How to Get a Raise or Promotion for Software Developers

Written By John Sonmez

Many software developers erroneously think that if they get a good review, they’ll get a raise or promotion.

While sometimes this is the case, it’s usually not.

More often than not, when advising those vying for a better position, I hear wannabe-highly-paid Software Engineers tell me about how they got the highest marks they could, yet a raise or promotion “just wasn’t in the budget.”

Or worse yet—ok, maybe not worse, but more insulting—they get a peanut-level pay raise of a few measly percent that doesn’t even keep up with inflation.

Yes, it’s important to ace your review, but just acing your review alone won’t get you that big raise or promotion you are after.

You’ll have to be a bit more strategic and plan things out a little more carefully if you really want to make the big bucks.

And that is what this chapter is about, making the big bucks.

Well maybe not about making the big bucks, but getting a hefty raise or promotion––one to write home to your mom about.

Always Choose Responsibility Over Pay

Before we can talk about how to get a raise or promotion, let’s talk about whether you should go for a raise or a promotion.

Which is better: more money or a bigger title?

More moolah or more responsibility?

It seems like an obvious answer, right?

I’ll take the cash, Bob.


But, no. That's actually the wrong answer.

See, it’s like this.

I’ve only watched two episodes of House of Cards, but I remember that the main character—I believe he’s played by Kevin Spacey—said something that was so true.

“Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power—in this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.”

It’s the same thing with responsibility.

Responsibility is power, for all intents and purposes.

The thing is, if you chase responsibility, money will follow.

You can always trade responsibility—read: power—for money.

Think of it this way: would you rather get a job at a Fortune 500 company where you get paid what a CEO gets paid, or get paid what the janitor gets paid but get the actual title of CEO?

In the short term, the money makes sense.

But what happens after you lose that job?

You can try and tell the next janitor job you apply for that you were making $300,000 a year at your last job, but they’ll just laugh at you.

Yet, if you’ve been the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, imagine how you could parlay that into cash at a later date.

The point is that when you're going after something, you need to be going after positions of power, which roughly translates to more responsibility.

Take every opportunity you can to be put in charge of something, even if it's a shit job.

It doesn’t matter.

You want to grow and expand your fiefdom by gaining more and more responsibility.

Look for some undeveloped swampland that no one wants to touch, take it over, get your hands dirty, and build a theme park out of it—heck, that’s what Walt Disney did.

Find those areas that no one wants, those projects that no one will touch, and take them over. Then, make them shine.

I promise you, if you keep getting promoted and increasing your responsibility within any organization, the pay will eventually catch up with you.

Take Initiative

Some people seem to think paying your dues means that you clock in and clock out every day, day after day, and get your work done, then after some magical amount of time, the “dues fairy” will strike you on the head with the “dues wand” and you’ll suddenly be rewarded for your efforts.

Nope. Sorry, it don’t work that way, brah.

If you want to get a raise, if you want to get that promotion, you gotta do more—much more—than what is asked of you.

You’ve got to go out there and make things happen, not wait for things to happen to you.

It’s called taking initiative.

Let those other people in the diner patiently wait for the ketchup to come out of the bottle. I’m gonna stick a straw in the bottle and suck that ketchup right out of there.

The point is a promotion or raise is not going to come to you because you simply deserve it.

You're going to have to get out there and be aggressive.

You're going to have to tell your boss that you want to get a raise or promotion.

You're going to have to actively take steps to get what you want.

You have to make your own opportunity.

Most of the rest of this post will focus on ways you can do that.

Ways that you can not just sit at your desk and do your work, and even do a good job of it, but to do more, to become more.

Invest In Your Education

One of the first initiative-taking things you can do is to invest in your education.

When was the last time you read a book?

I suppose if you got this far in this post, you're probably one of the overachievers in this area, or I’m an extremely awesome and entertaining writer and you just can’t wait to see what I am going to say next.

Hint: it’s the second one.

But, seriously, buy some books and read them.

Always be reading some kind of technical book, every single day.

I used to read a technical book for 30 minutes a day.

I’d call this “treadmill time,” because I’d do it while walking on a treadmill.

Don’t just read books, but do online courses—and actually complete them.

Attend seminars or conferences or live training classes.

Go back and complete your degree, or get another degree.

Hire a personal career coach to mentor you.

Don’t be afraid to spend some money to make more money.

I’ve heard it said that 10 percent of what you make, you should reinvest in yourself as personal development.

I’m not sure if I invest 10 percent exactly, but I’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars in my personal development over the years.

