To negotiate, or not to negotiate, that is the question
March 6, 2017 4:22 PM   Subscribe

I'll be transitioning career fields back to web programming. My job offer is low, but I'm wondering whether I should just accept it since my skills are rusty. If I should negotiate, I'm not sure how best to argue my value.

I worked as a web developer for about a decade starting a few years after college. I then switched career fields, and have been working in a completely unrelated field for almost a decade. I'd always realized I would eventually have to switch back, because my current career field is very physically strenuous, as well as financially unstable.

I'd recently started thinking it was about time to start updating my technical skills, for the eventual transition back. I was imagining it might take a year or so to figure out where to focus my energies, update my resume, and get hired. Mostly all I've done so far is review things I already knew, research how the field has changed, and survey what kind of job openings are being posted. I had the idea I would learn one or more new languages/frameworks, but hadn't started yet.

I mentioned what I was trying to do to a friend, who suggested I apply for a Programmer Analyst position with a local telecom company. I never would have applied for this job had my friend not suggested it, since I was missing several key skills, plus the job listing specifically mentioned "recent" experience with certain things.

Much to my surprise, I had an interview the week before last, and even more to my surprise, I'm now being offered the position. I was expecting the pay to be lower than what I used to make, but the offer came in even lower than I would have thought. It would literally be half of what I used to make a decade ago.

I know that normally the advice is always to negotiate, and I used to do that, but now I feel I would be negotiating from a position of weakness: I don't know everything I need to know for this position, and I will be spending part of my time essentially being paid to learn--things like PHP and Java that I've never used before. Some of the required tasks, like cleaning data, are things I feel confident I can do, but some of them require a fairly steep learning curve.

I do want to accept this position and don't want to alienate the hiring manager by asking for more when he's already taking a chance on me. But $40k seems low even given the circumstances. According to glassdoor, the average salary for Programmer Analysts in the geographical area in which I'd be working is about $65k. I used to make $80k a decade ago, but in a more urban area.

I don't know what the benefits are yet, so if they're really good, that will help make up for the salary.

I *can* live on $40k. It's not a deal-breaker from that perspective.

Anybody have any relevant experience here, either as the hiring manager or the potential employee in a situation like this?

One possibility I was thinking of would be accepting the starting pay but asking for a review in 6 months rather than a year. Part of me says I should just be grateful for the opportunity and take it. This transition could have been SO much harder and this feels like it was handed to me on a silver platter. But then I also think it's dumb to potentially leave money on the table, since most hiring managers expect to negotiate and start low.

What say you, hive mind?
posted by nirblegee to Work & Money (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You don't really have to argue your value. Say, "I was hoping to make $45k." See what happens. They won't pull the offer (unless they have never done this before, I suppose.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:39 PM on March 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Programmer Analyst is such a vague term that it's not going to be that useful for doing apple to apple comparisons. As a frame of reference, the median household income around me is ~$57K and Glassdoor says the average for Programmer Analysts here is $67K and I'd expect a junior position like the one you're describing to pay $40-50K. If your cost of living is similar, you can likely negotiate a few extra thousand but I'd encourage you to be realistic.

A little tough love - places that are still using PHP are generally not hiring the best and the brightest (with a few notable exceptions like Facebook) so they're not going to be paying the big bucks either. There's a decent chance they're interested in you because top local talent won't work there because of the pay.

If you don't know PHP, Java, modern JavaScript, modern CSS, etc., they're factoring in having to spend a bunch of other people's time teaching and mentoring you and time that you'll spend learning those basics. You might be great at self-learning but they have no way of knowing that for sure at this time. To be blunt, right now you're not average, you're at a slight disadvantage to fresh out of college graduates who know Java.

I did a similar thing with going back into tech after a while out of it, took a low paying, not-great job, worked my butt off and got significant raises there and then much better jobs elsewhere once I had the skills and demonstrable ability to use them in the field again.
posted by Candleman at 5:35 PM on March 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you don't know PHP, Java, modern JavaScript, modern CSS, etc., they're factoring in having to spend a bunch of other people's time teaching and mentoring you and time that you'll spend learning those basics.

An additional question is are they actually using modern web dev tech? I'm going to go out on a limb and say if you're at a local telecom working in PHP and also cleaning data, your chances of also being in a position to learn Webpack/SASS/React/Vue/etc might not be the best. I would only go for a salary that low if you were really really really going to be leveling your skills up. If you spend your time hand-coding CSS and inserting variables into PHP templates, transferring out of there to greener pastures could be tough.
posted by soma lkzx at 9:36 PM on March 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm generally of the opinion that respectful negotiation with solid reasoning is always a good idea. Part of what you're doing is giving the hiring manager rationale that she can take to HR for permission to offer you more. Of course, the best rationale is a better offer and you haven't mentioned your current compensation. If it's greater than 40k/year (even if it is physically strenuous) you should use that to establish a base-line. Finally, I'd be worried about taking a low-ball offer and getting stuck making below market rate for years to come, but I'm in a geography where people with 8 weeks of JavaScript bootcamp and no prior experience are making 80k/yr so my perspective may be skewed.

