More Important Than Salary

If you’ve ever taken a higher paying job just because of the pay increase, there is a good chance that you have some horror stories. Whether it was management with bad tempers, expectations of working 80 hours a week, or simply working on ugly systems, sometimes higher pay comes with things that make it worse than a lower-paying job.

In this episode, we’re going to discuss some things you should be considering when the tempting offer of a higher-paying job is presented. In particular, we want to state these items in the forms of questions you should be asking during the hiring and interview process.

However, we realize that this is the real world and that you already may be trapped in a higher paying job with a bad work situation, so we’re also going to discuss how to fix the problem if you are already in a bad situation. While not all situations can be fixed, you probably don’t want to walk away from a high paying job unless you really have to.

Higher paying jobs can do wonders for your finances, however, they have the potential to make life miserable for a variety of reasons. Being able to filter these jobs out when searching for a job (or when your job situation changes) is critical to your long-term success as a professional. Bad jobs, no matter how much they pay, can burn you out, cause health problems, or even destroy future opportunities for you.

Episode Breakdown

What is the expected workload in this job?

$100,000 a year with 40 hour workweeks (and two weeks vacation) is about $50/hour. At 80 hours a week, it’s $25/hour. While some degree of extra time in a technical work environment is no surprise, when it becomes pathological, it’s a bad deal. It also tends to burn you out and create expensive health problems. If you are already in this job (including if it has suddenly changed into this type of environment), the fix is to push back on management when they want you to work an excessive number of hours and to be ready to quit.

What technology will I be using?

While using ancient, crusty technology can often pay well now, if that technology is going away (like silverlight, flash, etc.), then it can also be a dead end for your career. If you are using both the dead-end technology and something newer, you are probably ok here, but if you are just stuck on the old stuff, you need to be really careful. If you aren’t, this can make it difficult for you to get your next job. Bear in mind that if an employee is only working on old technology, a lot of times when the company moves away from that technology, that employee will lose their job. If this sounds like your current situation, you need to be trying to learn about the newer technology that your employer uses, or you need to go elsewhere BEFORE you get laid off.

What kind of work environment can I expect?

It goes without saying that not all work environments are pleasant. Some managers are abusive, and some coworkers are toxic. It’s unlikely that you can fix this. The work environment is more than just the people in it. You may be working with a great team in a building that makes you sick (mold, for instance), where your desk, chair, or other equipment causes you physical pain. In general, you can’t fix a toxic work environment. You can only leave. Even pointing out that a culture is toxic is a bad idea – it just makes you a target. Plus the culture may not be toxic for everyone. (For instance, a highly religious office might be comfortable for some, but not others and vice versa).

How much opportunity for advancement does this job offer?

While a pay increase is always nice, unless you are about to retire, it’s not always enough. You also need to consider the future direction of your career. It’s not just about what new tech you can use – you should also consider whether you can get promoted to team lead, management, etc., if that’s an eventual career goal for you. While you can hang out for a while in a job with no advancement prospects because of higher pay, doing this for too long can really limit your career growth over the longer term. The best fixes for this situation if you are in it are to have honest conversations with your management about where you want your career to go. Get them involved.

Where is this job located?

Lots of high-paying jobs either require a ton of travel, or are located far from where you live. A high paying job that imposes a long commute may not be worth the trouble when the value of your time, additional costs, and taxes are considered. You may be stuck in such a job for a while because of economic considerations, but you have to be very cautious with your health (mental and physical) and the health of your relationships in the meantime. If you are already in this situation, you might try advocating for remote work (see Will’s book) or you should be looking for a different position as soon as you are able to.

How is my pay structured?

While the pay for a particular job may be “higher”, that can mean a lot of things. For instance, it could be that the pay is low for the industry, but that there are “performance bonuses” that mean that you get paid more. It’s also possible that you might be brought in with stock options and other benefits. While these can be great if the company does well, they can be worthless if the company does poorly. You may also see a situation where you are brought in at a lower “probationary” rate, with scheduled increases the longer you stay. Such a situation can work well, if you can tolerate the lower initial pay. If you are in a situation where your pay structure is unusual or unhelpful, this is a good time to talk to management. This is a process of negotiation and is really dependent on your situation.

What is the ethical code of my supervisors/team/organization?

It’s possible to have a team that is pleasant to work with, who have an ethical code that you find intolerable. For instance, if you are strongly anti-war, you may find that it is difficult to work in the defense industry. Another place this becomes an issue is when there is a lot of gossip and other undesirable behavior in the office. You may not be a victim (yet) of this behavior, but it can be prudent to get out before that becomes an issue. To avoid landing in this situation, you need to meet the team and get an idea of how they interact. While it is hard to catch all the potential problems this way, interview interactions are often a good warning. For instance, if the interviewers are trash-talking a previous employee, they probably will do the same to you. If you find yourself in this situation in an existing job, you may want to get out. However, before you do, you need to carefully consider what warning signs were present before it became a problem.

How does this organization interact with their clientele?

The way that your organization deals with potential users can also be problematic enough that the job is no fun. For instance, your team may be great to work with, but your clients may be a royal pain. Some clients are simply miserable to work for, even with a good team. For instance, working with lawyers who are not technically inclined can be awful due to the sense of entitlement and lack of expertise. If your organization is directly dealing with the public and technical people get pulled into those conversations, it can often serve as a source of massive stress, especially if your people skills are not great. If you find yourself in a situation where the interaction with clients is unpleasant, you are probably better off leaving. While management might be willing to work with you, the source of the money has more power than you do.

What does the benefits package look like?

In addition to your base pay, your benefits package can make a huge difference. In many cases, companies are very willing to pay you a few thousand extra dollars a year, while skimping on things like health plans, retirement, and the like. Often, the extra few thousand dollars a year can be completely absorbed by medical expenses alone. Likewise, if a company is unwilling to invest in training their employees, that means that you need to handle training yourself. Depending on your situation, this may or may not be a deal breaker. Training is not cheap and requires a lot of time to do well – you may not be able to afford it. If you are already in this situation, it’s often because your life situation has changed. This happens, for instance, when you are young and single, you probably don’t worry as much about benefits. However, when you are older, married, and have children, the benefits can be the main reason you stay in a particular job. We hesitate to give advice on this, because it quickly gets extremely complicated.

Where do I fit in the business?

You may also discover that organizations treat development departments very differently depending on the role of the development department. For instance, development groups that are profit centers, rather than cost centers, are often treated very differently. Organizational topology can also cause other headaches. For instance, depending on your organization, your development team may regularly be required to handle things such as support, server maintenance, project planning, or testing. This may not be what you want. In startup environments, you may find that you end up doing a lot of different things simply because of the size of the business. This can either be refreshing or nerve-wracking. As both you (and your organization) change over time, you may find that you no longer fit well in your current role. This is expected and you should move on, whether it is within the company or outside of it.

Tricks of the Trade

Just like more pay doesn’t mean a better job, being intelligent doesn’t make you a better developer. You may know all the ins and outs of the language and framework in which you are working but still be a terrible software developer. It takes more than just knowledge of coding to be a good developer you have to be able to take what the customer wants and make that happen in a way that other developers can come along and understand, or if you are adding to an existing codebase in a way that makes sense with the existing code…even if it isn’t the best or most optimal way of doing something.

Editor’s Notes:

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