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Early Career Negotiation


There are meaningful negotiations one can engage in their very first steps in the tech career market. Some rules to keep in mind:

  • Don’t work for free.
  • In early career, it can be hard to know if what a company's asking you for is unreasonable. Although it's an employer's responsibility to be reasonable in hiring, one still needs to know when things are unreasonable. The best way to go about it is to talk to somebody who has been in the industry for a while.
  • If there's a terrible interview process and if you've got the financial freedom to not get that particular job, just walk out.
  • Ask for more money at the offer stage. If a job is offering you below market rates, ask for at least enough to bridge the gap to market rates for your role and for your geographic area.
  • Once you start working in the role, don’t wait to start conversations around what you'd like to see in your role. The longer you've been in your role and the more you've had the chance to expand your skills, the more leverage you're going to have in negotiations.
  • When you're working in a company, the raises you get annually are rarely in line with the rate of growth for market rates. It's financially often better to change jobs every few years than to ask for a raise because you'll get a much bigger bump changing jobs. This implies that if you ask your boss for more money, you're giving them the opportunity to pay you closer to the market rate and thereby retain you.
  • Other requests around negotiation could include the opportunity to work remotely, more flexible hours, better equipment, more vacation time, access to different kinds of projects, and access to different learning opportunities.
  • While early in your career, it might feel like you just need to take your first job, but as your career progresses, it doesn't have to go very far to give you this extra leverage. Not just your time in a specific role, but your time in tech plus skills development gives you more leverage.


So, I'm really excited to be talking to you all about early career negotiation. And I wanted to be as gentle as I can because we want to involve employers that are gonna pay you, but, you know, they're really .. you're really not as powerless as many people early career want you to think you are. And let's go ahead and talk about this a bit. Before we get too far into it. Hi, I'm Jess. Oh, who's this weirdo lady talking to me about negotiation? I've been doing a lot of outreach and mentorship over the last seven or eight years, including about 1,100 individual one-on-one advice calls with folx. So, this is me sort of scaling that out and fussing at you all in a large mass so save myself some calls this month.

And one thing that's really exciting about tech, and one thing that you hear again and again and again is, oh, you know, it's so easy to find work in tech. Oh, gosh, you know, I just have so many recruiters messaging me. Oh, it's .. but that's .. that's not always true. That's true for folx who are a bit more senior. But getting your .. getting early-stage jobs can be especially challenging. And as been highlighted for us, getting your first job in text can be really, really hard. In tech, folx often, recruiters are always .. that's not helpful. And it can be especially difficult for folx who come through less traditional routes to get where you're going. And you may think that a tighter job market for folx early in your career means you've got to take whatever you can get. But I want to lovingly push at you that that's not always true.

There is meaningful negotiation you can engage with from your very first steps in the tech career market. This is, and .. let's not get too terribly political. We'll do that in the conceptual after-party. But this is still a market. You still have the option of where you sell your labor. I really want to keep coming back to that. You have the choice of who you sell your labor to and under what circumstances. And that sounds very conceptually great. But we live in a world where we also need to pay rent and occasionally eat food. So, this, oh, you can make these choices, understanding these happen often in .. I mean always in a world with real-world constraints. Sometimes that negotiation, that boundary-setting can come in the form of passing up what feels like an opportunity at the time.

Negotiation is primarily around .. I think it's fully around setting these internal boundaries for yourself and then having discussions about what you want, what they want, and where you're hitting these hard boundaries. And the challenge here is I'm .. you know what? I'm mean to everyone. I'm terribly pushy. So, I've tried to write this talk in a way where I'm not telling you what to do. Or more accurately, I'm not telling you what I want you to negotiate for. I mean, you're adults. You know what's best for you. And telling people what to ask for, that just never works. But I'm so bossy. I failed, really. There's one thing that I want to try and lovingly, lovingly and gently that I want for you as you start negotiating early in your career.

You don't work for free. That's it. You're not gonna work for free. And obvious .. there's an asterisk here. Exceptions exist. You can make a website for your sister's engineering club. Yeah, if you're part of an actual volunteer organization, amazing. But as a general rule for folx early in your career, I want you to aggressively shun free work. And especially if somebody comes to you and says, oh, wow, I've got this app idea. Hey, I've got this really good idea. Why don't you come on as an equity-only partner? If you want to, like .. and, of course, there are breakout stories of people who have made it big that way. You can do that later in your career. Right now, you don't work for free. Your early career, you're getting established, and you're going to do the things that are best for you. Please, if you don't mind me being a bully. What I want is for you to be able to push back when .. especially when prospective employees say we're going to need a day or two work trial. I've never heard of that. We'll talk about norms in hiring later.

