The numbers paint a pretty rosy financial picture for IT professionals. After a respectable 3.6% rise in 2015, IT compensation is up again this year, according to Computerworld's 2016 IT Salary Survey results.
The 3,300 IT pros who took the survey reported an average 3.9% increase in total compensation (base salary plus bonus) for 2016. We haven't seen such strong consecutive-year pay increases in nearly a decade.
Overall, career satisfaction levels are positive, with 60% of workers reporting that they believe an IT career path — and its potential for salary advancement — is more promising than other career paths. Only 9% of IT workers feel that IT offers less potential than other careers. And a whopping 85% of survey respondents said they are satisfied or very satisfied with their decision to pursue a career in IT.
Not surprisingly, money occupies a prime spot in workers' self-proclaimed happy place. As the economy has continued to improve in the past 12 months, so has the number of IT professionals reporting a raise. This year, 71% of IT workers — up from 67% in 2015 — said they received a raise. Just 3% reported a pay cut, down slightly from 2015's figure of 4%.
"We've seen a continued methodical increase in compensation in tech," says John Reed, senior executive director of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology (RHT). "It's an encouraging picture. Over the last three to five years, we've seen mid-single-digit salary increases. It's steady growth."
But not everyone is feeling the love. True, after a half-decade of salary upticks, more IT workers feel good about their overall financial picture. Four years ago, just 32% of IT professionals polled by Computerworld felt that they had gained ground financially in the prior two years. This year, 41% said that they feel they have gained ground.
That shows progress, but more than half of 2016 survey respondents said that their financial situation has remained flat — or worse, lost ground — in the past two years and that their salary isn't keeping pace with business growth.
What gives? How does one join the elite group of IT pros bringing home fatter paychecks? Here's a short list of suggestions from IT professionals who have done so.
Move on to move up
Troy Whittaker had advanced five times through various IT functions at the University of Minnesota before butting up against a statutory requirement that capped his salary as a state employee. "No matter how well I performed or what I achieved, I couldn't make more than someone else in my job code, which was programmer/analyst — a title invented in the 1970s," Whittaker says.
So, Whittaker, 39, started looking elsewhere, eventually joining ITS Partners, a small IT services and consulting firm based in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. "I started off in a consulting role and increased my base salary by 50%," he recalls. That was in May 2010.
Whittaker also received a signing bonus and earned various incentive bonuses in his first 12 months with ITS. "In that first year, I more than tripled my income," he says.
Nearly six years later, Whittaker is still with ITS as vice president of core infrastructure, leading a technical practice. "I have a base salary which is quite fair, and I'm able to live the way I want without making a lot of hard choices," he says.
There's also ample opportunity to bolster his income through the company's incentive program, which accounts for 40% of Whittaker's total compensation and which has unlimited potential: The more business he brings in, the higher his commissions. "It's like an accelerator," he says.
The number of IT pros who are changing employers is on the rise, according to Reed. "We're seeing a stronger job churn," he says. "Up until about three years ago, the predominant mentality was 'The devil you know is better than the one you don't.' But now we're seeing an increase in willingness among IT professionals to put themselves out in the market to get an increase."
Indeed, fully three-quarters of the respondents to Computerworld's survey reported that a salary increase is the factor that would most influence them to change jobs. That said, only 10% are actively looking for a job with a different employer, with another 35% passively seeking a job with a different employer.
But the rest aren't necessarily being shortsighted, according to Reed. Despite the potential for earning significantly more money with a new employer, Reed says he always tells IT professionals that their greatest value is at their current company because "they know you, you know them, you have insider knowledge of how things get done."
Sheree Goldstein, a senior business analyst at New York-based Kate Spade & Co., has been working on the same project since 2011 — replacing a global point-of-sale system for the upscale fashion design company.
"Being an expert in parts of that larger system has contributed to me being well thought of," she says. "It's a business-critical project, and I think that's a really important part of it."
In 2015, for example, the company had a major layoff, but Goldstein, 60, survived the cut. "We were already pretty lean, so some of the people who left in the layoff were damn good," she says. The differentiator, she adds, is "they weren't necessarily on mission-critical projects."
In addition to keeping her job, Goldstein, who has been with the company for nine years, last year received a cost-of-living raise of about 3%, plus a financial bonus that was more than she expected. Things look good for the coming year as well. "We began in the last couple of years to make money," she notes — and she remains attached to a project related to the all-important global POS system. "So I'm anticipating that 2016 will be a bonus year," Goldstein says.
Individual effort and achievement can also contribute mightily to the pay equation. Consider the case of Alison Diem, 36, a business analyst at Detroit-based Quicken Loans. She joined the company after her previous employer closed its Los Angeles office.
