How much does an inexperienced programmer get paid?
May 17, 2011 1:10 PM   Subscribe

How much should I get paid as an inexperienced programmer doing Java web development for a US government contractor? I’m clueless.

I think I’ll mainly be doing Java EE-based web development with Tomcat, and maybe some Python programming as well. I’ll be working at a major federal agency in DC, but my employer is technically a contractor rather than the government itself. (The government people were involved in the hiring decision, but I don’t know if they have any say in this part.)

I have very solid knowledge of Java, Python, and the tools they’re using, but basically no experience with web development, and less than one year of total experience as a professional programmer. I think I’m their only candidate right now, and they’ll almost certainly give me a formal offer of a job once I tell them how much I want to be paid.

I need to set an hourly rate. Obviously I should ask for more than they want to pay, but only a little bit more. I’m very inexperienced, so I have absolutely no idea what’s reasonable.

How much would you ask for, if you were in this position? Even the vaguest ballpark estimate, or any other related advice, would be a great help!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As an entry-level full-time person in the Twin Cities (MN) area I was making $25 to $30 + cost of benefits (health insurance, 401k etc.) So if there are benefits included, I would probably start asking at about $35. If not, I would say $45 to $50 isn't a crazy number. Most government contractors usually bill the government around $60 to $100 depending on the company and overhead costs.
posted by dyno04 at 1:20 PM on May 17, 2011

I would guess about 70K annually, which works out to about $33.65 per hour, before any benefits are considered.
posted by COD at 1:41 PM on May 17, 2011

I think people here are a bit high considering your experience. DC area, new grad position (you don't have enough experience to be considered anything else, unfortunately) with a contracting company working with the federal gov makes me think you'll be around $60k a year (40 hour weeks, 50 weeks a year minus paid federal holidays, full benefits).

The description of your hiring process sounds the same as what my friends deal with (Federal research lab that hires contractors from one company since they themselves are on a hiring freeze, heavily involved in the hiring process).
posted by Loto at 1:49 PM on May 17, 2011

BTW, my guess is what they are going to pay you, assuming you are a W2 employee. Ask for more, be suspicious if they offer you much less.
posted by COD at 1:49 PM on May 17, 2011

As somewhat who has done contract programming work in DC (though not for a government contractor), I think some of these numbers seem a little low. When I worked at a consultancy doing work for nonprofits, my work was billed by the firm to the clients at $110-$135, depending on the client, with more junior (read: fresh out of school) developers billing around $90. Many contractors doing government work will be billing considerably more. When they subbed out to me, I was paid about half what they were charging, which seems like fairly common practice. That puts the hourly rate at $45 for a junior developer in the non-profit sector, with a potentially slightly higher number for government work.

All of this assumes, though, that you'll be paid as a 1099 (that is to say, independent contractor, no benefits). If you'll be a W-2 employee, the company will be taking on the obligation of paying your benefits, payroll taxes, etc., so the hourly figure will go down a bit. In my experience, though, programmers who are paid hourly or by the job are more likely to be 1099s, while programmers with a fixed annual salary are more likely to be W-2s. YMMV.
posted by andrewpendleton at 1:58 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

andrewpendleton's advice rings more true to me. Don't think about contracting in terms of annualized salaries because their obligations to you are very different than they are to permanent employees. I have friends whose employers bill them out at $125/h+ one year out of college. If you're a 1099 contractor, you should definitely be in the $100/h range or you're underselling yourself.

Part of why you charge a premium is because you're not guaranteed to be employed full time. You're not just covering your unpaid benefits like health insurance, you're also assuming risk that you're not going to have a job in a month. They have to pay a premium to get you now, for as long as they want you, and then terminating the relationship when it's done. That's only fair, and when the contracting term is over you're going to have zero income again. Plus, you're going to have to spend time working out your own health insurance plans which you'll be responsible for paying for even when the contracting relationship ends. That extra work and assumed risk means you have to charge more than might otherwise seem reasonable.

That said, they may have expectations that they're getting a discount deal with you and they could totally balk if you quote them $100/h. They may also think that's a great rate - they'll be hard pressed to get anything nearly that low if they're contracting with a software engineering firm. Really hard to say. Can you feel it out with your contact there?
posted by heresiarch at 2:54 PM on May 17, 2011

The minimum rate any contractor should charge per hour is 35 dollars no matter what service you provide, no questions. That is the minimum hourly rate. Go up from there.

35 dollars an hour after taxes, periods of no work, looking for work and tracking your billable hours (hours not spent pulling your hair out researching a problem that you did not initially count on when bidding the hours the project will take) will, on average yield 10 dollars an hour into your bank account if you calculate your earnings across 40 hours a week.

Seriously, no lower than 35 dollars an hour, you will go bankrupt if you charge less.

I know this from years of experience. Don't short change yourself.
posted by roboton666 at 3:31 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Government contractor != employee contractor.

If you are going to be an actual-factual full-time employee at a contracting company $60k-$70k ($30-$35 an hour) sounds reasonable.

As a 1099 contractor with no benefits, charge 3x that.
posted by wrok at 3:59 PM on May 17, 2011

In DC, which I'm assuming is more expensive than Arizona (where I have the most experience with this), I would ask for $65k-$70k if you're a full time employee with benefits (assuming health care, 2-3 weeks vacation, etc.)

The rule I've always heard when converting an FTE salary to a contractor hourly rate is that you divide the salary by 1000, so in your case $65-$70/hr.. This will sound high, but when you consider taxes, plus things like getting your own health insurance, it works out right.
posted by !Jim at 5:53 PM on May 17, 2011

DoD Contractor here. Are you going to be a W2 employee of a contracting complany like Northrop Grumman or General Dynamics?

If you are a W2 employee, take whatever hourly rate youre considering and multiply it by 2080 (40 hrs * 52 weeks) to figure out your ballpark annual gross salary. $30 an hour * 2080 is $62,400. $62k is not a lot of money for the DC area. You will want to punch your number into some cost of living calculators for where youre looking at living to see how it compares to where you are now.

DC is an expensive area to live and work in. Do you know where you will be working (what city as well as if its a govt/contractor facility)? Where will you live (Crystal City, Chantilly, Arlington)? How will you get there (Metro or Car)?

Also, will the job require a security clearance? I'm assuming you dont already have a security clearance. If the job requires a TS/SCI and the company is willing to pay for you to get one, that can be a HUGE benefit for you. Once you have a clearance (especially a TS/SCI), you become much more marketable to other defense contractors.

Good luck!
posted by Fiat124 at 5:58 PM on May 17, 2011

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