Posted by: danielharan | July 7, 2007

The right salary for the right programmer

A CEO and HR manager were shocked when a friend of mine asked for $20-30,000 more than he’s currently making.

His current employer has basically indicated that he’s too young to be considered a “senior”. That is perhaps socially acceptable, although it is certainly not legal. They can get away with it because younger programmers have smaller networks and fewer options.

This got me thinking about salaries, and tickled the memory of an article by Malcolm Gladwell, Basketball By The Numbers. In short, we’re terrible at judging how much players contribute to the success of a team.

[The authors of “The Wages of Wins”] argue that traditional talent evaluation over-rates the importance of points scored, and under-rates the importance of turnovers, rebounds and scoring percentage

If we applied similar metrics to a development team, could our win scores go down every time a colleague had to fix bugs caused by your commits, and go up for every useful feature we put in and every test we write? I’m sure you can think of more, but we’ll never have a perfect metric.

Steve Nash has a lower Win Score than Shawn Marion. Gladwell doesn’t think the statistics can tell the whole story:

Nash’s particular, largely unquantifiable; genius is that he manages to make everyone around him much better.

All this should sound very familiar to software developers. We all know the good and bad players on our team. You almost certainly have people you go to for advice, to brainstorm ideas for tough problems. Then again, maybe you spend half your time fixing another colleague’s code.

Salary can be a touchy issue, and it’s all the more controversial in professional sports. The correlation between salary and performance can be very weak in programming as well, especially because there is such a high variance in performance. A coding monkey can be twice as fast and efficient as another. But how do we measure the variance between your average junior and someone like Linus Torvalds? Or between a PHP beginner and David Heinemeier Hansson (creator of rails)?

A framework programmer that can supervise 3 people to do the work of 20 others is someone a manager should be happy to pay 50% more than those with a comparable education.

Since in most large companies managers don’t way to pay their underlings more than other people with the same age and experience or more than they are making the only way for good talent to get what they deserve is join or create a startup.


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