If someone says, come on in and work for a day or two, we'll see how you fit. The polite way to push back on that, oh, you know, I'm not really in a position right now where I'm able to do work trials for free, but I'd be super happy to talk to you about maybe some contract work. Although I might push that a little farther and say don't work for people who want you to work for free. And I want to talk to you about negotiation across a couple of different phases sort of in your career. And these are all gonna be really applicable for folx early career.

Let's first talk about what stuff's like when you're looking for work. And hiring in tech, there are these shared conventions in our industry on what's reasonable and what's unreasonable in the hiring and interview process. And Ben pointed this out really helpfully where he said, oh, you know what? Now that I'm a bit more senior, sometimes I'll just say, no, no, I don't .. I won't do this or that. Me being of an age and of an age in tech, I, personally, get a little bit, oh, gosh, no thank you at whiteboard tests these days. Hiring and interviews in tech should be within this acceptable weirdness range. Jess, I'm early in my career. How do I know when things are too weird? And this is a really solid question.

Early career can be so much harder to know when what a company's asking you for is weird or if it's unreasonable. This is normal. This isn't on you. This is gonna stem both from a lack of industry experience and a lack of experience with these industry norms. It's not on you. It's an employer's responsibility to be reasonable in hiring. But you still need to know when things are weird. Ask an old .. in the industry .. not necessarily an actual old person. But talk to somebody who has been around a little while. You can come .. you know what? You can come and find me directly. I'm over on Twitter, and I always love to chat, but come and ask me, come and ask someone else, come and ask some of these other speakers, I bet, and say, hey, I'm going through an interview process where this is happening. Is this acceptably weird? And sometimes it's not.

If in the interview stage something is too weird, very early career, you may find that your negotiation options can feel limited. Your ability to negotiate in this hiring process is often limited to withdrawing your participation in the hiring process. Oh, gosh, you know what? That's not really a good fit for me. And you know what? If it sucks, hit the bricks. And, of course, this is not something that always works. Sometimes you need a job. You need any job. But you can take a garbage job. If they're bad to you, if they're weird in interviews, I give you my personal blessing to take a garbage job and continue to do interviews. You can .. you just leave it off your Linkedin, you leave it off your rÈsumÈ. It never happened, I swear.

But one thing that was so exciting to me is, if there's a terrible interview process, if you've got the financial freedom to, if you're not going to be in a terrible personal situation if you don't get this job right now, you can just walk out. I mean, of course, it's polite to say, oh, hey, thanks so much for the interview. You know what? I'm getting the feeling that this role might not be a good fit for me. I'll go ahead and cancel the next interview call. But there's a polite way to do it, but you can do it. When this occurred to me, that I could just leave, even leave a Zoom interview, that was magical. And, of course, if just leaving isn't useful enough, you can also gently push back on aspects of the process that aren't a good fit for you.

For example, if somebody's giving you an extensive and exhausting tech test, you can say, oh, you know, I don't really have this kind of time in my schedule. Here's my portfolio or here's my GitHub. Would these give you a comparable idea of what I'm doing? Unfortunately, this type of negotiation where you substitute out or push against individual pieces of an interview process or hiring process I don't always see being terribly successful for folx early stage. You can do it. I'd encourage you to. But I want to prepare for you it's not always gonna land as well as you want. But let's move along in this conceptual hiring process.

And let's go to the offer stage. Who doesn't love a job offer? You've got the offer, yet you went through this interview process. They weren't too weird, you didn't hit the bricks, and you've gotten an offer. Amazing. And this is really the point at which we often think about negotiation. You've got a lot of room to negotiate when we talk about accepting work. And as much as I didn't want to tell you what to do and to be a bit mean, I want you to ask for more money. Do it. Just see what happens. And I will go ahead and flag that this is culturally dependent. If you're .. if you're joining us from my birth nation of the States, do it, it's cool. Everybody in the States does it. Here in the United Kingdom, totally fine as well. Most of Western Europe, yeah. You may want to check with somebody in your own region. I know in Japan, more established companies, it's a bit challenging to do this. Start-ups, you just ask them for more money. It's fine. But check with somebody in your individual region. If they say, yeah, that's a thing, just do it.

I have .. there's a little asterisk again .. letting you know, I mean, stuff could go a little bit weird. I've heard a lot of folx who are cautious of asking for main and say, oh, what if they withdraw the offer? What if anyway say, oh, you've asked to more money, you can't have this job. I do want to flag, I've only heard of this happening very rarely. And I've only really heard of this happening at places that had several other red flags pop up. You may get an answer that, oh, we're not able to negotiate on salary or this is firm, but generally unless it's a place that's got some other red flags going, it's usually pretty okay to ask for more money. You should just do it. Do it to see how it feels.

