The problem with Compensation

August 10, 2007

(Disclaimer: I have not always followed what I have written below, as my co-workers would attest. I’ve learned and changed over time. People do that sometimes ::smile::)

Tech blogger Ellis Benus just posted a link to a post about programmer compensation entitled, predictably, Compensation. While an entertaining, obviously impassioned read, the overall sentiment is not one that I can agree with. And since that sentiment seems to be so common in IT, I thought I’d address some of its elements.

First, there’s this:

Most of [the software managers] are your average Econ 101 bean counting weenies. I can hear them now, “We can only afford to give three to five percent raises each year, because if we paid everybody what they deserved, then we would be spending too much. And what is it that these programmers do anyways?”

If most software managers are, in fact, “your average Econ 101 bean counting weenies”, how are they supposed to know what a programmer “deserves”? In my experience, the overwhelming majority of people simply do not understand what goes into software development and I think most developers (including the author obviously) would agree. However, if that’s true, how could they EVER pay someone what they deserve? What would they base it on? (See next paragraph for the answer!)

What’s the criteria for this “pay me what I deserve” scale? If it’s truly someone without a programming background determining the progammer’s worth, the only possible way they could pay him/her fairly is by trial-and-error, i.e. go through the experience of having both GOOD programmers and BAD programmers. This scale is necessarily relative in nature. After all, if you only ever had good programmers, how would you know they were good? Without sufficient experience, I don’t believe it’s possible.

And then there’s this:

A more likely scenario is that this bright young coder will finally break down and take a call from one of the bottom feeders, I mean head hunters, and he will land a job, somewhere else, making what he asked for, and taking all the things that you’ve taught him over to someone else. [. . .]

Oh no! Poor guy – he’s making what he asked for. Seriously, I get a little tired of the “poor me” approach some developers take. “The users are asking for something stupid” or “They’re making me do this”. So? You readily admit they have no idea what’s involved in your job. Does complaining about it serve a purpose? Unless your goal is to waste time and irritate folks who have constructive things to do, I don’t think it does.

We’d all do well to keep in mind that ANY relationship, work or otherwise, is made up of 50% one party and 50% the other. You each have responsibilities and options. In this scenario, the programmer exercised his right to better his situtation. The system worked as intended. End of story.


And guess what. In order to replace him, you are going to have to pay the new guy as much money as he was asking for in the first place. Plus that nice 15% fee to the head hunter. And now, because you were trying to be cheap, you have to spend even more than what you should have spent in the first place. And God knows, you’ll probably screw it up with this guy too, and thus the circle of life continues.

Maybe managers aren’t trying to be cheap. Maybe they’re trying to be fair and they’re just missing the mark. Hopefully, the manager will learn from experience, do some research, and offer better compensation in the future. When did managers stop being people? When did they become immune to making mistakes? Being afforded the opportunity to learn from mistakes? And growing as individuals? Why are people so quick to forget that managers are people, too? They have bad days. And they do dumb shit sometimes. You may not realize it, but so do you. Every day.

So managers don’t know what developers are worth? Well, neither does anyone else. If you don’t like it and don’t understand human nature well enough to deal with it, find a shop where you are satisfied or do something else for a living.

The rest of us developers will keep writing code and being nice to users. And we’ll be fine without you.


7 Responses to “The problem with Compensation”

  1. […] The Mark Savage vs Tech posted a rebuttal The Problem With Compensation. […]

  2. Doug Says:

    “When did managers stop being people? When did they become immune to making mistakes? Being afforded the opportunity to learn from mistakes?”

    This brings about an interesting point about leadership: Nobody complains to the guy doing the work, they complain to his supervisor.

    I am sure if you were to eat at a your local diner and discovered food in your hair, I mean hair in your food, you would no doubt ask for the manager. Being in charge has always been a lonely position to be in. On battlefields generals order people to death ultimately. In our government the President is almost exclusively blamed for the status of the economy (emphasis on almost because there are exceptions).

    The reason people are sensitive to the decisions their direct supervisors make, is not because they do not think they are a person, but because their decisions can affect their livelihood. If someone has complete control over your bank account and likes to buy expensive things then their will be animosity when that someone else buys something that puts you in a financial bind.

    Money is important. It ends marriages, people kill for it. It may sound like greed, but is a harsh reality. Workers will only moderately tolerate people taking their money, which is what is occurring when they take less than what you are worth in compensation. Once you have decided that you are worth X amount more than you are being paid, I hope everyone is in a position to leave their current employer and go elsewhere to find work. Complaining is the natural predecessor to leaving the employer and is really the only fair way for an employee to behave. I am not saying it should be tactless. An intelligent and attentive manager learns before their people start leaving that is why complaining is justified. I think people just need to learn who to complain to. (Your manager for the slow ones, not your buddies)

    My 2 cents

  3. themarksavage Says:


    Good points all around and I agree with you.

