This is the story of how I really screwed up my software engineer compensation early on. I spent several years early in my career making very little money. I’m talking way lower than my value. I was drastically underpaid, and it’s all my fault. I made a bad career decision, stuck with it, and it affected my compensation for years. Get ready to laugh at me. A lot. I’ll endure your ridicule if it means you don’t make the same mistakes I did. And let’s face it…I’m not in the room with you, so I won’t even notice you laughing.
It all started with my first job. I was working as an Information Systems Representative for an American Greetings (the card company) manufacturing plant about an hour outside of Memphis. My work there was a mix of IT troubleshooting, mild database work, and some application development.
The work was boring. I was not using any of the cutting edge technology I learned about in school, and American Greetings — at the time — made some really weird technology choices. I won’t bore you with the specifics of trying to run enterprise manufacturing operations with MS Access or a colorfully convoluted Excel spreadsheet, so let’s just say it wasn’t really doing anything for me.
An individual with their head screwed on straight would have picked the nearest big city, especially one they lived very close to already, and found a good job there. I was not that person.
With no money, no plan, and no job, I just put in my notice, and we moved back to my wife’s very small hometown in Arkansas. While it was a decision that brought us geographically closer to some family, and it was good from that perspective, it was a disaster for my career. Instead of moving forward, I set myself back and stagnated for years. I totally derailed my ability to earn a competitive salary. Here’s why it was such a bad move.
For a couple of weeks after moving in, I just wandered around aimlessly trying to figure out what I should do. My wife found a job posting in Little Rock for a small marketing firm, and it looked like I could do the work. I got the job, but the pay was ridiculously low. I had some fun working there and made some friends, but it set me back for years to come.
I didn’t know how to look for a job, I didn’t know how to write a resume, and I didn’t have any direction for my career. One of the reasons I left American Greetings is because I was so bored. I had no idea what I wanted professionally, so I couldn’t even look for a good job with good pay.
Some of those — good jobs with good pay — do exist in Arkansas, even within driving distance of where I lived, but I no drive to improve myself and get those jobs. I just worked at my low paying job until I found another low paying job closer to my house.
If you’re wondering why I left another low paying job for another, so am I. When I look back on those years, I just laugh at how stupid I was. The two small companies I worked for during that time were run by nice enough guys, but they were looking for cheap labor. They wanted young, inexperienced developers they could pay as little as possible to do the work.
They paid me exactly what I was willing to accept.
I went from one low paying job to another, and then that second company lost a contract and laid me off after about two and a half months. Still, I was directionless and without ambition. I accepted my fate and wandered around in my house for a while. I had no job, no emergency fund, and no drive. I was going to let the wind take me wherever it pleased.
From there, I started doing contract work for a local advertising agency. Hey, moving up in the world! The pay was a little better, but not really that much.
I started an actual company and worked for two years as a freelance web developer, with that ad agency as my main client. I learned a lot, got a little drive and ambition, and became a pretty good back-end engineer. After two years of struggling, though, I wasn’t making enough money to support my family. I closed up shop and got a development job with another company in Little Rock.
I was backed up against a wall, financially speaking, so the job came along at just the right time. When I got the offer, however, I was so disappointed in the salary I couldn’t even speak for a moment. It was below market, and because I still didn’t really know what I was doing, I just accepted it. No negotiations. I just took their first offer and started work.
With no real drive or direction, I was still just wandering around my career aimlessly. After about six months of that, I started looking for another job. It took me about another year from there before I got what I would call my first real development job with a real salary. It was a pure development job, not mixed in with IT work, and not as a contractor fending for myself and having no health insurance.
After all those years, I felt like I had finally arrived…at the beginning.
It was a little lower than my salary target but close enough to feel great. I had what felt like a real job. I was making what felt like real pay, and I had enough ambition to have a financial target I was going to hit. Two years later, I hit it, and it was time for a new goal.
Does this sound like a happy ending to you? I wouldn’t describe it that way. It took me years to get to this point, all because I was a dumbass. Let’s go over my mistakes again:
- I quit a job because I was bored. I wasn’t struggling or in danger of being fired. I was just bored.
- I quit a job without another one lined up.
- I moved from a large metropolitan area with a lot of jobs to a rural area where the closest jobs were an hour away with no traffic.
- I had no direction, no ambition, and no goals.
- I didn’t know anything about how to get a job, what I was worth, or how to negotiate my worth.
- Basically, I had no idea what I was doing, and it caused measurable problems in my life.
Don’t be like I was. Don’t make the same stupid mistakes I made, because it will cost you time, money, and happiness.
I’m fine now. I’m two whole goals ahead of where I was after I left my “first real job,” and now I’m trying to decide what my next goal will be, compensation-wise. I don’t just take the money someone offers me like I should be glad to get anything. I set financial goals, do what it takes to hit those goals, and then move on to the next bigger and better thing. Always moving. Always improving.
You’re worth the money, so make sure your compensation matches your skills and your goals.
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