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Ask HN: Am I underpaid?
51 points by MstrMZR on Apr 1, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 80 comments
I'm currently living in SF and working at a fairly prolific late stage startup. I've got a Bachelor's of CS and am a Front End Engineer with roughly 5 years of engineering experience. The first half of those years was spent working full stack, and the last half working very closely with Backbone, jQuery, Require, and other modern JS frameworks. I've launched numerous very successful products, and consistently get nothing but positive remarks in annual reviews.

I make roughly 115k a year, which at first seemed like a ton after moving here from a relatively low COL area. Lately though, the combination of looking at my account balances after paying rent + seeing people talk about salaries on HN make me think that I am on the very low end of the pay scale. Combine that with the paltry amount of equity I have and the fact that my company gives absolutely zero bonuses, and it all leaves me thinking that there might be greener pastures in other companies in the Valley.

So what's your opinion HN: Are the people paid above the median the vocal minority, or should I reevaluate my situation for more fair compensation?

I don't think 110 is low for a front-end engineer. Whether or not you are underpaid is more of a question on how much money you need to be happy. Will increasing your pay by 30k per year significantly change your current lifestyle? You should examine if you are happy at your job first, understand how different your life might be if you added 1200 more per month, and determine whether or not that increase will make you happy?

I've always been a believer that if you are truly happy in your work then the pay will not matter much. If you are unhappy in what you do a little more will only make you happy for a short while.

Yes and no.

For 5 years of experience that seems like in the low end, but if you have only front end skills, then jobs available to you will always be lower paid than somebody that has full-stack/back-end skills. Being good in the back-end means that you have to brush your Computer Science skills. Nobody wants to trust their back-end to people that don't have their CS down, and they are willing to pay more for the people that do, Front end is seen a less mission-critical area for most tech companies. Also the entry bar is lower, which increases competition (lots of new grads, or people that don't have CS skills can apply to those jobs), which decreases salaries. That's how it works.


Start developing your back-end skills. Python, Ruby, Java, whatever suits you. Also makes sure your Computer Science knowlede is up-to date. Buy Skieana's Algorithms book (it is a great read), and internalize the most common algos. (Not memorize, but internalize). Being full stack will dramatically increase your job opportunities and income over time.

Also, it makes you much more prepared/ready to get a startup/product going, end to end.

Good advice. I was actually a back-end engg for the first few years of my career. I ended up transitioning into front-end because I really enjoyed it, though I kind of miss helping out in all aspects of the stack.

I don't think being purely front-end means that you will get a lower salary, because I've seen front-end and UX people get paid equal salaries. Some of the ninja UX guys get paid really well.

If you are purposely staying in this place because "the work is good", then make sure that the $10k-20k less that you're making is worth the extra goodness, whatever it is. It's always a tradeoff. Also, no harm negotiating a raise.

In the end, you are selling your services, so don't get jipped. The very fact that you are here is a strong indication that might be.

The other problem with california is the state tax. You can make 10% less in Washington + take the same amount home.

If this is a serious post and not a joke then allow me to humor your situation. You are trying to gauge external fairness by getting a layout of responses in the regional industry. The fact of the matter is some will make more than you and a good amount make less than you. Some will have more experience than you and make less and some will have less experience than you and make more. Ultimately there is enough evidence on both sides of the spectrum to sway you either way. The choice is yours on what you choose to read and go by.

If you are happy with what your compensation, great. If you are not then do something about it. Offer value and I guarantee opportunity for compensation will come knocking.

I'd say you're in the ballpark.

I live in Seattle, where cost of living is lower (although still pretty expensive).

People I know with similar experience make less than you (3-5k less) and work for major software companies. Given the difference in the cost of living, I would say your numbers are about right. It's possible that since your company is less established (late stage startup) they might not pay quite as well as someplace like Google or Microsoft.

In my exp, Frontend Development is not the highest paying area of software engineering. I jumped from doing mostly frontend to doing mostly backend and system admin and was able to demand more money. Now I am at the Sr. Level and can demand more.

Albiet, deeply knowing the full stack is a big plus on my resume.

Complex Backend dev, big data, iOS/Android dev all seem to offer higher salaries.

Checkout the Angelist job section, they list tons of salaries.

