The Highest-Paid Tech CEO Might Not Be Who You Expect

How much do the highest-paid technology CEOs actually earn? Of those executives, who made the most last year? 

Ask a random person on the street to name the highest-paid CEO in tech, and they might say Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or Larry Ellison. And while those prominent executives all saw their respective wealth skyrocket over the past few years, thanks in large part to rising stock prices, they weren’t the ones with the biggest annual compensation packages in 2020. That particular honor goes to Robert Kotick (CEO of gaming giant Activision Blizzard), Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft), and Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix).

In fact, some of the highest-paid tech CEOs are people you probably couldn’t pick out of a lineup, and they’re the heads of companies that haven’t dominated the headlines for quite some time (such as Zynga). AFL-CIO recently compiled a list of the nation’s best-compensated CEOs, from which we picked out the top technology leaders; check out the chart:  

Executive compensation is a tricky thing to calculate. Many CEOs earn a burst of good publicity by announcing they’ll only take $1 in salary per year, all while earning tens of millions of dollars via alternate means, such as stock options and other benefits. As Pro Publica analyzed earlier this year, many of the richest people in the U.S. (which includes many prominent tech-industry figures) use assets such as stock and property to secure massive loans they use for living expenses, allowing them to avoid paying huge amounts of income tax. In other words, a sizable salary isn’t always to an executive’s benefit—not when they can secure a big block of valuable stock instead.

Outsized pay packages can also spark some controversy, especially among shareholders. Robert Kotick recently faced some blowback from investors that could have impacted his take-home, although he ultimately walked away with roughly $155 million due to Activision Blizzard’s rising stock price. Over the past several years, Oracle’s Larry Ellison has also weathered periodic outcries over his kingly compensation

Meanwhile, the median technologist salary stood at $97,859 in the most recent Dice Salary Survey. Learning in-demand skills such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (A.I.) can boost your salary considerably—but not quite to the level of CEOs at some of the nation’s largest tech companies.