Is there a ceiling on how much tech professionals can get paid?
If the answer is “yes,” that number is quite high. According to Bloomberg, a hot Chinese startup, Beijing ByteDance Technology Co., is hiring specialized tech pros for enormous sums—as much as $3 million per year, once all forms of compensation are factored in. “Unlimited salary for unlimited talent,” founder Zhang Yiming told the publication.
Bloomberg suggests that salary philosophy, shared by other tech firms in China, is symptomatic of “bubbly times.” But stratospheric salaries are also becoming a fact of life for highly specialized professions on this side of the Pacific, as well; for example, Tom Eck, CTO of industry platforms at IBM, claimed at a conference earlier this year that artificial-intelligence specialists were earning as much as NFL quarterbacks.
Since NFL players can easily earn many millions per year, Eck’s statement translates into quite a bit of money for those who know their way around a machine-learning algorithm. It’s not hard to imagine tech pros in other categories earning similarly hefty fees, or at least stock options theoretically worth millions at some future, undefined point. From an employer perspective, such an outlay might prove justified if it keeps brilliant brains out of the hands of competitors; but it might also plunge companies into a costly escalation to find and lock down top talent.
And as it turns out, there is such a thing as paying tech pros enormous salaries. Just look at Google, which paid out millions of dollars to members of its self-driving car team—only to watch those employees head right out the door.
“Early staffers had an unusual compensation system that awarded supersized payouts based on the project’s value,” Bloomberg reported at the time. “By late 2015, the numbers were so big that several veteran members didn’t need the job security anymore, making them more open to other opportunities, according to people familiar with the situation.” (Anthony Levandowski, one of the key drivers of Google’s self-driving project, reportedly earned $120 million from the company.)
And therein lies the issue with high pay: while it might provoke loyalty, it could also compel a tech pro to head off and start their own company (or simply retire a few decades early). As recruiters and hiring managers know, a company can’t depend solely on money to keep tech pros interested—they need to offer the right kind of culture, benefits, and perks in order to build long-term loyalty.
The average technology salary in the U.S. stood at $96,370 in 2016, according to Dice. That was a 7.7 percent increase from the year before. In active markets such as Silicon Valley and New York City, average tech salaries have hit six figures—the highest point in a decade. Those levels seem unlikely to decline anytime soon, making recruiters’ jobs that much trickier.