In her former job, Diem serviced accounts and customers for a financial firm. "I never intended to be in IT," she says, but "the only thing Quicken Loans had open [at that time] was a position in IT dealing with wholesale mortgages." So she took it. That was more than three years ago.
Since then, Diem has been on a project to digitize all documents for easier access and audit purposes, and she says she has intentionally made herself the go-to person for anything and everything to do with servicing documents.
"I have received both raises and bonuses," she says. "I also feel where I'm gaining ground is the continual learning process. I'm always learning new things, systems or tools. We do a lot of projects that come up very suddenly when new regulations are enacted. Lots of pieces need to be updated."
Ultimately, Diem has her eye on a role as a subject matter expert — a relatively new career path Quicken Loans created for workers who wish to advance but would prefer to remain in a specialized technical role rather than take on a leadership or managerial position.
"I feel like that is now definitely in the cards for me. I can be compensated as an expert without having to become a leader myself."
Switch your specialty
The average pay increase for IT pros overall, notes RHT's Reed, is in part being lifted by "certain disciplines, such as cybersecurity, big data and analytics, and cloud computing, that are seeing much more robust [salary] growth. If you're in those fields, you're probably seeing your compensation grow by 8% or 9% or 10% on average year to year," he says.
A new role in security, one of the hottest job categories in IT today, might be especially lucrative. In Computerworld's 2016 IT Salary Survey, information security managers reported an average pay increase of 6.4%, and security pros from all levels report a 4.6% bump.
"Information security is one of the best growth fields on the infrastructure side of things," says Chris Fuhrman, 39, who last summer transitioned from a desktop engineer role to a security administrator role, and in doing so, raised his salary at Life Time Fitness by $5,000. "It was a nice little bump," says Fuhrman, who's now responsible for endpoint security at the Chanhassen, Minn.-based chain of health and fitness centers.
Fuhrman attributes the salary jump directly to switching IT specialties. "For me, it was the change into security. Before, I wasn't doing poorly, but I definitely had a feeling I could stagnate there. Where I moved now is pretty much unlimited for growth," he says. "I'm depended on as a subject matter expert to evaluate new things rather than keep old things up and running."
Steve Chopelas took a page from the same playbook. A former software developer at Fidelity Investments, Chopelas, 46, saw the writing on the wall a few years back.
"I saw a lot of software development going offshore, so I started to look for something else. Fidelity wanted to keep all security internal, so it was a hotspot to gravitate to," he recalls. He got into information security as a means of ensuring job security.
Then, two years ago, he was recruited for a leadership role as an information security manager at Boston-based Homesite Insurance. His salary increased by about 7%. "I was already in a highly compensated salary range, so that was significant," he says. "The recruiter who recruited me said that security and mobile development were two areas [with] negative unemployment."
(See "10 tech specialties with rising salaries" for more fields seeing significant salary growth.)
Make more than money
At ITS, Whittaker acknowledges that earning more money has definitely been a plus. But at the core of his overall sense of gaining ground in his profession is the ability to work independently in the environment of his choice.
His company's culture is "built on self-motivation," he says, and he appreciates being able to work remotely when he chooses. "I think of my work as analogous to creative work. Office environments are nonproductive, and [in IT] you need several hours of creative time." At ITS, he adds, "it's your job to go out and make use of your resources."
Other respondents to Computerworld's survey also said they look beyond their paychecks. When asked what matters most about their job, respondents frequently cite tangible rewards such as base pay (52%), benefits (36%) and vacation time (32%). But many also name less-tangible factors, including job stability (43%), flextime and telecommuting options (31%), being valued for their opinion and knowledge (28%), and having challenging work (27%).
Chopelas, too, has come to the conclusion that it's not all about money. Despite his high pay at Homesite, he found the job to be a struggle, and not just because of the grinding commute between his home in New Hampshire and the office in Boston.
Chopelas says he's best in an individual contributor role. So after two years in management at Homesite, he recently resigned from the company to take a new position as a solutions architect with security consulting firm Optiv.
Here's the twist: He didn't take the job for more money or because he didn't feel appreciated and valued at Homesite. This is the first time he switched jobs when money wasn't the driving factor, he says.
"At some point, the money becomes less important. It's being happy and doing what you want and being satisfied with what it pays," he says. "I like to take things apart and figure out what makes them tick and put them back together. Ten years ago, I wanted to be a CIO. Not now. Now, I like being able to do what I like to do. It took me a while to get there."
This story, "IT Salary Survey 2016: How to pump up your paycheck" was originally published by Computerworld.