    Of course the obvious difference between us as employees and our boss(es) is that they presumably have much more control over our lives than the average person we encounter on the street. When you compound that with the fact that development as a profession is poorly understood, you definitely get a recipe that’s easy to screw up. It was oversimplification on my part to imply that everyone has the flexibility to find another job. That assumes that there are jobs in your area, that you don’t have family obligations, etc.

    I do understand why people are sensitive to actions taken by their supervisors and I understand the function complaining/venting serves. A quote that’s really stuck with me and, unfortunately, encouraged me to be a little judgmental about “complainers” came from a designer on TED Talks: “Act or ignore; complaining is silly”.

    Regarding your point about leadership: in my view, the best thing about being a manager or leader is also the worst thing about it – YOU make all the decisions. The benefits of better pay and more authority don’t outweigh the added responsibility and associated blame when events go badly.

    So, yeah. I agree with you. It’s hard to write about all sides in a (relatively) short post, plus it wouldn’t make for a very good read and I wouldn’t get great comments like these.

    Thanks for reading!

  4. Doug Says:

    In regard to complaining being silly I would ask what language “complain” is not a verb. It is an action/reaction toward a state of something in this case (see for a formal def). Many things that people complain about are things they would change if they knew a solution to the situation. It is simply a form of feedback (this is with the assumption that complaining is not done in an isolated environment and never reaches anyones ears who might illicit the change for the better). All great innovations have begun with a complaint, stated or otherwise, with the current state of something.

    I have no proof beyond speculation of this, but I am sure that people in the civil war complained that the doctors could do nothing more for infected leg wounds other than lop off the injured leg. It had nothing to do with knowing a solution, the situation just sucked. If a requirement for a complaint to be valid were that there needed to be a solution, then what do software developers do? We satisfy short-comings of an application. What is that more than erasing a complaint off the “complaint list”. If people do not know about software, then how would they ever ask for improvements? Your TED source is flawed IMHO.

    It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, but really is it not just the complaint toward the current state of things. Computers were not a necessity, but they sure make stuff a lot easier than pen and paper; long division [sheesh]. I think we need to reassess the value of complaining as a whole. Much as they have gossip(see


  5. themarksavage Says:


    Again, I really like your thinking here.

    For what it’s worth, I was writing about complaints as they are generally viewed, i.e. negatively. I think this negative association is commonly thought of as “complaining just for complaining’s sake” with no real value or effort to improve one’s situation.

    However, when viewed according to your perspective, I absolutely agree that there is value if the verbal input results in a quantifiable output. Otherwise, it’s just talk, which to me is no different than going to a meeting for an hour and leaving with no action to take. I prefer to avoid those situations, but am happy to listen to a co-worker vent because, as I said above, I am aware of the function complaining serves.

    And I suppose the real reason people don’t like complaints is because some effort is usually required to resolve whatever issue the complaint is in regards to. People like the path of least resistance and, to some, complaints = resistance. Not always a bad thing!


  6. Pete Gontier Says:

    I have a problem with the language of entitlement used in these blog posts. One sure way to turn off management is to act as if one “deserves” this or that compensation. These things have to be expressed in terms of market economics or they just sound like self-important whining. One insight I’ve acquired over the course of my career is that I’m valuable solely due to my scarcity. It’s not that I’m more skilled or work harder than someone in fast food service; no employer cares about that; it’s simply that there are fewer people willing and/or able to do my job. Once you realize this, you can stop using language which turns off your manager.

    The other insight I wanted to share is that geeks, if they’re so full of market economics bravado, need to stop being passive-aggressive about compensation. If you sit and wait for an inadequate raise, then leave for greener pastures as a form of revenge, then you’ve just done everyone involved, including yourself, a disservice. Much better to make sure your employer understands that you are influenced by market economics well before your performance review.

  7. The obvious intent of the article that you are criticizing is “pay me something or treat me in some way that lets me know that I am appreciated.” You do such verbal gymnastics to get around that patently obvious fact, that if I had only your response to the article to go on I would suspect that you are one of those managers who resent your producers as a cost and not an asset.

    No doubt it is dangerous to remember that the people who’s work you mark up and sell to pay your own salary are actually deserving of all the kind indulgences that you lavish on yourself — but if you can’t at least fool me that you think that is the case, and I have a choice of where I am going to work, I can assure you that it will not be for you.

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