You say, well, Jess, how much more money should I ask for? You say just ask for more money. Money is this fluid concept. I could ask for 10 quid or 100,000 quid. How much more money do I get here? And unhelpfully, the answer is that it depends. If a job is offering you below market rates, I want you to ask for at least enough to bridge the gap to market rates for your role and for your geographic area. You might say, well, what's market rates? Sites like or Or, again, going and finding your peers can be a really good way to say, oh, is this pay appropriate? Is this an appropriate level?

But even if I'm so mean, I'm just gonna push y'all all day, even if they're pay market, I want you to ask for more money anyway, just for funzies. Asking for the equivalent of an extra $2,000, $5,000, depending on the size of the offer is not weird at all in many markets. And what's that gonna be? That's gonna be 1,800 .. no, just ask for an extra 2 grand, extra 5 grand in British moneys and Euros. You know what? Ask for an extra 200 to 500 reasonably large international currency units. Yeah. Nobody's gonna .. nobody reasonable is gonna bounce you an offer for that. Yeah. We say, well, Jess, how do I ask? Someone said they want to hire me. I need a job, and you're telling me to go back and ask them for money. You say, yeah, yeah, it's cool. Do it via email. Oh, and always .. always negotiate via email for offers. Say, oh, thanks so much, could you email the details over? And email them back. Or if you must on a call and say, say something nice about the offer. Oh, I'm so excited to work with Cookie Corp. This looks like a fantastic offer. Would it be possible to adjust the salary up between the X and Y range. You can add a justification and say, oh, do you know what? I'm see a lot of my peers come in at this level. This seems to be more in line with the local market, if you've done the research. You can add the extra justification on the end, but you don't really have to. You can literally say, oh, I'm so excited about this offer. I hope I'll be a great fit for the team. Can I have a little more money? And that's .. you can just do it. It's free.

And you can ask for other things as well. There are similar tactics to ask for more vacation time or getting some internal time to work on open source projects. Or other common perks you may be seeing at other companies. But .. and this sounds very strange for entry-level folx and for early career folx, but oftentimes when I hear about people's negotiation processes, companies are far happier just giving you some extra money because they've got the internal processes for that set up. If you say, oh, if you can't give me an extra .. an extra chunk of money, can I have an extra two vacation days? That's probably not a button on the HR software. Whereas give somebody a small blob of extra money, that's usually a button.

So, you've interviewed. Stuff wasn't too weird. You got the offer. Let's say you took it. Hopefully, you took it and they gave you just a tiny bit of extra money. And now you're in a job. Hopefully a job that's good to you. How are we gonna negotiate from here? And the first thing I want to flag, and I'm really excited about this, is you do not have to wait to start a conversation around negotiations. You don't have to wait for a review period. You don't have to wait until your boss brings it up. And oftentimes your boss won't bring it up. You can start a conversation around what you'd like to see in your role. Using language like, hey, I've really enjoyed the past year or I've really enjoyed my past 18 months or I've really enjoyed my past 6 months, if you're nice and bold. I'd really like to talk about what we can do to structure this role to make it even better for me and even better for the team in the future.

I've used some very, very messy math, which is, really, the longer you've been in your role and the more you've had the chance to expand on your skills, the more leverage you're going to have in these discussions and in these negotiations. And I think, unless you're in a very hot hiring market, I think saying, "I've been here such and such a length of time and I've learned those .. you must give me this," I mean, it might work, bluffing and bravado may, indeed, be a good way to go. Oh, but, gosh, it's a very bold tone to take, isn't it? Oh, you know, the more senior you get, the more bold I want you to get. But, yeah, keep in mind that, the time you spent in your role makes you more and more valuable to them. And the more work you put into your skills, the more they develop, the more value have as you sell your labor. You say, well, okay, I'm gonna negotiate at work. You've already told me to ask for more money and they offer. What else can I ask for here? Well, good news, it's still easiest to ask for more money.

And this is something that I often find is really baffling to early career folx when I talk to them about it. And it's baffling to early career folx because this doesn't make sense. It's just plain old weird. When you're working in a company, generally, your raises, the raises you get annually or the raises you get when you enter a negotiation are very rarely in line with the rate of growth for market rates. And this means often for you on a purely financial basis, it's financially often better to change jobs every few years than to ask for a raise, just because you'll get a much bigger bump changing jobs than you will getting raises. And this applies to your employer as well. It means that when they hire someone new in your role, they would have to pay quite a bit more, that relative market rates will have risen. So, if you go and ask your boss for more money .. if you really think about it in a really reasonable sense, you're doing them a favor. You're saying, oh, hi, I'd like you .. and you should probably not frame it this way to them .. but you're giving them the opportunity to pay you closer to market rate. That's much more likely to retain you and keep you happy.

