I was staring at the salary of every single one of my developer teammates. A small gasp was forming at the back of my throat.
When I saw that my salary was next to last on the list – nearly the lowest – that gasp came out as a profanity. And just like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, “fudge” is not what came out of my mouth.
My mood brightened as I thought about this as possible manna from heaven. Or, was this a potential trap that could lead to serious problems?
But first: How did I come to have my hands on this golden spreadsheet? No, I didn’t steal it. It was an accident.
About 30 minutes prior, my manager had visited me at our client’s site, where he had reserved a conference room to conduct everyone’s annual review. During my review session, he handed me a plain manila folder that contained my review and my salary increase.
The discussion was very formal and mostly positive. He told me how much the client liked me and went on about some of the creative development work I had completed that year. There were some suggestions for improvements, but nothing I didn’t agree with. And with a big smile he told me in an upbeat tone about my salary for the coming year.
“I have some good news for you. We were able to give you a 6% increase. Nice work.”
Seemed like a pretty good deal to me too. But I had a question because this was my first review at the company.
“I appreciate it. But can you explain how you decided on the increase percentage?”
I thought I saw his lips begin to sour into a frown, but they quickly turned up and he responded, “Oh, it’s a bit complicated. We take a formula that looks at company performance, the current economy and of course how well you performed. And you know with the economy the way it is, this type of raise is pretty darn good.”
With that he looked at his watch, stood up and said he was late for his next client meeting. As he rushed out the door I heard him say, “Keep up the great work!”And he was gone.
As I sat there processing my good fortune to have a salary increase “with the economy the way it is” I flipped open the manila folder and realized there was another sheet of paper in there.
I pulled it out and couldn’t believe what I was looking at. After I got the “fudge” out, my head started spinning with ideas about what this meant. I thought – almost out loud – “What the heck am I going to do with this?”
Bottom on the Totem Pole
Of the six developers on the team, not only was my salary near the bottom, but my annual increase was the lowest.
It didn’t make sense to me.
My manager had practically just gushed about me. I knew for a fact the client didn’t just like me; they loved me. I got along with our counterparts there better than anyone on the team. If there was a bug found in my code, we’d usually joke about it and go about fixing it.
And like most young developers, I felt I was at least as good a coder as most of my teammates. Two of them asked for my help all the time – and now I knew that they were making more money than me.
One of them had just been hired six months ago and received a bigger increase than me. The more I read, the more my blood boiled!
I wanted to call my manager up and lay into him with this newfound information. Upon further reflection and a few deep breaths I realized his response would be defensive and not likely to result in a productive outcome. I decided to talk it over with my friend Justin, a developer I had worked with before.
That evening, Justin’s listened to my tale and he shook his head and grinned. “Now that is something that doesn’t happen every day my friend.”
“Yeah, no kidding. What should I do?”
He proceeded to make a very good point. “You have to put yourself in his shoes. What if you had made a mistake like this? How would you feel?”
Then I went into wishful thinking mode. “Maybe he doesn’t even realize that I have the salary spreadsheet. I could just go talk to him using hypotheticals to make my point.”
Justin straightened me out. “And what will you say if he calls your bluff?” Justin mimicked my manager by pounding his fist on the table.
“So you do you think I’m a fool. I know you found that spreadsheet!”
He was right. I had to come clean. I thanked Justin and had a very restless night trying to decide my next move.
I was conveniently scheduled to be at the company office for a team meeting that next day. As I drove to work, I thought about just leaving the spreadsheet on my manager’s desk when he stepped out.
No, that wasn’t going to work either. Part of me was even angrier because if he hadn’t made this mistake I could be blissfully ignorant and wouldn’t have to deal with this mess.
The team meeting proceeded, but I didn’t pay much attention. I wondered if he even realized the spreadsheet was in the folder. That question was answered right after the meeting as he walked up to me with a look of consternation on his face.