Based on the thousands of offers from hundreds of start-ups that I've seen DeveloperAuction, that is definitely a little bit on the low end for a "late stage" startup (Series B+?) company, but you're not horribly far off.

You could probably get $125K-$130K elsewhere, maybe even more, and potentially with a signing bonus as well.

$100-$115K is a typical salary at a seed stage company which would offer a significant equity stake

Find happiness. It may or may not involve your job. If you're unhappy with your work because of your salary, you're going down a rabbit hole. Optimize for happiness.

Otherwise, the best advice I can give is forgo the equity and take the extra $15k in salary. It acts as a baseline for your next job and it's cash you can use today for savings or material goods.

Unless you're a founder or a VERY early employee in a quite successful startup the financial upside just isn't there. The upside has to be a good job that compliments whatever it is that makes you happy.

Hah. Most founders are broke. Sure, you own an equity slice in a business, but the reality is that you pay yourself a pittance, and your best hope is to be acquired for a six figure (not six zero) sum after a decade of back-breaking labour.

The best hope is the entire point of starting up. If your best hope from the start is a six figure buyout and your goals are financial then don't bother starting.

Oh, I meant the best hope of financial glory - not the general best hope!

You're not underpaid, but you could be making A LOT more money. A lot of the suggestions seem to be learning how to do backend development or other skills. You could become a badass full stack developer, hone your skills and then apply for other positions. But why wait?

Talented developers are known for being able to pick up any skill they can on the fly. So you're not really at an advantage spending months or years becoming really good.

The problem is many developers aren't good at marketing themselves. You don't really need to be an expert at something like MongoDB, Backbone or any other technology to get paid more. You just need to clearly explain that it will be no problem picking them up because you've worked with dozens of other no-sql data stores or javascript frameworks.

You want to demonstrate the business value that you can provide to them -- like hiring you will finally allow them to work on that feature that will increase sales by 20%. If you can convince an employer of that, they'll pay you lots of money. An extra 15-30K salary is nothing for companies at that stage.

Check out the histogram at: https://angel.co/salaries

It all depends but I've learned to look at http://www.glassdoor.com its not 100% accurate but gives you a rough idea of whats going on. It's how I figured out I'm underpaid (I'd care more if the job was stressful but it's not...)

Quit whining and get to work. You are grossly overpaid. I live in the Netherlands and that job and your skill set would get you around 45.000 USD a year. And we pay roughly 50% taxes over that, netting you at 22.500 USD a year. So, get to work.

You should reexamine your payslip. The highest tax bracket may be roughly 50%, but none of your income is actually in that bracket. You probably get to keep about 65% of your income, which is still less than you would get to keep in California.

Don't forget that your cost of living (rent, food, ...) is probably lower in the Netherlands than in SF. And you get all the social benefit from a European country (cheaper healthcare, cheaper education, ...).

It's hard to compare US and European salaries.

I can tell you from experience: the cost of living in Amsterdam is quite significantly higher than in SF, and that's not even taking the far higher income tax into consideration.

It's not surprising that you all are so worried about H1-B immigrants and outsourcing to India, as your wage fresh out of college is about twice as high as an equivalently skilled engineer can expect to make at the height of his or her career here.

edit: it seems google thinks the cost of living in AMS and SF are about the same: http://www.expatistan.com/cost-of-living/index

I'm sorry, but you are being paid by Portuguese standards (you sure it's net 22.k USD, not €?). I have received some offers for jobs in Amsterdam, the highest was 450/500 € per day, and I believe there's similar offers.

You're comparing a consultancy rate (of which you'll be lucky to pocket 20%) in Ams with a salary in SF.

You mention positive reviews, successful products and no bonuses. One key question would be whether or not you have received any increases since you've been there (are they making an effort to keep you, and do they value you more today than they did when you started?). You don't say how long you have been at the company. I have recruited on the east coast for 15 years so not as familiar with SF, but in Philadelphia you'd be on the high end for that level of experience. I would have assumed for SF your salary would be at the bottom end of market rate, but I'm no expert on SF.

We're building Mighty Spring (https://www.mightyspring.com) to solve the exact problem you're having: "How can I make sure that I'm not missing out on better opportunities?".

We call it 'Passive Opportunity Awareness' and it's the core of our value proposition.