And as hiring is extremely expensive, really, giving them the opportunity to retain you, and, again, I wouldn't frame it like that, is you doing them a big favor. You say, well, Jess, you keep pushing me for money. Well, you're welcome. What else should I be asking for? Cool, you've got a lot more latitude here, once you're working in a job. There are a lot of other things you can ask for. Other common requests around negotiation could include, I want to work remotely. And, I mean, I hope that for most of you, unless there's a very pressing business need, that they are already having you work remotely. In these complicated times, eh, stay safe, yeah. You could ask for more flexible hours and say, oh, do you know what? I've been here a while. I'd like to drop to a four-day week. That's the dream, isn't it?

You could ask for better equipment and say, hey, I'd love to have a discussion around me getting an upgraded machine so I can do my work better. You can ask for more vacation time. Access to different kinds of projects.

And access to learning opportunities. When it's safe to travel again, you could say, I'd really like to be at this conference. Can we discuss how this might be a good fit, both for me and the company?

While I don't think we often want to get into a very hardline "I want this or I'll leave," even the gentlest, even the most polite negotiation is based around your potential to withdraw your labor and sell it somewhere else. In the same way that if an interview process is too weird and bad, you got to book it. If you're in a role, even early career, and it hurts you and it's bad for you and it's bad, I am going to, again, lovingly and distantly encourage you to just go ahead and leave. They can't make you stay. I mean, they can .. they can negotiate to attempt to convince you to stay, but that's really at the end of the day for you.

Let's talk .. because I've chatted in a couple of parts about .. and Ben really pointed this out in a succinct way as well. That early in your career, it can feel like and practically it can be true that you just need to take your first job. You just need to get that first job. But I really want to stress that as your career progresses, and it doesn't have to go very far to give you this extra leverage. But remember not just your time in a specific role, but your time in tech plus skills development gives you more leverage. If you're in a job where you're not being appreciated, you're not being rewarded, and they won't negotiate with you, in most markets for tech right now, there is nothing wrong with leaving a role after a year. If you're a career changer like me or if you're a career changer like Ben, we may have come from industries where the idea of changing a job .. changing your job after just a year, I'll look like a job hopper. It'll be terrible. You can book after a year. And if somebody's terrible to you, you can book earlier, if you get that offer. Just go ahead and redact that. If you're someplace for two weeks or two months, that's really between you and them, isn't it?

But I want to stress that this doesn't just have to be a waiting game. We are really lucky in technology. In many regions, we have a larger amount of choice of where we sell our labor, relative to people in other professions. Right now, in your early career, you not only have some power .. and I really want to stress that you do likely have more power than you think to negotiate, to accept, to look for a good fit, but you also have the beautiful and glorious benefit of existing in linear time. If you're a front-end developer, if you're a DevOps professional, if you're a technical writer right now and you're early in your career, if you stick with it, you're going to be senior. As your negotiating power grows, I want you to think back to which companies did you interview with and they got weird? Which employers treated you well when you were early career? And which took advantage of you?

I am a deeply petty person, and what I'd love to encourage you to do is get a physical paper notebook. I absolutely want you to have a Burn Book and take these notes. Nobody can .. I'm not a lawyer. I was about to say nobody can GDPR your personal paper notebook, but I now have my own personal nightmare. But take these notes. As you get more negotiating power, as you get more of this leverage, you're also going to get the ability to say .. to yourself, unless you want to go big. Say, oh, gosh, here's an opportunity with such and such. Go into my notebook. Oh, they were terrible to me in my first year when I was looking for work. No thank you. I want none of that. I want you to go ahead and keep these notes now because you are going to walk on to incredible success as you continue through the industry. And I want you to be able to incentivize and work with the people who were kind to you and be able to keep those people who didn't deserve you and didn't negotiate to keep you in their lives, keep them out of your space.

So, let's recap the most important things. And I'm going to gently yell them at you. Just gently aggressively. What do we not do, my loves? We do not work for free. Obviously, there are those exceptions. Yes, your sister's engineering club, yes, volunteering, but generally speaking, early career, you can work for free when you get to be more senior. Right now, you don't need to do it. The people asking you to do it should go in that book. If it sucks, if there is something that is going it hurt you, if there is something that is bad for you and you have the option to walk away, withdraw your labor and withdraw your attention and leave when you can. And the thing I want you to carry with you as you grow more and more of your power is to remember how they treated you. Remember how people helped you or didn't help you and remember who gave you what you deserved and who didn't.

Thank you so much. If you want me to double check if anything's weird for you, you can .. you know what? Twitter's probably the best place to find me. But, seriously, come and get me and be like, oh, hey, is this job weird? Should I, indeed, hit those bricks? And I will always endeavor to get back to you. Thank you so much.