“Hey buddy, do you have a moment? Let’s step into my office.”
Buddy? Oh, I knew right then that this was coming to a head whether I liked it or not.
Before he even had a chance to sit, I handed him the folder that contained the salary spreadsheet. He let out a slight sigh that signaled some sort of relief.
“I’m guessing you looked at this,” he said as he stared intently at me.
A knot was building in my chest, but I managed to stammer “Um, yeah. I, uh, didn’t know what it was. But yeah, I looked at it.”
He leaned back in his chair and let out an exasperated sigh this time. “Look, I’ll answer any questions you may have, but if you share this information with anyone on the team, there will be consequences.”
I thought, fair enough. I mean what would I say to my fellow developers? “Hey congratulations, you make more money than me?”
So I took the opportunity to ask some questions while I fidgeted uncomfortably in my seat. “Ok, then I do have questions. Why am I the second lowest paid on the team and everyone else received a higher increase when you just gave me a very positive review?”
He crossed his arms and legs then proceeded to explain why.
“You are a decent developer and no doubt you have good client relationship skills. However, in comparison to the rest of the team, your skills are not as advanced and their salaries reflect what they could get on the open market.”
I didn’t like where this was going. This was before the Internet, so I couldn’t research developer salaries on the Web based on geographical location and other details. At that time the salary reports published were very broad like Programmer I or II. So I bit my tongue and let him continue.
“I have also heard you spend too much time chatting with customers about topics not related to work. And haven’t you spent a lot of time on the phone recently during office time?”
I felt blindsided by this. Where was this business about being too chatty with the customer and being on the phone during my review?
“Well I thought it was important to build relationships with the customer and as for the phone, we are building a new house and it is taking some time during the day.”
Now I was on the defensive. This wasn’t going well.
He leaned forward, folded his hand across his lap and smiled.
“Your job is to write code. If the customer likes your code, then you are doing your job. And you need to build your house on your own time, not the customer’s time.”
I thought arguing about this point was useless, so I went back to my coding ability.
“You said I was creative with my coding, right? And my assignments are always done early, unlike many of the others on the team. I know my skills are more advanced than Joey (the new hire) and yet he got a bigger increase than me! Why?”
He produced another thin-lipped smile and said, “That’s true, however, your assignments are easier compared to the others. And the others have more years of experience than you. As for Joey, his six month increase was negotiated when he came on board.”
Damn. Okay, I was going to make one last push.
“I understand your points and appreciate your honesty, but I don’t believe I’m getting enough credit for helping the other developers. And why not give me harder assignments so I can prove I can excel at them? “
What I wanted to say was “More honest feedback would have been appreciated during my review!” But I chickened out.
My manager said he would think about it and get back to me. He thanked me for returning the spreadsheet and reminded me to keep the information to myself.
Dealing with It
Good thing Facebook wasn’t around back then or I might have posted something incriminating out of frustration.
In retrospect, there were some lessons learned that I have applied in managing my teams and in my personal career growth.
1) It would have been helpful to have peer input to annual reviews so my manager would have had insight into my helpfulness to fellow developers.
2) If a developer’s deadlines are easily met, don’t wait for them to ask for more work. Instead, push them to excel by challenging them with more difficult work.
3) Don’t hold back on providing constructive criticism during reviews. It’s a manager’s responsibility to have these tough conversations.
4) There will be life events that require some more personal time during business hours. I’ve learned to be more flexible and worry more about managing based on outcomes.
5) A developer’s best chance at achieving a maximum salary increase is to negotiate during the hiring process. Once you are on board, you are at the company’s mercy unless you bail.
How did it work out for me? My manager came back with an extra two percent increase and did provide me with a more challenging workload. Sometimes I wonder if he did it because of my great arguments or to ensure I would keep the salary information to myself.
Oh, one last lesson learned. Always double check annual review printouts to make sure there aren’t any extra papers stuck together.