We're currently in private beta, but you sound like someone who could benefit from our service in it's current form. Feel free to write me at the address in my profile if you have private questions.

ps. We're releasing a new home page within the next day or so. The current one looks a little... startuppy :)

That seems interesting. I agree with the ideology. I don't like resume culture (do I have to list projects I didn't like or disagreed with?) and I don't use LinkedIn much because it's too wedded the old, broken way of doing things.

I feel like most career-related websites are obsessed with the past, because they're targeted toward risk-averse bean-counters because that was who one needed to impress back when people still commuted to work on the backs of pterodactyls. That's why a LinkedIn profile is a resume and the game (for those who choose to play) is about trolling for endorsements like it's Downton Abbey and one needs a formal Letter of Introduction to get a job.

What approach are you taking to this? I assume the problem is related to "hidden node discovery", i.e. taking queries like "I want to be a data scientist in 3 years" and turning them into action plans. Is this going to rely on human curation (from, e.g. employers) or will it be done with machine learning/"big data" approaches? Or do I misunderstand the problem completely?

Anyway, cool stuff. I look forward to the next version of the home page.

I'd recommend putting your (throwaway) email in the about section of your profile - you may get responses you wouldn't otherwise from people who don't want to go to the trouble of making a throwaway HN account.

Done. Thank you for the suggestion.

Start talking to recruiters to see what opportunities and salary you can get.

You can be amazing, but if you can't communicate your value and what you have done then people will undervalue you.

Honestly, I think your salary is average.

Simple: If you can land a better paying (don't forget stock grants and options) and/or more fun job elsewhere, then yes.

Interview at other places you'd actually consider working and get offer letters. Compare.

As an employer, I knew my employees were doing this - It's my job to keep them, not their job to forego better opportunities and pay in the name of loyalty.

That said, if you do get better offers, talk to your current employer before jumping ship. They're best positioned to know exactly how valuable you are and might work very hard to keep you.

I make $15,000 a year. Am I underpaid?

Depends on your skills and how/where you apply them.

I work in some third-world country that few have heard of. I write software for robots. I'm pretty good at it too, if I do say so myself.

Am I underpaid? Or are robots really overrated in the grand scheme of things?

Talk about the purchasing power parity of your currency, and what kind of amenities you are afforded at your place of residence. That will provide greater insight to determine if you're underpaid or not.

Food is cheap, petrol is cheap, cars are ridiculously expensive, property is unaffordable.

The worst part is that, I can't afford the plane ticket to hunt for overseas opportunities.

So yeah, I am underpaid.

If anyone is looking for an experienced software engineer from Malaysia for C# or Python development, please do let me know.

I'm guessing you live in the Klang Valley? I didn't think property was ridiculously priced in Malaysia.

Also out of curiosity, what's the starting engineering salary at your company?

Klang Valley's property prices are in a bubble now. Won't want to be around when it pops. Problem is, all the good tech jobs are here (and to a lesser extent, Penang)

Starting salaries here are about RM2500 - RM3000. More or less standard by Malaysian standards.

Ah, that makes sense. Unfortunately, the only way to make more money as an engineer in Malaysia is to go into management (at least that's my impression).

I'd advise you to try applying to larger tech companies in the US if you are interested, they will fly you over for an on site interview if you do well for phone/remote interviews. Singapore also seems to have a growing startup scene, if that's what you prefer.

Come to Singapore?

Arguably worse situation with cars and property, but at least you get paid.

I actually wouldn't mind working in Singapore, I just don't know where to begin hunting for jobs there.

you are underpaid if a single bedroom costs around 1500-1600$ per month in your country

I do 30k a year. Spain. :(

before or after taxes?

After taxes :(

C'mon down to Chicago. Sure it's cold but you'll probably make the same money and live for much less. That's why I'm here instead of there ;)

I've certainly considered it. Unfortunately I am currently locked into a lease, and the outdoor opportunities in the area are worth at least a bit of the premium.

It sounds like you need to travel more... :)

Generally, front-end developers tend to earn less than back-end ones. Pick up some CS fields and explore and learn them until you get good at some of them.

The fact is, front-end developers are not that hard to replace, so you don't have much of a bargaining power there.

