Pay Transparency Remains Huge Issue Within Tech

Salaries and compensation are sensitive topics for many people in tech. Few like to reveal just how much they make, even if their annual take-home is quite generous. At the same time, though, pay transparency is often a good thing, as it allows technologists to determine just how much their skills are worth and if they’re being underpaid.

In that spirit, Zac Sweers, a developer at Slack, posted a provocative Tweet in February:

“I’m pretty happy with my current comp, but it wasn’t always great. People from FAANG companies have much better negotiating grounds,” he wrote in a subsequent Tweet. “As an L4 at Uber I was paid $115k coming from a startup while former-FAANG colleagues with the same level/experience made $140k+.”

Sweers’s Tweeting (accompanied by a hashtag, #KnowYourWorth) sparked some responses from other technologists—for example, one UX engineer and designer who works remotely from Connecticut reported that they make $120,000 per year, and a senior front-end developer in Denver said they earn $125,000 in base salary with a $12,000 bonus. As with most things Twitter, though, #KnowYourWorth was quickly appropriated by non-tech types (and a fair number of the usual trolls). 

In a subsequent Tweet thread, Sweers summed up some of the lessons learned, including that location is a major factor in how much folks get paid, and that a lot of thread participants think their overall salary is pretty low.

The Bumpy Road to Transparency

Over the past few years, tech companies of all sizes have experimented with greater transparency in pay. Some firms have opted to reveal individuals’ salaries, while others have chosen to report anonymized earnings and roles. Late last year, Intel announced that it would release employee data broken down by race and gender, a crucial first step toward illuminating pervasive gaps in pay for certain demographic groups.

But while some companies have tried to become more open, many others discourage talk about pay among employees. Back in 2018, Blind (which runs anonymous surveys on a number of topics relevant to technologists) queried users of its app on whether or not they’d been warned against discussing pay with co-workers; some 60 percent said that HR and/or management had discouraged them from such talks. Cisco, Microsoft, and Oracle were among the most aggressive companies when it came to maintaining pay opacity. (Since Blind anonymously surveys its respondents, it’s not the most scientific means of determining trends; however, its data is still useful.)   

(It’s also worth pointing out that discussing pay isn’t technically illegal. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 prohibits employers from stopping pay discussions, either by explicit company policy or implication. And in 2015, California enacted the California Equal Pay Act, guaranteeing employees the right to discuss pay.)

Knowing Your Worth

As Sweers pointed out (and various responses to his Tweet confirmed), pay varies wildly between locations. What a software developer might earn in San Francisco or New York City, however, is far higher than what they might land at a comparable firm in Nashville or Raleigh. That being said, the 2020 edition of the Dice Salary Report showed that smaller tech hubs such as Columbus, St. Louis and Atlanta are all enjoying a significant rise in average technology salaries; in addition, these cities are often more affordable than coastal metropolises, meaning that a slightly smaller salary might go much further.   

Pay also hinges on specialized, in-demand skills. The Salary Report showed that companies are desperate for technologists who know how to wrangle databases, crunch data, work with artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning, and build apps. Many of these skills (such as Swift) enjoyed double-digit percentage increases in salary between 2018 and 2019. 

Knowing the average salaries for particular cities and skill-clusters can help you determine if a particular job is compensating you fairly. There’s also the question of benefits: Even if a company is unwilling or unable to pay you top dollar, your manager might prove more willing to negotiate for other things, such as paying for your continuing education.