the number first.

Heh, I'll see your met offer and raise you a....um, raised, offer?

Was asked a couple of weeks ago what my number was, gave them what I was making in the market I had just moved from because I'm a single guy with a cat and can get by very easily on that and still live very comfortably.

They added an extra 25%. Ten short of the public inflated number.

I start tomorrow :)

Enjoy your new gig!

They ADDED? Solid find, congratulations, that is extraordinarily rare!

In my experience it really isn't that rare. There are a lot of people who do not job-hop nearly enough to optimize income (maybe they're optimizing for stability though, that's their business) and once they've made one jump there's such a possibility/probability of doing so again that it's not really in an employer's best interests to make it easier for them to do so by taking advantage.

Most engineers only reach their steady-state productivity 9-12 months into a new job. Getting a year of somebody cheap is rarely better than getting multiple years of them unless you never should have hired them at all.

Not unusual if the hiring manager is at all experienced.

I MUST keep 15% or so in my pocket if I can. There are some people that simply will NOT feel good if the don't negotiate with you. Shrug. I let them "negotiate" their 15%.

To the ones who don't negotiate, I put the 15% into their final offer to sign.

I got $10k on top of what I was asking for. I undervalued myself quite seriously as I was moving countries and didn't really have a good grasp on what market salaries actually were for my experience and skills.

It may seem smart in the short run to hire someone for under their market rate, but when they eventually realise that they're massively underpaid, they're going to jump ship.

I agree, too many hiring managers failed to understand this when I was recruiting. It seems in the tech industry people are starting to get it.

> These vary based on other factors of the offer. But I have them ready. And I stick to the second number.

This. Finding a walkaway number is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned over the years. It must be a number you’re comfortable with, such that if that’s what you’re getting you won’t feel cheated or otherwise unhappy about it. Anything below it means you walk away – end of discussion. I guess the difficult thing is making it a non negotiable and hard limit, but that’s key to making it work.

This has taken away all anxiety of negotiating for me.

I know that not everyone can do this, but at this point, I just thank them and let them know I won't be moving forward. I've only been in this situation twice. One didn't move forward, in the other, the recruiter pushed, then when they realized I was ok walking away, shifted and gave me a range, asking if it sounded reasonable (it wasn't). I've also never had this experience with a company I was particularly excited about yet.

> And they answer, "Sorry, I cannot move forward without a number."

The thing is... I always say this back to them. Works pretty well. if they don't answer back is probably because the money is too bad.

My strategy in my recent job search was to provide my walkaway number (the minimum I'd need to bother leaving my existing employment), and state that I was looking for an offer that would be competitive with other offers. It helped that I was positioning myself to have offers from multiple companies I would be happy to work at, so offer competitiveness could be a major factor in making my decision.

And they answer, "Sorry, I cannot move forward without a number."

In sales training they teach you to shut up and wait at this point.

it's not a stalemate. able devs are in short supply, jobs are plentiful. in this economy, the prospective employer loses if they don't budge.

if they can't work around you not providing a number first, don't work there unless you're willing to sacrifice expected salary for an opportunity at this particular company.

Clearly you haven't been in the software developer job hunting market recently. You'd be shocked at how much your wrong.

I was on the market five months ago. It took me three weeks of selectively applying directly to companies I wanted to work for (maybe 8 hours of actual work, then 10 hours of interviews, and lots of waiting) to net two solid offers. I didn't have to negotiate the offer I accepted because they didn't ask my baseline and capped out the offer for the job description. I negotiated with the other company to see if they would match, they would not. That's on par with every job hunt I've been on. The difference this time was avoiding job listing sites, which I've had very bad results with.

I don't think he's wrong, but I could be biased by my experiences. As a principal-level with a skillset around mobile, web, infrastructure, and security, I have never had trouble having more work than I wanted, either as a consultant or a FTE.

What type and level of developer are you referring to?

I'm talking about senior level. Recently, as in the past year. Something has been going on in the senior level developer job market. I don't know maybe I'm an anomaly as I have many public projects, experience at top companies. But I haven't been able to find work. There has been at least two posts recently relating to this trend so maybe there is something.

Well...we hire in Boston or remote, so. ;)

Exactly, this isn't a difficult thing, it's like real estate. You list higher then go from there. If you get a full priced offer the list price was too low.

Stalemate ? Not at all: it's great, you just get information that what you cost is more important than who you are and can now decide how to position yourself.

The last few jobs I've gotten I've gone in with a number I wanted, told them what it was, and gotten it. Prior to even attending the job interview I'd come up with a reasonable number that I was happy with. Then when the conversation comes up I know exactly what I want, and I haven't had to deal with tedious negotiations with recruiters. The closing process is easier on everybody, and either everybody gets what they want, or we find out if it's not going to work out right away.

> And they answer, "Sorry, I cannot move forward without a number."

> Stalemate.

It's not a stalemate. The application goes straight to the no pile unless you're a fantastically great snowflake:

> This candidate hasn't done their research on what other candidates are potentially asking, nor can they articulate why they're worth more than that. And even more crucially, I've no idea whether they can possibly fit in my budget.

In my experience on both sides of the hiring table, the application does not go to the no pile--unless, not that the employee is a "fantastically great snowflake", but rather the employer is unwilling to reckon with the market. Dismissing an employee because they won't kneecap their negotiating position for you is a sign of institutional toxicity.

(And I do mean on both sides of the table; I've quit jobs upon discovering that the employer would not allow me to hire people at fair wages, too.)

Fully agreeing there are many companies out there that are unwilling to reckon with the market, but I respectfully disagree it's kneecapping one's negotiating position to put your number forward.

A dirty little secret in hiring is that negotiating involves giving and taking by both parties. As a candidate, it's not like you're going to only give 80% of your work effort once hired or something if the salary doesn't meet your expectations. Your only BATNA is not working for a company that won't pay you that much. So what's really going on is that you're demanding, rather than negotiating, what you think you're worth.

With this out of the way, hiring managers (in properly managed companies, anyway) will have some kind of budget or salary band (sane or not) that they need to conform to. If you withhold what you'd like to get paid:

An inexperienced hiring manager might very well tell you know much they'd like to offer. You might have a happy surprise in some cases; you'll have a bad surprise in many more. In the latter case, you're wasting your time, and they might discover at the very end of their hiring process that they've been wasting their time all along.

The more experienced hiring manager will consider whether the risk of spending any more time on you is worth it. Having been burnt a few times in their inexperienced days, they'll know better and simply bin your application unless a) you're absolutely awesome and b) they've enough wiggle room or political capital to get you hired at a much higher price point than they had in mind.

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