Don’t Climb The Ladder; Take the Elevator

In the last few months, I have applied to several jobs. I talked to recruiters, endured phone screens, coded up a couple take-home tests, whiteboarded, live coded, and answered probing questions such as: what are your biggest weaknesses? and who would you want to play you if your life was made into a motion picture?

All-in-all, I received five new job offers. Yet I still agonized over leaving, because in my mind the interviews had mostly been practice. There was nothing really wrong with my job, plus in a couple months my 401k would be vesting and I’d be receiving my bonus. I was on track to be a manager, my boss had fought for me to be on their team, and I was well-respected in the company.

However, one thing it did reinforce is that I was being grossly underpaid for the current job market. The lowest offer pre-negotiation was a 14% increase from my current salary. The next was 25%, two more were nearly 50% and the offer I took doubled my salary.

When I took my very first job I felt that I did not have much leverage. I took a lower offer than the average for the area because I didn’t have a CS degree and had no work experience. Once starting my job, however, I did well. I consistently got high scores on performance reviews, received early off-cycle promotions and even the chance to work abroad with company paid travel and boarding. While I appreciated these perks, when it came down to it, I was locked in at a lower rate. In the end, it wasn’t worth it to struggle up the ladder if I could just take the elevator to a new company.


According to an article in Forbe’s magazine, Employees Who Stay in Companies Longer than Two Years Get Paid 50% Less. Everyone can see that the trend of being loyal to an employer is dwindling, and moving between jobs every 2-3 years is the ideal pattern to maximize your lifetime earnings. What used to be scorned as “job-hopping” is now the best way to learn new skills, and it is quickly becoming the new norm. These are the main lessons I learned in my search.

Know Your Worth

Do an unbiased search of your market. Find out what someone with your skills is making. There are tools like Glassdoor that will create a report for you. My report says that my salary is 6.2% under the average for somebody with my years of experience. However, hunting around the market showed that companies are hiring at even higher rates. To that end:

Don’t anchor yourself to your past salary.

Anchoring is a really interesting cognitive bias wherein we “anchor” ourselves to the first piece of information we have. In investing, this can have consequences because people might buy stock at a certain amount, which is now their “anchor.” They may hold onto it forever while it tanks, hoping it will go back up to the original amount. Similarly, don’t anchor yourself to your salary. The offers I got ascended over time, partially because of the type of company (start-ups vs. large established companies) but also because each time I would adjust my target and acceptable range. When a recruiter asks what your previous salary was, you don’t have to tell them (now in many countries it’s illegal for them to ask) but they will still most likely ask about your preferred rate, which goes back to know your worth.

Take interviews as a learning experience

Some of my older friends haven’t interviewed in years. One, in particular, shared his story of flying down to California to interview and failed miserably at the whiteboarding question. Tail-between-his-legs, he returned home, scarred from the experience. Luckily, he’s a smart guy and got a job soon after, but he spent 20 years at the same company without interviewing for something better.

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If someone looks over my shoulder while I’m coding, my brain stops functioning

When I got my job at FirstCompany, I somehow managed to avoid the harrowing experience that some software interviews can be. I was asked a few simple questions about my experience, the manager jokingly asked if I was chasing marijuana legalization from Colorado to Oregon (I was moving), and I got a frontier flight for $35 for the in-person interview, where I met the team and they warned me about Portland traffic and told me where are the best places to get lunch. What were the chances I would get it so easy again?!

The idea of whiteboarding terrified me. Urban Dictionary describes the exact scenario I had nightmares about:

“Whiteboarding is a form of torture used during job interviews. The candidate is forced to code algorithms he will never use on the job on a whiteboard in front of other people, causing the candidate to experience the sensation of inadequacy.”

I have strange fundamental gaps in my knowledge that comes from being mostly self-taught. I might use a pattern but not know what it is called. Part of starting to interview was mostly to face this doubt head on. After all, I didn’t really need a new job. I could continue on happily even if I got rejection after rejection. I learned an enormous amount from the take-home tests, the online tests, and interview questions that I could apply hands-on at the job I was working! It doesn’t have to be high-stakes if you’re just looking to learn.

Have you taken the elevator in your career? Tell your story in the comments below!

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