All that said, if it were me I'd say something to the effect of:

"Thank you for the offer. I'm extremely excited about this opportunity and I can't wait to get started. However, I'm concerned that the compensation package doesn't adequately reflect the value I can bring to the company and I want to understand how compensation is evaluated on an ongoing basis so I can get a clearer sense of my trajectory.

I understand that I'm rusty and I'll have to come up to speed on your technology stack, but based on my history of success in this space I have confidence that I'll accelerate at a pace that is much more aggressive than a typical junior employee. Looking back on my prior compensation, this package is substantially smaller and frankly smaller than I was anticipating even given my time away from the field. However, I think if I had a clear understanding of how compensation could be adjusted to match delivered value over time, and if the initial offer could reflect a bit more of that anticipated value and my history of success, I'd be able to accept without hesitation."

If you want to be moderately aggressive: give a target number. If you want to play it really safe: leave it completely open.
posted by lucasks at 9:51 PM on March 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

Negotiate. Do it unapologetically, directly, professionally. That's what saavy grownups do. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 9:55 PM on March 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the advice.

I'm very surprised to see people denigrating PHP. My impression is that it's one of the most commonly used languages. A metric ton of job ads mention the LAMP stack.

lucasks: In my current career field, the method of compensation is so different that I'm not sure it would be seen as relevant. I am a contractor, I'm paid per contact hour, and I have no benefits (as is nearly universal in this field). When I don't have work, I don't get paid. The actual hourly rate varies but is always significantly more than--and sometimes multiples of--the $20/hr that $40k translates to. But I don't ever work 40 contact hours per week, nor does anyone in this field.

Candleman: It sounds like you view my decade of previous experience as a web developer as irrelevant. I don't. I learned many hard and soft skills that still translate well. I understand the development lifecycle, and how to minimize the potential pitfalls, from a lived experience perspective rather than from theory. I'm much more aware of personalities and politics than I used to be, and than I would guess most new college grads would be. And I still have excellent analytical skills.
posted by nirblegee at 10:34 PM on March 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

If Candleman's response inspired you to a paragraph long rebuttal then you're going to feel a pinch of resentment every time you get your paycheck. Talk to them.
posted by Iteki at 10:41 PM on March 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm a hiring manager and it breaks my heart just a little whenever prospective hires don't ask for more money. Any halfway decent employer will view the offer as a starting point and expect you to ask for more. Don't be a jerk about it, but definitely always ask. Always.

As for what to say: what were your selling points in your interview? Use those. And don't apologize for being rusty - if they bring it up, address it, but don't offer them reasons to say no.
posted by lunasol at 11:10 PM on March 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

Hit post too soon! If your being rusty was a huge problem for them, they wouldn't have hired you. By hiring you, they are telling you that you are good enough to do the job. If you weren't, they wouldn't hire you!

Also, right now you have the most negotiating power you will ever have with this company. Again, don't be a jerk, but don't squander this moment.
posted by lunasol at 11:13 PM on March 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

It seems like what you're looking at is functionally being back to being a junior developer. I don't know where you are exactly, but in Omaha, I was very fortunate by junior standards, and I started at $60k--but there were a lot of people I knew who started doing junior stuff around here for under what you've been offered. I definitely don't see anything wrong with asking for a bit more, but as someone who had another career and made the transition into web dev, what I found is that the position I got has been pushing me outside a junior kind of comfort zone hard and fast compared to people who I know started at a lower rate. So, I'd take that into account. If you tell them that your past experience means you should be treated as mid-level, then when you come in, they will start treating you like you're mid-level, and that can make for a lot of stress.

I'm less than six months in and have been left basically in charge of my team's distressingly-fragile application for a week and it's kind of terrifying. And I've had to spend a fair amount of my free time working on training stuff, though I also get some time while I'm at work. I'm not saying don't push, just bear in mind that if you're going to paint yourself now as being capable of more responsibility, make sure you're comfortable taking that on.
posted by Sequence at 1:10 PM on March 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

FWIW, There are some companies that will want the (youngest, probably) people with all the newest skills. There are other companies that just want you to know a few things and be capable of learning the rest.

That being said, $40k is very low (again, depending on where you are). I'd counter.
posted by getawaysticks at 2:28 PM on March 8, 2017

Update: I responded to the offer email with an email of my own, modeled on lucasks' post. I received an email this morning from the hiring manager asking me to come in to the office on Monday and discuss salary requirements with him and another unspecified member of the team. Not what I was expecting...
posted by nirblegee at 10:34 AM on March 9, 2017

I ended up starting at 50k, with the idea that salary can be revisited sooner than at a yearly review (though that part of it was not included in the offer letter).
posted by nirblegee at 6:41 PM on April 6, 2017

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