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A Salary Guide Or A Marketing Tool?

Robert Half Technologies has released their annual salary guide, highlighting what they expect the average salaries to be for various technology positions in the new year. As much as I like to get worked up over salary data as the next developer, I simply cannot trust Robert Half Technologies to be honest about their salary calculations. Let’s consider a few points.

The salary for a web developer is severely inaccurate.

The generic “web developer” should make between $65,750 to $106,500 in 2013 according to Robert Half Technologies. Despite the fact that this is a $40,750 difference between high and low, the study goes on to assign values for different skills. Add 6% for Ajax skills. They specify you should add 8% for LAMP skills, but 9% for PHP skills (because understanding the full stack is somehow worth less than just understanding PHP). Web service development skills will get you another 8%.

But what web development position doesn’t require a basic understanding of most if not all of these skills? I’ve never applied for a PHP development job and been told “oh, you don’t need to know any Javascript for this role.” Web developers are expected to know web technologies, including web servers, Javascript, CSS and other technologies. But playing along with Robert Half Technologies here, our base salary for a web developer is now up to $80,872 to $130,995!

Robert Half Technologies has a very good reason to inflate these numbers.

Robert Half is a recruiting firm. Their job is to take candidates and place them into roles with companies. The saying “if you’re not paying for it, you are the product” has never been more true to someone like Robert Half; their whole business depends upon companies that hire you paying them. Therefore, Robert Half has several good reasons to inflate these numbers.

The first one is that they need you to feel like you are underpaid. If you feel this way you’re more likely to look for a new job. Though a 2008 study put only 18% of people looking for a new job due to compensation and benefit concerns, that is still a sizable chunk of people. Robert Half wants you to be convinced you can do better elsewhere, and come to them for help.

Second, Robert Half makes its money based on salaries. The higher the salary, the more money they make. If they can convince employers that their numbers are legitimate and get job listings to be listed as these salaries, then Robert Half stands to make considerably more revenue from job placements.

Recruiting firms are not your friend.

Though the Robert Half “study” has the look of being official, well-researched and well-considered, it represents only their interests, not yours. Recruiters can and will ruin your career if you’re not careful.

So what is a valid salary range? Well, it depends. While it would be nice to have a tight grouping of numbers, salaries depend on the company, the candidate and the values of each. Some rules of thumb that I’ve generally come to understand are as follows:

  • Contracting offers high stress for low pay.
  • Government contracting offers better pay but roughly the same amount of stress.
  • Companies that make (profitable) products usually pay the best.
  • Startups are high stress, low reward, and often the poorest pay. And don’t even think about accepting stock options.

Additionally, company values are crucial in determining how a company will treat you as an employee. Almost all companies universally say that the people who work there are their most important asset, but fewer mean it. Ask good questions and determine exactly how a company thinks about its workforce before accepting an offer. So many bad experiences can be prevented this way.

Don’t rely on a “study” to set prices.

At the end of the day, salaries are no different from pricing other items: they’re based on value. The highest value individuals will receive the highest salaries (or they’ll go somewhere that pays better). So being a high value individual will do far more for your salary than any Robert Half survey.

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skierpage wrote at 12/30/2012 5:56 pm:

“And don’t even think about accepting stock options.”

Surely you don’t mean what you wrote. Stock options have been very, very good for tens of thousands of employees. Most startups fail, but some do spectacularly well, and the payoff can be enormous.

Brandon Savage (@brandonsavage) wrote at 12/30/2012 6:12 pm:

Accepting startup stock options in lieu of salary or as a major component of salary is a mistake. Obviously there’s no danger in accepting them if the salary is a market rate salary, but if the salary package is 50% stock options, that’s a good time to get up and run away.