Try learning more about Algorithms, Security, Optimization, maybe even A.I (NLP, Data Mining, Machine Learning, etc.)

I do about the same work as you do, with the same degree and 10+ years of experience, but make less than half of what you're making. Here in Western Europe, my wage is above the median for this line of work, and the cost of living here is (very much) higher than in the SF bay area. You have absolutely no reason to complain.

the answer is you're not underpaid and shouldn't feel bad about your salary, but you could make more if you negotiate w/ leverage or take a risk on independent contracting @ a high hourly rate.

above 100k is when negotiating skills and business skill start surpassing technical skills as more important for marginal gains in salary.

Uh... this makes me wonder if I'm underpaid. I have 13 years of professional development experience (first half C++, second half C#, first half startups, second half financial software), BSCS from a well known technical university.

I make $130k. Granted, I work in Boston, which is not as expensive as SF, but it ain't cheap either.

Am I underpaid?

That experience in the financial sector in London would get you around 500-800 pounds a day (roughly USD 750-1200/day) if you go contracting.

To some extent, the pay scale is relative. SF is very, very expensive. You can earn far less in another city, yet enjoy a higher quality of life.

edit: to answer your question, I don't know. You might find this interesting though:


For full time, I don't think you are. For contract… definitely.

If you are into money, go freelance today!

Salaries flatten out pretty quickly starting around 5 years of experience. For significantly more money you could either go independent or to management. I'm sure there are some that make a lot more but I think you're in the ballpark.

Im about the same experience/compensation in SF, feel like I'm on the lower end as well. Thankfully I love my job so not looking to jump ship anytime soon :)

Become full-stack (learn backend and database) and make more money. Better still, become a DBA consultant if you really want to pile up the money.



Do you think you're underpaid compared to your co-workers? That's been more important to me than general industry trends.

I'd say your salary is not insanely unreasonable. The bigger question is: do you enjoy working for the company?

is this a joke?

I figured I would get this response. I am using the term "underpaid" as a relative figure compared to my peers in the same field and location. I am well aware that I am not "underpaid" in general.

I don't have 5 years experience, and I'm at 105. I'd say you can probably swing at least 10 more a year.

Go to enterprise, and/or to a lower COL area.

not underpaid.

TL;DR: slightly lower than typical for your level, but not that bad. If it's a good company and you're happy with everything else, you should stick with it. Good jobs are rare, especially in VC-funded startup land (despite its excellent marketing).

I make roughly 115k a year, which at first seemed like a ton after moving here from a relatively low COL area. Lately though, the combination of looking at my account balances after paying rent + seeing people talk about salaries on HN make me think that I am on the very low end of the pay scale.

Financial outliers seem more common on HN than they actually are. You're probably on the low end (~30-40th percentile) compared to where you should be, but not by that much, and you're on the high end by the standard of most of the country. The delta is a rounding error compared to issues such as the quality of work you're getting and your likelihood of advancement.

Combine that with the paltry amount of equity I have and the fact that my company gives absolutely zero bonuses

That's typical. Raises are also rare in startups. If things are going well, the improvement of equity valuation is the raise. If things are going badly, that's not a time to be asking for things.

I hate to break it to you, but there are only two ways to get a serious equity slice in most startups: (1) be a founder, which probably isn't within your financial resources right now unless you have the connections to get immediate funding, or (2) become one of those god-awful executive implants that VCs shove into companies, who don't get large percentages (they might get 1-2%) but get their cut when the company's de-risked and the valuation is legitimately high, making them paper millionaires if they survive the vesting period.

Once companies take outside funding, they generally can't give real equity to non-executives even if the founders want to. The pathetic equity slices aren't because the founders are assholes, but because the employee option pool might only be 10-15 percent.

You may want to read this: http://michaelochurch.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/dont-waste-yo... . I know nothing about your company, but there are a lot of awful startups out there built to turn clueless young talent into gold.

The real question is, though: what are you learning? If you're getting good projects and learning a lot, you should probably stick around until you stop learning or get "pigeonholed" or overlooked by management. If you're treated well and see a future at this company, then stay. $115k for a developer with 5 years experience is slightly on the low side, but I've seen numbers much lower. If your job is legitimately challenging, I don't think the difference between what you have and what you'd get at your next job (probably 10-15k) merits the risk of being "the new guy" again and getting a lesser quality of work-- unless you find something really good with people you trust.

