6 Unexpected Mistakes That Keep Developers from Getting a Raise

Andrew McDermott
Andrew McDermott

Getting a raise

Good performance is never enough.

Imagine working hard. You have an “above average” track record. You’ve never heard complaints — you even won the coveted “best employee” award last month.

So, your company decides to reward you by…

Demoting you.

Sounds bizarre and untrue, doesn’t it? Who’d be thick enough to punish an employee for doing a great job?

Doing a Great Job Isn’t Enough

AntarcticGorillas, a StackExchange user, shared the story above. He was genuinely frustrated because he did everything he was supposed to do, but ended up getting demoted instead.

Another StackExchange user dishes out some advice.

“Wow sounds like you failed to play the office politics game effectively. Good performance is never enough. You don’t play the game and you lose, 100% of the time if you are in management.”

He takes his bad advice even further.

“Ok now you have to salvage what is left. First, and I know you are going to hate this one, you have to make friends with your new boss. You have to get him to mentor you. You have to help him and not show your resentment. Yeah I know you resent him, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t. But this is the time to take the high road. This guy clearly has the office politics down pat, you need to learn from him.”

His advice is partially true. Good performance isn’t enough. It’s the baseline.

His advice to lie and manipulate? That stinks. But it isn’t the worst part. It’s the belief behind it.

I’m a _ Worker, I Deserve a Raise

As employees, we have the tendency to think we “deserve” it.

Developers do a great job. Most of us do everything we’re supposed to do. Still, many are disappointed with the money they’re making.

We know that many employers do their best to underpay. They walk a fine line, giving just enough to keep us on board, without affecting the profit margins they want.

It seems like your boss takes advantage of you.

You’re working your hands to the bone. You’re doing everything you’re asked to do and more. When your company’s in a bind, you deliver. Last minute updates? You get things done. Issues with scope creep? You handle it masterfully.

When you don’t get the raise you deserve, it feels like an insult.

More often than not, the issue has less to do with your work performance and more to do with the intangible details. Behaviors and counterproductive decisions that alienate allies, partners and opportunities. These mistakes make it harder to get the raise we’re hoping for.

Social conditioning leads many to ignore this stuff. “Ugh! Soft skills,” you might say. But these unexpected, common mistakes impact raises every day.

Mistake #1: What I Deserve vs What I Want

There’s a growing problem that’s slowly eroding good will in the developer community.


Open source entitlement is a great example. It goes like this:

  1. Developer needs code to solve a problem
  2. Developer finds open source code. It solves the problem
  3. Code creates problems
  4. Developer becomes angry, demands authors fix now. (For free!)

It’s an oversimplification but it conveys the point. These open source authors aren’t at our beck and call. It’s a terrible idea to demand extensive tech support, then write angry letters when we don’t get our way.

Mattias Petter Johansson over at FunFunFunction dives deeper into “developer entitlement.”

When we feel entitled, we overestimate our abilities and our contributions. We swallow the lie our ego feeds us. “You deserve this. You’re a senior developer after all.” Developers with this mindset are bargaining on the wrong side of the tracks.

Here’s how your boss thinks about raises.

“Holy crap, this is the guy that 10x’d our leads and sales in 18 months. The app he developed turned things around for us. We’re going to need to spend more if we want to keep this guy.”

See the difference?

They’re not operating from an entitled mindset. They’re approaching your raise from a transactional mindset, namely…

What am I getting for my money?

We’re not entitled to a raise. We’re not entitled to a promotion. Yet developers continue to approach salaries and promotions from an entitled mindset. I did a good job this year so, you “owe me.”

They usually make their approach like this.

Which is the part where managers give their blunt and unsatisfying answer.


Mistake #2: Being Right vs Being Respectful

Justin Keller, entrepreneur, developer and founder of San Francisco startup Commando.io wrote an open letter to the mayor. He was upset about the homeless in his community.

He didn’t want to see them on his way to work.

“The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day. I want my parents when they visit to have a great experience, and enjoy this special place.”

Maybe he didn’t mean to convey feelings of contempt and condescension. But, his words were still hurtful and disrespectful.

He had a point.

No one wants to live in a neighborhood filled with homeless people. Homeless people don’t want to live the way they do. We’re human, it’s normal to dislike these things.

