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I'm 10 months out of school and I lost my first programming job last week. I personally know a lot about different stuff - just look at my StackOverflow account, but I don't feel I have the professional experience necessary to ask more in salary.

For example, I was told they were looking for a mid-level person at $75k/year. I told him I wasn't sure where I fell. He asked me where I could fall, so I said I was worth only $50k/year - which was close to my last salary. The guy told me I wasn't what they were looking for.

How do I not undersell myself when looking for a job, while remaining honest?

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Am I misunderstanding something or you actually said what they offered was TOO MUCH? That's a huge mistake, I always pretend to be disappointed and say I want more whether it's $20k or $200k a year; doing that btw got me $5k extra a year –  Andreas Bonini Nov 5 '10 at 9:56
    
Check out the "Programming Interviews Exposed" book from Wrox. It has a section on non-technical interview questions that I found very helpful in navigating those parts of the interview during my last job search. –  Anna Lear Nov 7 '10 at 16:24
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8 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Why are you setting your own salary? And how did you come up with the $50K figure?

I generally ask for a rate of pay commensurate with my experience. If that's $50K for you, that's all well and good, but the employer is supposed to be deciding whether you're worth that based on your experience.

That said, if you are 10 months out of school (meaning you have 10 months of experience, correct?) employers will be viewing you as entry-level, not mid-level (intermediate). That's all right; look for a position where you can move up in a few years, or move laterally when you have some more experience.

Also, I'm not going to ask why you lost your last job, but prospective employers will. If you left on good terms, ask if your former employer is willing to back you up with a reference. If they are, hire one of those "reference screener" outfits to call them and get a reference from them. If they give a good reference, you're home free.

If they don't give a good reference, you should examine the reasons why you parted ways, and ask yourself if there might be room for improvement on your part. Then, be honest with your prospective employers about that if they ask, and work on getting better.

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Sounds like you have a lack of confidence, but more importantly, you don't have enough professional experience to know that there are many, many developers that don't know much, but make alot of money. Don't ever undervalue yourself like that again! Let your code do the talking and see what happens.

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Don't take an interview without believing you can do the job. Get into the habit of being confident and not arrogant. It's not up to you to decide if you are "worth" it because you don't know how much money this company will make off of this position. Just say, "What I know about the position, I believe I can handle it." And if you can handle it, they should pay you. Just because I don't think it is worth it to pay someone to remove spyware from my computer doesn't mean there isn't a market for it.

Future advice, don't give out the first number on the salary question. Ask for the pay range and what determines where someone fits in that scale. It may purely come down to experience. Your current/most recent salary will be a factor but you can take some of the emphasis off of that. Unless the new job is exactly like your old one, it is very difficult to compare salaries when you don't know what is required along with benefits, ect. And besides, you're much better now than when you first started, right?

You can be flexible in generalizing your skills. They may require a skill-set you don't have. You don't 'know' you can learn it, but you can say you have a history of quickly picking up on similar technologies. You may not have worked on the latest version, but you've kept yourself up-to-date in self study.

If you feel you're being low-balled on salary, ask for a one month review. Understand that they may be taking a risk in highering someone with less experience and you are willing to prove yourself. Get it in writing because they'll forget.

Curious, did they ask you to demonstrate any code writing ability?

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Pretend You Are Sitting Across The Table From Yourself

To create an honest self evaluation, pretend you are sitting in a chair on the other side of the table. Create a list of things he (you sitting in that chair) has done. Refer to yourself as he.

For Example:

  • He saved company xyz $15,000 by building widget xxx
  • He streamlined the entire account opening process which reduced the time it takes to open an account by 50%
  • Yada Yada Yada

By projecting yourself as he you will be far more objective and create a much truer picture of what you did. When you are done change all the He's to I's

Don't leave anything out.

Also, start keeping a log of all the significant tasks you accomplish. This will help jog your memory when it comes time for your annual review and you are asked to list this year's accomplishments.

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The easiest way to sell your skills is to prove them:

  • Stack Overflow rep is one form of 'proof', but it doesn't necessarily correlate well with success in a company.
  • Having the tenacity to complete a project and put it out on the web for employers to find is another. If you've got some side project (i.e. non-work), whatever it is, make it visible; it will say a lot about how you think, what you work on, what's important to you, and what you're able to accomplish.
  • Contributing to a larger project (something you didn't initiate) is yet a third type, showing that you can act as part of a team. Find an Open Source project that needs help (i.e. all of them) and that you're interested in, and pitch in. This also will say a lot about what you're made of.
  • Visible work from your old company is useful but only for beginning a conversation in the interview. It's hard to pull apart your contributions from the rest of the company's.

As for the actual job interview: what kind of a moronic interviewer asks you "what are you worth"? Never pitch a low number; don't undervalue yourself; let them say no, don't make them say no. If you applied for the job and they brought you in, the assumption on both sides is that you are probably worth it.

Remember they are hiring not just the person you are now, but the person you'll be in a year or three years when you've learned more and practiced your skills more.

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"I.e. all of them" -- oh, so true. Oh, and @DanielA.White, if you will be learning more technologies, working on more advanced projects, and managing more things, you should probably be compensated more than before. –  Mark C Nov 15 '10 at 22:20
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Turning down a job before having a chance to find out whether it suited you (by interview or doing it) prematurely limits your options. If the interviewer ascertains you've not got the experience, they may make you a lower offer with the option of increases based on performance.

That you're 10 months out of school may not fill you with confidence that you can go for a 50% salary raise, but I say, what do you have to lose? You might have to get up a bit earlier, smarten up a bit (e.g. wear a shirt+trousers if you weren't already) and learn to pick your battles wisely, but if you can do the job, why not go get it?

Another way of looking at this is that you've somehow determined that value = $50k + ('time since college' * ~$5k). That doesn't make sense - remuneration is relative to the value you bring to your employer.

Your StackOverflow account demonstrates you know a lot about a number of technologies and that the SO community (by voting) corroborates this.

So, by my reckoning, you're a smart guy.

It's totally understandable to be a bit less confident as you're relatively inexperienced, but consider that some people are a 'natural born genius' and others have to learn everything the hard way. Is it so bad that your natural abilities are well paid?

I have previously hired 'genius' guys at a reasonable entry salary, seen them become incredible engineers and have given them pay raises according to their output/value to the company rather than their age.

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You're young and cheap but not that cheap. In your first 5 years you should change jobs 2-3x and that's where you'll get your salary increase. Guess what, you just changed jobs. If you say you're worth 50k people will think you don't know what you're doing. If you say that you're worth what the market will bear, then they'll tell you what their own appraisal is.

Rules of negotiation:

  1. Don't state your last salary unless it was enormous. Then, if it was, state you are very flexible and that was a unique situation.
  2. Ask for more. Doesn't have to be money. Don't have to be aggressive about it.
  3. Don't undersell yourself. You can be honest with them and say "I'm young, work hard but I'm not the greatest that ever walked the earth." You just can't "I"m fairly worthless." The former may be believed, the later will always be believed.

Also:

Job hunting is like dating. You ask 10 girls out, 1 will say yes. You go on your first date to see if you're compatible. In 10 dates with 10 girls, 2-3 may decide they like you enough to go on a second date. After a few dates, one may even decide to go steady with ya.

When they say what they're looking for, be prepared to be rejected. But if you only settled for what life gave you, you'd be dating some fat porker with pizza for face.

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All fine except for the dating analogy - just say it's a numbers game and perception is everything. –  smci Aug 29 '11 at 4:48
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The only thing I want to say is that if it's a 75k job, you shouldn't have said you're worth 50k. That just seems like too low for someone with programming experience.

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