The Bay Area and New York are disgustingly expensive. Some people our age are getting savings, and some of us are living in expensive, singular places with the hope of rapid career advancement. The career progress that comes from living in a "star city" is our "savings", for most of us. But there are a lot of good companies outside of the star cities, and that seems to be accelerating, so if you can find something great elsewhere and can get real savings and rapid career growth, obviously that's a huge win.

> be a founder, which probably isn't within your financial resources right now unless you have the connections to get immediate funding

Could you elaborate on this a little? I realize this is a minor point of your comment, but it's not often that I hear about the financial requirements of being a founder. It's mostly "you're young and smart, you deserve to found a startup" and "follow your dreams," both of which seem fatuous to me.

What financial resources would you say are required to found a company? I'm currently in "save every penny" mode anticipating the moment when I strike out on my own, so I'm curious what people have to say on this topic.

P.S. Sorry to comment as a thowaway, but I forgot the password to this one and I'm engaging in another thread...

As a side note, there is nothing wrong with asking for a reasonable raise from your current employer. Have a chat with your boss, and tell him/her that you think a fair salary for someone with your experience, is, say, 130k.

If he wants to be a startup founder, he should push for investor contact so he can start building a network in the VC community. I doubt he'll get it right now, but it needs to be his goal.

Without VC contacts, it's going to take 12+ months of bootstrapping, with substantial traction and press coverage, to get funding. They'll take forever to make decisions, dilly-dally while they compare notes with other investors, etc. So you blow a year of savings, in a high-COL area, working so hard (60 hpw is not atypical) that you'll be exhausted at the end of it, and probably need a month off before starting your next job.

With VC, if you have some genuine allies on the inside, it doesn't mean they'll fund an idea they dislike, because their job is to make money. It does mean they won't waste your time in deliberation, will treat you as more of a social equal-- making horrid liquidation preferences and management concessions less common-- and will actually say "no" if they're not interested and try to help you find a way to something they'd actually fund. Finally, having allies in VC means you get an EIR gig or an associate position to fall back into if the company doesn't pan out.

If I were him and wanted to be a founder in 5 years, I'd ask for investor contact, point-blank.

If they say no, that's fine. This is called "door in the face". People talk about getting a "foot in the door" (a small request, granted, to prime for a larger request) but, given the employer/employee power relationship, that rarely is as powerful as the "door in the face" (a large request, rejected, that leaves the person more likely to grant small favors). When you have a mutual but asymmetric power relationship, "foot in the door" makes you seem demanding while "door in the face" techniques are more natural; they have more power but you have some, so they'll deny one request but are unlikely to turn down two orthogonal requests in a row. Yes, they have more power, but they can't turn down all your requests.

He probably won't get investor contact, but then he can ask for a paltry 15k raise, more challenging assignments ("if I'm going to be making that much, I ought to be earning it; are there openings on the X team?") and possibly a more favorable reporting structure.

My personal experience was pretty drastic since I left my job to found my current company. Normally I'd hack away nights and weekends until I could get a few prototypes out.

Either way, once you quit your job the fuse is lit and your runway is only as long as your bank account can put food on your table.

I have been working for 3 years in the field as a front end dev and a make a little more than half of what you make. Talk about being underpaid. However I do not have a degree and I am not looking for one. I built tools that are crucial to my employer which resulted in millions of dollars in profit, both the front end and backend. I think its time to look for a new job.

> Good jobs are rare, especially in VC-funded startup land (despite its excellent marketing).

Could you please explain why/elaborate on this point a little?

You're paid stupid money. I run a 30 man engineering team and earn less than you.

I too sometimes compare things that aren't related.

IDK, I'd say software engineering and software engineering are related, but maybe that's just me.

I blieve he's pointing out that your "stupid money" comparison is only related if you also live in SF like the OP. You probably make "stupid money" compared to someone working in the 3rd world.

Just out of curiosity, where do you live?

Bath, UK. Higher COL than SF. Slightly lower rent, but much higher gas, food, all the rest.

Hell no.

Definitely underpaid if you don't have much in terms of equity.

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