Those who can avoid it, do so. Those who can’t, endure it.

The general thrust of his argument is this: He doesn’t want to deal with the problems that homeless people bring. Okay. But that’s not really the problem here.

It’s the othering of a group or type of people he views as beneath him.

That’s the problem.

Developers struggle with the very same issue. As a developer, you’re typically sure about your views. You’re logical and precise. You’re right and you know it, which is part of the problem.

You have a choice to make.

  • Be right. You can show everyone that you are, in fact, correct. That your way is right. This comes at a steep price if it’s handled poorly.
  • Protect the relationship. You can treat others with respect, avoid humiliating them and allow them to save face when they’re wrong.

Developers who focus on being “right” tend to be disrespectful. They burn allies and earn enemies.

Developers who focus on relationships first, discover their influence grows with those around them. They’re viewed as trustworthy, and more people listen when they have something to say. Being right is easy when everyone values your feedback.

Getting that raise or promotion is tough if you’re viewed as a snobby, know-it-all jerk.

Mistake #3: My Career vs My Loyalty

Google has been at the top of Fortune magazine’s list of best companies to work for every year since 2007. The job perks are legendary. For many, a spot at Google is a dream come true.

So why is Google struggling to keep its employees?

A recent report by PayScale states the median employee tenure at Google is a little over one year. Its workforce has grown, but it’s struggling to keep its people.

It’s not because Googlers are unhappy.

84 percent of their 28,500 employees state they have a high level of job satisfaction which, as you’d expect, is one of the highest among the Fortune 500.

Other tech firms aren’t having the same problem. The average tenure at Yahoo! and Microsoft is 2.4 and 4 years respectively.


The problem is loyalty. Loyalty is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

It’s not entirely our fault; We’re given bad advice. The strategy is:”Don’t ask for a raise, get a new job instead.”

It’s a destructive strategy that results in less trust. Employers limit the responsibility they give you because they believe you won’t be here that long anyway…

Work has become this cutthroat environment where we all pretend to look out for the team, when in reality, we’re looking out for ourselves.

If you’re a sophisticated developer, you know.

At many companies, project managers and other developers are all too eager to throw each other under the bus for more money. When an opportunity comes along, these employees will eat each other for the chance to win.

Jumping from job to job only works for so long. Disloyalty catches up with you as your market value drops. There’s no reason an employer should go out of their way to keep a disloyal developer.

Here’s what loyalty looks like to them.

  • Fidelity. You’re not sharing company secrets, discussing internal politics or airing the dirty laundry at work. You’re behaving in a trustworthy and honorable way, even when no one is watching.
  • Ownership. A good manager looks for ownership. Treating the business as your business too. Looking out for and protecting the company’s interests at all times. You use good judgment and do what needs to be done without being told.
  • Stability. You’re rock solid. A teammate your co-workers can count on. When something bad happens you roll up your sleeves and get to work. There’s no whining, complaining or fussing about getting things done.
  • Consistent. Your boss and co-workers have an internal compass telling them who you are. Your behavior is consistent. Your teammates can easily dispel rumors about you, because they know and trust you.

These are the hallmarks of loyalty. Employers are looking for talented developers who are loyal. Do great work, display this kind of loyalty and a smart employer will fight to keep you.

Mistake #4: Settling Scores vs Forgiveness

JournalSpace was a free blogging platform like Blogger or WordPress. Still a startup at six years old, they decided to focus on writing code and building their business. They also chose to outsource hosting to a managed service provider.

They wanted a simple backup plan. Forget about 3rd party or offsite backups, just RAID the drives.

Unfortunately for JournalSpace, their RAID did exactly what it was supposed to do — copy changes from one drive to another.

As it turns out, they had a disgruntled employee who deleted the database containing their customer data on his way out, immediately putting JournalSpace out of business.

Most people don’t forgive and forget. They nurse their grudges. But, settling scores often has unintended consequences.

If you’re someone who’s focused on settling scores, you aren’t fooling anyone. Your co-workers notice. Your managers notice. They’re aware of the workplace grudges, the subtle political plays used to put others down. Most people are pretty good at reading the social temperature of their workplace.

What does that mean for you?

You guessed it. If you’re viewed as the cause or contributor you won’t get the raise or promotion you’re looking for.

