Stories about salary and growth

Alex Ewerlöf (moved to substack)
9 min readJan 28, 2022

Just like anyone else working with tech and living in a city filled with tech opportunities, I get approached by recruiters all the time. However, having gone through many of these recruitment processes I have learned a few lessons that worth sharing.

Story 1: undersell

A few years ago I was working for a finance company with a poor culture. The pay was good but I really couldn’t come to terms with myself to put my skill and time in use for a business which is all about getting people into short term debt.

So I was on the lookout for a job that would do some good for the society as well. I found a job at a company which made cancer treatment software. All the interview levels went well but right before I got the contract, my to-be boss called me asking to go down 5% in my salary. For me it was a bit of a bummer because up until that point, without any negotiation, every new job had increased my salary 5–10% and here I was being asked to go down 5%!

I agreed thinking “anything for cacner treatment”. But when I started the job I realized what a mistake I made. Turns out not everyone is so OK with underselling themselves. I ended up working with admittedly nice folks but with very little experience. It was frustrating. On retrospect the time I spent there, was the time I grew the least. My next job gave me 20% raise, which is almost comical as if they were compensating for that low paid job in the middle!

Story 2: overpaid

I was working at in an open space office environment with the manager of another team sitting right in front of me. I don’t know what I did or said that was particularly interesting for him but for a period of 2 moths he was persuading me to join his team. In the end I did with the condition to keep my current salary level (which was decent given that my original team was working with sensitive PII).

Big mistake! I ended up working with colleagues who were being paid way less than me and the job itself was quite boring. Nevertheless, I did the best I could. I got praise but when it was time for the yearly salary review, I got the absolute minimum that was legally possible. When I asked “why?” my manager said that every team has a budget and they had to distribute it to the colleagues who were paid “unfairly”.

Since the salary negotiations were not public info, there was no way for me to verify it. The next year, we didn’t get any raise (due to the pandemic, despite “booming business” according to the CEO). The year after, I was already on my way out, so I didn’t want to “waste” the budget. I sent a letter to my manager voluntarily opting out of any raise so that the money is distributed to the team.

Just to be sure that my colleagues know what to expect, I informed them as well. This move wasn’t appreciated though. According to my manager it was “rather unusual for someone to opt out of raise” and my colleauges gave her a hard time demanding more. Long story short, I ended up apologizing for not wanting more money!

Story 3: grow without pay

Most of your learning and growth happens in the first 3–6 months since your start. By the end of one year, you’ve become productive enough to do a few amazing things worthy of a raise but in practice the companies rarely acknowledge that. As far as they are concerned you’re just “up to expectation” and deliver the potential they had invested for. So to be frank, don’t expect a raise just because you’ve made sacrifices and went above and beyond hoping to get an extra raise.

If you like the company, one way to extend your growth period is to switch teams. Although this cross-pollination benefits the company its feasibility entirely depends on the company size, vacancies, market growth, etc.

I have tried switching teams and every time I learned new things. This is relatively safe because you are coming in with some knowledge about the domain and a network of people you may know. Nevertheless, personally I got my highest salary bumps when switching companies and never managed to get a raise when switching teams.

Story 4: golden handcuff

At one job, I had a 15% bonus. After a while the company decided to remove the bonus and instead pay it on a monthly basis to save some tax. I never count on the bonus, but in this occasion it turned into an unexpected salary bump.

This wasn’t a deal for me though. A large number of people had that bonus and all of a sudden we were paid over the market rates. Long story short, this made many people stay at the company for way longer than they should. The company ended up with a bunch of overpaid employees who didn’t enjoy their job but couldn’t find another without a salary drop. The result was a culture of mediocracy and miserable struggle to keep to the status quo. Looking back, it affected the challenges and growth opportunities to a large extent. This is an example where the pay may not be directly representative of the challenges and growth.

Story 5: discount

I met a Swedish startup working on autonomous driving trucks. They couldn’t match my salary so I didn’t go through. A friend of mine who worked in a relevant field for biggest German brands was looking into coming back to Sweden. So I introduced him mine to that startup since he had many years of experience in the area that the startup was trying to disrupt.

They liked him a lot saying “he has impressed everyone he has interviewed”. His to-be manager had much less experience than my friend (5 vs 15+ years). So he kept asking my friend for a “discount” on his salary without any reason.

My friend just dropped the recruitment process stating there’s no way he’ll go down in his salary because it represents challenges, mandate and growth opportunities.