Not only will all of this make you more valuable and more effective, but a marked increase in education is one of the most effective bullets in the “give-me-a-raise” gun.

If your boss asks why you should get a raise or promotion and you say, “Well, when you hired me I had an eighth grade education, but now I have my Ph.D.,” it’s pretty difficult to argue that you aren’t worth more money or deserve a title upgrade.

Make Your Goals Known

I used to practice what is called covert communication.

This was my basic strategy.

Suppose I wanted you to do something for me. I wouldn’t say to you, “Hey, I’d really like to have some of that Kit Kat bar you have there. Can you snap me off a piece?”

Nope, instead what I would do is this: I’d go “humph.”

Then—in a masterful stroke—I’d sigh and look at you, making my eyes just slightly bigger.

If you still didn’t get the message, I’d humph again.

Guess how effective this covert communication strategy was?

Pretty much zero effective. All it would do is piss people off.

Often people would know what I wanted—that tasty, crunchy Kit Kat bar—but they’d often ignore me just to spite me.

If you want something, ask for it.

When I sold my book, I didn’t beat around the bush and try to drop hints that you should buy my book.

No, I said, “This is a fucking awesome book! Buy it now! It’s fucking awesome!”

If you want your boss to give you a raise or a promotion, just ask for it.

Just say “Hey dude, look man, I’ve been here a while and guess what, man? I want a raise dammit. Give me a raise.”

Well, don’t put it quite that way, but tell your boss directly, in no uncertain terms, that you want a raise or a promotion and it is your goal to get one.

Oh, and you do this BEFORE the review—well before the review.

Not during, not after.

I promise you, the raise or promotion is mostly decided well before you sit down for the formal review.

In fact, many times the entire review process is a sham designed to give the person who has already been slotted for that raise or promotion that raise or promotion.

You don’t have to ask for the raise or promotion right away. In fact, don’t do this.

Instead, plant the seed.

Tell your boss that what your goal is.

Tell him what you plan to do to achieve the goal.

Ask him what else you need to do or what he would suggest for you to reach this goal by your next review.

If he says “it’s not possible” respond with, “if it were possible, or if there were only a small chance and it required a huge effort, what would I need to do?”

If you can get him to answer that question and you can do whatever herculean task he asks you to do, you're going to get the raise, buddy––and then you're going to take me out for a nice steak dinner.

Make Yourself Valuable Outside Your Company

One of the best ways to increase your value inside a company is to increase your value outside the company.

There is only so much you can do to build your brand and reputation inside your current company and position.

In fact, it’s often difficult to change first impressions and to grow inside a company.

It’s kind of like how your family will always see you as that goofy 11-year-old version of yourself no matter how old you are.

The solution is to get out there and market yourself: build your personal brand.

You want to create some sense of external pressure where your employer realizes how valuable you are because other people, outside the company, realize how valuable you are.

When your boss hears you on a podcast, sees that you’ve published a book, or hears someone else talking about an article you wrote, your value goes up.

You are finally not that goofy 11-year-old kid.

I’ve actually found learning how to market yourself so important that I built an entire course called How to Market Yourself as a Software Developer.

In general though, you want to do things that are going to increase your reputation and overall notoriety in the software development industry, especially in your particular specialty.

If people outside your company think you are valuable, people inside your company will think you are valuable, and it will be much easier to get that raise or promotion.

Become An Asset

If you can prove to me that you can make me more money than it costs to have you on my payroll, I’ll hire you on the spot.

Most smart employers would—it’s just common sense.

Yet, many software developers forget that the primary reason they are being paid a salary at all is not because they are smart or because of the skills they have, it’s because they make their employer money. Moolah.

You need to make the company money.

If you want to get paid more money, the equation is pretty simple: make the company more money.

As an employee, it’s easy to get disconnected from the business world and economics of the company you are working for and forget that ultimately you are part of and contribute to the bottom line.

Try and figure out how.

Try and figure out how what you are doing directly impacts the revenue your company makes.

Then try and figure out how you can increase that bottom line.

What can you do that you know is going to make the company more money?

I know software developers who figured out a brand new product they could create for their employer. They penned deals where not only did they get a raise, but they got a royalty percentage from the new product.

You have to think outside the box here. Think like an entrepreneur or business person.

You can be an intrapreneur in the company you work for.

When you go in for a raise, the best argument you could possibly make is that you are making the company more money.

Show how you increased the bottom line and how much the company is benefiting from your work, and you’ll have a very solid argument.

Think of it this way.

If I’m your boss and you walk into my office and you show some compelling evidence that suggests you are making the company $1 million dollars a year in revenue, do you think I am going to refuse your request for a $10,000 raise?

