I've historically been pretty terrible at two things: negotiating salaries, and promoting to my own skills. As someone who freely admits the movie of his life story could very well be titled The Imposter Syndrome, when it came time to discuss with a recruiter or hiring manager what I was worth, I've been a slow learner.
In 2010, I worked for a private university making roughly $38k a year. Technically, it was $19.21 an hour, as my position wasn't considered elegible for salary, and they considered 38 hours a week to be full time. At this point in time I had a bit of experience running infrastructure/systems under my belt, but absolutely no concept of my true worth in terms of the industry. I had completed a project that gained a lot of notoriety and praise, case studies and awards, but I had no certifications and no college degree.
I started at the university doing desktop support in 2006, and moved up to a "network analyst" position a year after. My primary responsibilies included managing the dorm network, campus anti-virus system, backups and creating the images that would be deployed to new desktop systems. We adopted VMware virtualization at ESX 3.0 shortly after my promotion so I quickly picked up storage and networking, then databases, messaging, and all the rest as we were a very small team supporting 4,000 users. We couldn't afford to specialize too much, and in education everything is discounted, including the people.
Recently married, and thinking of having kids, I knew I could be doing better but had no solid concept of what I was worth. This was in the infancy of Twitter and the vCommunity, there wasn't the level of openness there is now around softskills, and pay. The only thing I knew is that wanted to specifically get a job with a software company based in the town where my wife and I had recently bought a home. One frustrating day at work I went to go check their careers page, found a listing for a System Administrator, and applied, then started a Staycation.
One early morning the next week my phone rang, it was a recruiter with said company. I was sleeping in because this was two years before my first child was born and I was on vacation, not expecting any life altering phone calls. "Is this a good time to talk?" Well, not really, but half-asleep I started answering pre-screen interview questions, when the dreaded one finally came: “How much are you looking to make?” I'd only thought briefly about it to this point.
“Fifty thousand a year.”
Now when you’re making $38K, this is a big jump. My wife, who was working at the time, had a masters degree in accounting and a CPA license – and even she wasn’t even doing that well. What I was asking for seemed like a lot of money, in my mind.
Over the next couple weeks I went through a few interviews. Finally one day as I was walking into lunch, the recruiter calls to offer me the job. The salary: $50,000.
I didn’t negotiate at all. I wasn't sure that I was in a position to even try. I wanted to work for this company as much or more than they wanted to employ me and when you don’t know your value it’s hard to think you can convince anyone else of it. In the moment, I was pretty excited, but as I was eating lunch I started to also wonder if I should be worried by how quickly they came back with exactly my original number? Should I have asked for more? Could I have got more?
What I didn’t realize at the time, is that I’d just helped sink the hopes of some folks in my new department looking for raises. What I’d asked for was indeed the going rate for admins there, perhaps even a little bit lower, so HR was happy to oblige my request. The other folks I'd soon sit next to had hoped it would take more to bring in someone with the relevant skill set, to justify them getting their own salaries adjusted. The topic of pay would come up frequently among members of my new team.
The software company was privately held, but during my interview process they announced they were being acquired. I decided to accept the offer reguardless, and a few weeks into the new role we officially became a subsidiary of Lexmark. Yes, that Lexmark, the purveyors of those fine ink jet printers you remember so fondly from 1999.
After a few months of mostly nothing changing, people from Lexington, Kentucky who were our peers started to show up and try to learn about our operations. After getting to know them a bit and discovering they're not all evil, we wanted to know pretty much one thing ... what their pay scale was.
Folks in our roles there made around $85k. That was maybe the first time I truly realized how off balance my own valuation was.
My previous boss had once encouraged me not to leave the university for anything less than $85k — more than double what I made at the time — and I honestly couldn’t tell if he was serious of full of shit. My pay inequity there had nothing to do with him, and everything to do with the nature of the university. If I’d pressed for more money there, I might have got some more, but nothing close to that number. Everyone there was (and probably still is) grossly underpaid.
Around this time our manager at the software company decided to leave, and one by one those of us on our team started getting interviews and offers to join him. By this point the pretense of not discussing salary has dropped between us, and so when the first offer letter anyone received came in we all reviewed it. To our surprise and excitement, this kicked off a bidding war between the two companies, with our current employer being the winner. My team lead got the next offer though, $80k with a $5k bump after certification. He was out.
Then came my turn, and after the interviews, the hiring manager calls to give me an offer of ... $67k.
Wait, what? This couldn't be right, why was I getting so much less? My wife straight up didn’t want me to take it, and I was about 50/50, but thought "well if the last guy went into a bidding war, now is my chance to use this as leverage to get my own counter offer." I didn't want to leave, so much as I just wanted what was starting to seem like a fair deal.
Apparently HR decided that I wasn’t worth it, there would be no counter offer. In hindsight there's really not a reason to blame them. I'd only been there a year and didn't do a lot of highlight myself or make it seem like I was so valuable that there was a cost associated with me leaving. They got me for the price they did not more than 12 months earlier, why would I be worth so much more now, just because I realized it? And in reality, I couldn't even get the market to pay it.
So, I left, for just a slightly larger bump than I got to come there.
The company I landed at did end up promoting me and steadily providing healthy salary increases over the six years I was there. I would finally hit the magic $85k target, in 2013.