Today he’s at the next career step with even higher salary and that startup still hasn’t disrupted the market.

Story 6: the old car

This one is not a real story but inspirational nevertheless.

A father said to his newly graduated son: “You just graduated, this is a car I bought a while ago… It is a few years old. But before I give it, take it to a car dealer in the city and see how much it worth.”
The son came back to his father and said: “They offered 1000$ because it looks very old.”
The father said: “Hold it and take it to the 2nd hand car dealer.”
The son came back saying: “The 2nd hand dealer offered 100$ because it is a very old car and lots of repair is needed.”
The father asked his son to join a passionate car club with experts and show them the car.
The son came pack saying: “Some people in the club offered me 100,000$ because it is a rare car that is in good condition, with great capabilities and it is super difficult to find.”
The father said: “I wanted to let you know that you are not worth anything if you are not in the right place. If you are not appreciated, do not be angry. That just means you are in the wrong place. Don’t stay in a place where no one sees your value.”

Story 7: misleveled

A while back I was pinged by an old frined of mine to join their company. I was on my way to migrate to Canada but I decided it doesn’t hurt to have a backup plan. After all, as I often say “options give you power”. So I started looking at the career section of my old friend’s company.

At the time they only had a “level 3” position open in a slightly different field (SRE) than my original (web architecture).

Every company has their own definition for what these levels mean. Having recently experienced a poor ladder, I asked to take a peak into their ladder but I didn’t got a straight answer. (Later I found that they had indeed a very good career ladder with regular evaluation rounds so I don’t know why I didn’t get to see it. Guess it just fell between the cracks).

I went through the interviews (later I was told that the hiring committee assessed me as a “solid level 3 and potentially level 4”. I think it’s a fair assessment given that I wasn’t coming in as an SRE expert). Right before I sign the contract another position popped up at the same company which was a perfect match with my web architecture experience. The problem? Its was a “level 5”. I asked the recruiter if it’s possible to put me through the other loop and after checking with the respective recruiter, she came back saying: “that one is 2 level above the level we have assessed you and they don’t see you as a fit”. (Meanwhile I went through the admittedly harder recruitment process for the Canadian company and got a contract for “level 6").

I was doing staff level work at the previous job which would translate to their “level 4” but ideally I wanted to go up the ladder instead of doing the same thing at a new company.

Anyway, I had already quit my previous job and decided not to go to Canada (this is an interesting story of its own that I may write about later) so I decided to give the plan B a try. At my past job I had some responsibilities that fell under SRE so it would be a good chance to focus on this relatively new field and learn. (Later it turned out to be a far greater learning opportunity than I was hoping for).

The starting assignments were “meh” and the excitement started to die out. One month in, I was pretty bored and started looking for another job. Around this time I got an “onboarding experience” survey where I wrote: “I can do the current tasks but I would appreciate having a chance to make a bigger impact”. Then the most surprising thing happened. A manager above mine pulled me to his team and gave me a couple of very interesting tasks which was as relevant as it could get under his domain: establish self-servicce ownership and onboard the web developers behind the face of the company’s flagships. (They were going from Antitype-A to Type 6 which is how I worked for the past 5 years prior to joining).

The learning opportunities didn’t stop there. Later I got involved in driving a couple of strategies as well as some other cross-org initiatives. I didn’t mind having “level 3” on my title as long as there was something to learn. The level was something that would be “easy to adjust after the 6 month probation period”, I was told.

Gradually I learned that the level was a bit more serious than what I was used to. I heard “Invite all the level 4 and above to meeting X” or get reviews from “level 5’s on initiative Y” or “that’s not a task for a level 1”. Regardless if the person at level N really had something significant to say, they had the official mandate to approve or disapprove different initiatives. On the flip side if you were a level <N with relevant feedback, you could miss the chance because you were not “in the room”. I occasionally bumped into a few level walls here and there but nothing I couldn’t tolerate till my “level 4” is formalized. I had a great manager who emulated the “level 4” experience for me.

Fast forward to after the probation period, and the level adjustment proved not to be that easy. The general feedback was that the 6 month probation period wasn’t long enough for me to prove myself. It was a fair assessment. I was out of my home turf of web architecture anyway. We could give it another shot in the next evaluation round but a more relevant Sr Staff position at another company presented itself which was a better fit with my skillset and would make more sense careerwise. So I resigned to join them and see if I can make a higher impact.

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