Maybe, but it’s much, much less likely.

Ask For A Specific Number

Here is the thing, if you ask for a raise, ask for a specific number.

Ask for exactly what you want.

It’s very difficult to negotiate and get what you want, when what you want is “more.”

More sounds greedy.

More is undefined.

Your definition of more is different than mine.

When my wife asks me if I want some more Tollhouse pie, her definition of more is another small slice, mine is the rest of the pie please, oh and put whip cream on top and some ice cream on the side.

Before you even go into your boss’s office to ask for a raise, know exactly what the number you are going to ask for is.

Do your homework and calculate what that number is.

Then, do more homework and come up with the reasoning and calculations which give you some evidence to support why the number you are asking for is what you should be paid.

You are much more likely to get what you ask for when you are specific and can provide evidence to back up your number.

Don’t Make Threats

One of the worst ways to try to get a raise or a promotion is threaten that you are going to leave.

Sometimes if you are a key player on a project and the company can’t afford to lose you right now, they’ll give in and meet your demands, but your victory is likely only temporary.

Why temporary?

Well, let’s think about a scenario for a minute.

Suppose you come into my office and you tell me how if you don’t get a raise you are going to go to this other job where they will pay you more.

I’m a bit stuck, because I don’t want you to quit on the spot, since I don’t have a replacement for you and you are a critical resource to completing the project on time.

But, I’m a bit annoyed. More than a bit.

You’ve put me in a spot.

You aren’t telling me you deserve a raise because you are more valuable than you were before or based on some other compelling evidence, but instead, you are taking advantage of the bind I would be in if I had to replace a key player on the project this late in the game.

So, I realize that I don’t have much of a choice and reluctantly agree to your demands––because that is what they are.

But guess what I do?

I start looking for your replacement immediately.

I can’t have someone on my team who I can’t trust.

When I’m on the front line, I want someone who is watching my back.

I don’t want someone who I have to worry about fragging me with friendly fire. That’s not cool.

You’ve moved yourself, in my mind, from the asset category to the liability category.

You are now a liability to the team, and an expensive one at that.

When you ask for the raise or promotion, just ask for it.

Don’t make threats, don’t say you are going to leave.

If you’ve made yourself valuable outside the company like we talked about, your boss is going to know that refusing your request may very well cause you to look elsewhere.

But there is a huge difference between making a wise business decision and carefully coming to your own conclusion, and being given an ultimatum.

No one likes an ultimatum.

Don’t Talk About Why You Need The Money

I know this is going to seem kind of hard to believe, but no one cares about your sad sob story or how poor you are.

Really, no one cares.

They may pretend to care and toss you a sympathy bone, but underneath it all, they are much more concerned about themselves and their own problems.

You are very unlikely to get a raise out of pity.

Of all the reasons to give a raise or promotion to someone, pity is perhaps the lowest.

I want to give you a raise because you are doing a kickass job and you are making me money.

I don’t want to give you a raise because your neighbor just bought a new car and you realized how old your car is and you’ve been racking up debt and you are barely making it, so you need more money.

Yet, so many software developers go and ask for raises and when asked why, they talk about how they have a new baby or they just bought a house or some other thing that no one in the world cares about besides themselves.

Don’t do that.

Talk about the business case.

Talk about why you deserve the money, not why you NEED the money.

If All Else Fails, Go Elsewhere

So, you’ve executed everything in this chapter to a tee.

You’ve made yourself more valuable, invested in your education, set up the business case for why you should get a raise or promotion, and you’ve even taken on huge amounts of responsibility without even being asked—all on your own initiative.

But, when you ask for a raise or promotion, your pointy-haired boss just says “no.”

That’s ok. At least you tried.

Honestly, the best way to get a raise or promotion is usually to go somewhere else.

It’s true.

I advanced my own career more by strategically hopping from jobs than I did just staying in one place.

I’m not saying you should become a software developer hobo or transient, but you might strongly want to consider making a move every two or three years to another company where you can get a bigger salary and a better title.

It’s often easier to move up in a company from the outside than it is from the inside.

In fact, I’ve actually left a company, went and worked somewhere else, and then came back to the original company in a much higher position. And from the emails I get from software developers, I’m not the only one.

Often times it’s difficult for people who work with you every day to see how much you’ve grown and increased your skills and abilities, so the simple truth of it is that you have to go somewhere else where people don’t have preconceived notions of you if you want to get paid what you are worth.

So, if you’ve tried everything else and you still can’t get that raise or promotion, it might just be time to move on.