June 13, 2013, 6:00 AM —
Image credit: REUTERS/Chip East
It’s no secret that software developers make good money these days. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for a software developer in the United States is close to $100,000. But how common is it for developers (that is, people actually writing code for a living) to make twice that much annually?
It turns out that, while making $200,000 a year as a developer is unusual, it’s not unheard of. The BLS shows the 90th percentile of salary for software developers to be $138,880. According to Salary.com, which is based on employer reported data, the 90th percentile of base salary for software engineers with 8-10 years of experience is $139,473 ($146,893 when bonues are factored in). On Glassdoor, which relies on self-reported salary data, the 90th percentile of salaries for software developers is $105,000, though there are a handful of self-reported developer salaries (or the annual equivalent) around $200K from companies like Netflix, Bloomberg, Sony, Citrix, and Microsoft.
OK, so a small portion (less than 10%) of developers make this kind of money, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim high! What does it take to get to that level of pay, while still remaining a hands-on coder (in other words, without moving into a pure management role)?
A number of developers who’ve achieved this level shared advice on what it takes on a Hacker News thread recently. While there is no magic formula - or one path - for making this much money as a developer, some common themes did crop up. If you want to make $200,000 a year (or more) as a software developer here are a few key pieces of advice:
Choose the right industry
You may be the world’s greatest code writer, but you’re not going to make that kind of money if the business or industry you’re in can’t support it. Not surprisingly, working in the finance industry seems to be a good place to get paid well, as is working for a big, profitable tech company like Microsoft, Google or Facebook (see Glassdoor data, above).
In my case, finance. It's really not hard to make $300k/yr....
When I was working at Microsoft, after about 6 years I was well over $200k a year (before cash bonuses).
With equity packages, base and bonus, many Google/Facebook employees crack the 200k figure.
Some noted that working in finance can be boring, while getting in at a place like Microsoft can lead to being shackled with “golden handcuffs,” due to stock option vesting plans and such.
Work as a contractor or consultant
If getting the top-dollar for your work is your main goal, working as a contractor or consultant is considered one of the best ways to go. Some of the drawbacks, of course, are having to cover your own benefits, the uncertainty of your next job after your contract ends and potentially crazy hours. But, with the greater risks come potentially bigger rewards.
It might be easier to think of $200k as -only- $100 an hour. That is not a very high rate for a contractor.
As a consultant I have more than once been the highest paid person at a company--sometimes making more even than the executives.
Become a generalist - and a specialist
Having a wide breadth of knowledge about many different technologies was recommended, but so was choosing to dive deep into some areas. The latter can pay off handsomely if you choose a skill in great demand (e.g., Ruby on Rails), while the former can help you sell yourself as a general problem solver (while also protecting yourself when technologies fall out of favor). Several people also noted the value of being a “full-stack” person.
My specialty is pulling together a full-stack to solve what others can't seem to figure out. Over time you do get known as someone who can solve things and you get hired for figuring things out -- not any particular language or technology you know.
In my experience as a independent consultant $100/hour or more is readily achievable if you have a reasonably rare expertise (e.g. data warehousing/business intelligence) and a track record of delivering high quality results.
There you have it. You can, indeed, make $200,000 a year as a programmer. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll be happy. As one commenter advised to younger programmers:
Do more of the stuff you'll wish you'd done more of once you get older. Go have fun, get laid, travel.
Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.