Mistake #5: What I Want vs Reality

Talia Jane, a Yelp employee wrote an embarrassing open letter to Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelmann, complaining about her low pay. In her letter, she stated she didn’t have enough money for groceries, bills or even heat, spending 80 percent of her income on rent. In San Francisco.

She blindsided her boss with gems like these…

“…after I had moved and got firmly stuck in this apartment with this debt, I was told I’d have to work in support for an entire year before I would be able to move to a different department. A whole year answering calls and talking to customers just for the hope that someday I’d be able to make memes and twitter jokes about food. If you follow me on twitter, which you don’t, you’d know that these are things I already do…”

It went downhill from there.

It was a PR headache. She humiliated her boss and the company she worked for with her ambush. And the best part? She expected a raise for it!

What she wanted wasn’t compatible with reality.

Talia felt entitled to a promotion and pay raise she didn’t actually deserve. She’s completely replaceable and she hasn’t brought any high value skills or experience to the company. What’s worse, she hasn’t framed her request from her employer’s point of view.

When it comes to getting a raise or promotion, your boss desperately wants to give you what you want if you…

  • Frame your request around what they want and what they need.
  • Go against your own self interest (e.g. don’t give me a raise if I fail to…)
  • Pitch your raise as the solution to their fears, frustrations and problems.
  • Provide evidence or proof showing you can deliver the outcome and results you’ve promised.

Talia was right. She was underpaid. So why was she was fired two hours after posting her open letter? She used shame and guilt as a mechanism to get what she wanted. Her open letter focused entirely on one person. Talia. She didn’t spend any time on her employer’s concerns.

Employers want you to answer a very simple question. What’s in it for me? Frame your request around this question and you’re far more likely to get what you want.

Mistake #6: Get It Now vs Get It Later

An entire generation is struggling with job satisfaction at work. They’re desperate to make a difference, to make an impact at work. The problem is most of them lack the patience, experience, know-how or maturity to make their lofty ideas work. Who am I talking about? Millennials.

Simon Sinek shares his experience with Millennials who want to “make an impact” at work. Here’s what he had to say about it.

Did you catch the key points in Simon’s story? The Millennials he speaks with have noble goals. But they’re unhappy about the fact that they haven’t made an impact…

… After only eight months.

Not eight months at a new job. Eight months at their first job ever. They have almost zero real world experience. They don’t know what they don’t know.

They don’t even know what they mean by “making an impact.”

It’s a hazy idea they don’t know how to implement, but they’re all ready to burn bridges and destroy an amazing opportunity with a great employer. All because they don’t “feel” they’ve made an impact.

It’s a disaster because employees like these are viewed as basket cases. They out themselves as needy, unstable teammates who’ll pout, whine and complain when they don’t get their way.

What If You Make All of These Mistakes & You Get Your Way?

It happens, believe it or not. But, it’s the exception, not the rule. Most employers operate with a transactional mindset. This for that. More money for more value.

It’s the secret that unsophisticated developers miss.

It all boils down to a single word. Self.

When we focus exclusively on ourselves it usually points to two distinct causes.

  1. Self absorbed. We’re typically self absorbed when we’re in pain or in trouble. “My wife is pregnant, I need a raise. I don’t have enough money for rent/food/heat.” It’s the expectation that your boss is responsible for eliminating your pain or problem.
  2. Selfishness. We’re selfish when we’re focused more on what we think we deserve and less on how we can serve others. If your boss offers a raise and your first response is, “How dare you!” or “Is this all you think of me?” Selfishness is probably to blame.

A raise is an indicator your employer wants to keep you. Were you passed over for a raise? Consider it a warning shot. There’s a problem you need to fix and fast.

Doing a Good Job Is Not a Good Reason

Average developers use “doing a good job” as rationalization for a raise. Talia and AntarcticGorillas made the same mistake. Millions of developers will make the same exact mistake tomorrow.

The results will be the same.


An entitled mindset creates struggle. A transactional mindset creates reward. You don’t have to struggle. You can have the raise, the promotion you want. What will you offer in return?

Give your employer a compelling answer and they’ll fight to keep you. Give them the evidence they need and you’ll get the income you’re looking for. No demotions, politics or games.