This is a taboo topic, so I’m probably not going to broadcast this one across social media.

I’m very fortunate. I earn decent money doing something I find interesting: programming. I don’t love sitting in front of a computer all day, but that’s where most of the programming happens, so I’ve learned to deal with it. I take frequent breaks, stand up, stretch, get in some push-ups, sit-ups, go outside. It’s taken me years to recognize this important balance between getting work done and maintaining your health.

When I started as a support desk technician in 2005, my salary was somewhere around $30k. For someone who had only had part-time work before that, making $15/hr felt like a huge step up. I had a real job! I had benefits! I worked with people I respected and tried to emulate. And as I completed certifications, I saw my salary steadily increase into the $40k range.

And then I hit a plateau around $45k. I’d been programming AMX systems for over a year at that point, and had been promised a significant raise if I became an AMX Certified Expert (ACE). There were frequent changes in who I reported to as people left the company. What had been agreed upon with one manager wasn’t often honored by the next. I eventually reported to the lead engineer, Bobby. He was a really nice person, very quiet, very smart. I really liked him, but I wasn’t going to accept another “attaboy” instead of the raise I’d been promised by previous managers. So I asked him constantly, “When will I earn an increase?”

I was relentless and–thinking back on it now–surprised I wasn’t disciplined. I had grown tired of being discreet and asked him openly in the hallways. I asked him at his desk. I asked when we were the last ones in the conference room. I had no regard for who heard my requests, and the raised eyebrows from others told me I wasn’t asking quietly. I knew it wasn’t Bobby denying me a better salary, it was the company. Executives had been fleeing for months, so the fate of the company was clearly illustrated. But I had grown accustomed to being rewarded for showing loyalty and hard work, so I wasn’t backing down.

And then, with little fanfare, I was making $60k a year. I knew this was the end of the increases. I hung around for much longer than I should have, hoping we could return to the booming days from when I’d started. There was no more gas in the tank, and everybody knew it. I had some good friends who had moved on to a company down the road a ways, and they told me I should apply. I interviewed a few times and got a job offer! Stupidly, I asked for exactly what I was already making…$60k.

At the time, I was happy working at a company that was going places. It wasn’t great money, but I understood I only had a couple years of experience to draw upon. Hopefully I could restart the process of earning certifications and seeing rewards.

I saw steady increases, typically 3% raises each year, but the company went through changes. We were sold to a larger company, and I felt my advancement was put on hold while everything settled into place. After 5 years, I realized I was in another dead-end role. I was making around $73k a year. Better than when I had started, but sharply disappointing for a 10-year-old career, especially when I saw the trajectory of others around me.

There’s long been an understanding that the AV industry doesn’t start with great salaries. I think this comes from the ebb and flow of our industry. Business booms, so a bunch of low-skill workers get hired to fill in the gaps: pulling cable, building racks, etc. But then business slows, so these people are the first to go. Except one of them has learned to terminate cables, or cleanly dresses racks, so he stays on and earns a little more. The cycle repeats. Maybe the person terminating cable has been learning how the audio DSPs get programmed and can now help out during system commissioning. She gets paid a little more. The increases are small compared to someone being hired with the skills already.

Garry Tan said, “At every job you should either learn or earn. Either is fine. Both is best. But if it’s neither, quit.” And that’s eventually what happened to me: I felt stagnant and unrewarded, so I quit. Quitting was a good decision for a couple of reasons:

  • I got to see how things were done at a less dysfunctional company
  • I realized I was underpaid for what I was worth
  • I moved the salary needle up to $84k

Here I am, 5 years later, and that sense of fulfillment is again depleted. I’ve tried to maximize my learning with the time spent here, but I have not grown much as a programmer. I don’t see my salary ever reaching $100k unless I drastically change course. There’s still plenty I can offer this company, but there’s been little attention paid to my career. I’m being paid fairly, but without room to grow, I’m wasting time here.

Sometimes I’m frustrated that I haven’t hopped around more in my career because that seems to give people the biggest boost. Sadly, there isn’t a lot of reward for loyalty in tech. I hope I get better at recognizing when a working relationship is ending and to embrace the change rather than delay it.

Salary isn’t everything. I should probably do a post where I outline the factors that matter the most to me. I do think it’s the strongest indicator of your value in the company’s eyes, it’s why a CEO makes 10x what I make. I want to feel valued. I’ve been overlooked for years, especially when I keep asking the next manager, “What can I do to help this company out the most?” The answer for a while seems to be: move on.

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