My Compensation Over Four Decades As A Programmer

Man chasing dollar sign.

It's a lie, as I don't remember exactly what I made in every job, and it changed during each job. Also, I never worked for a big tech company (other than Apple briefly, but that was when they were going out of business) and only a year in a tech hotspot (Apple), so I never made "Google" money. I can recall enough to give you a general idea.

At my first professional job as a programmer in 1981, for a defense contractor, I was hired along with several recent graduates who all had a B.S. in Computer Science. Each was paid $20,000 a year (about $64,000 in today's dollars); however, I got $2,000 more as I had graduate school experience, despite only having a B.S. in Chemistry. It seems ridiculously low compared to what interns make at Google today, but back then, there were far fewer jobs and programmers; that's still not all that unusual pay worldwide today.

After that job, I started and ran two startups; the first sold our product Trapeze (sadly competing with Excel, we gave up and sold it to someone else), and then a second in 1998 that built Mac apps for others under contract (hourly). Our longest contract was to build Deltagraph, multiple versions over five years; it was very popular worldwide, so we did well. 1992 was my best year for income in today's dollars (the equivalent of more than $200,000). Eventually, the publisher decided to do something new, and given the Mac market was dead, my little company split up as getting new customers was impossible.

I went to the Bay area in 1995-1996 and worked three contracts, the longest being at Apple. I made $40-$60 an hour in the contracts but left the area because Apple seemed to be going out of business, and I didn't want to be there when it did; a giant mistake as a year later, Steve came back, and everything changed.

In 1997 after some contract work, I got a job at a consulting company, where I worked for 4.5 years; we mostly did WebObjects/EnterpriseObjects and later Java. I don't remember what I made there; it changed significantly over time. I remember that we went out of business at 4:30 in the afternoon on a Thursday a few months after the Dot-Com collapse. My employer had been unable to pay rent for seven months and had allowed our biggest customer to not pay us for more than a year. After that, it was tough to find another job; the part of the country I lived in was not small, but not all that great a market for programmers.

I eventually found another consulting job, where I first worked for three months in Mexico; we were the U.S. branch of an international consulting company. My pay, I don't recall; I do remember I had to pay for all my trips to Mexico and was only reimbursed a couple of months later, which sucked. What sucked even more was that our parent company eventually closed all the U.S. offices, and we all got laid off.

This time I found a job for a local Financial Services company as an architect. We had around 60,000 customers and a bank. I know I made less than $100,000, but I'm unsure exactly what it was. It was a frustrating place to work, but I did get to make a difference because so many things were broken that I could fix or improve. This company did not value programmers much; all of our work was internal or to support our customers' needs, but half the executives wanted to buy everything and do away with I.T. entirely.

After about 18 months, I found a local printing company, post-startup, with a nice market niche, and it was an all-Mac company. They paid me $100,000 finally, and I was only one of two programmers. Sadly it turned into a hostile workplace; plus, they also offered no vacation or sick days until you were there for six months. In retrospect, I ignored all the warning signs. I quit after five months as it was frustrating to go to work.

My next position was for a healthcare company, a recent merger of two companies from two states, as an architect again. Not sure what the pay was exactly, but as I worked there, it became obvious that one half of the merger was trying to kill the other half, and I worked on the losing side. Eventually, I was laid off since I worked at the loser.

After all these sucky results, I just wanted to work somewhere I would be appreciated, so I went to work at a local game company with an MMO war game. I was a player since it started and knew the Mac programmer was leaving, so I took his place. They had little money; all they could pay was $36,000 a year, which was terrible. The work, however, was so rewarding, as I was appreciated by the company and especially the player base. Often in the game, I would get D.M.s thanking me for fixing so many things. It was fun, but eventually, the pay was too little, and I had to leave. The game still exists and is in a much better position today.

My next job was at a local well-known Online Travel Agency, a brand that still exists today, working in their mobile group, building iOS apps. We had only 20 people out of nearly 600 in I.T. but generated most of the profit. It was a fun job until our parent company decided to sell the brand to our biggest competitor, which still puts it out as if it were a separate company. Argh, another layoff, in this case, 100%. At least they paid me to stay for a year to assist in the transition. Despite having zero work or responsibilities for almost five months, I got paid over $100,000 plus the retainer to stay (another $30,000 or so). Nice gig, money for nothing!

I was offered a position for what would become my last job. Still, the budget was not forthcoming for almost 18 months, so I found a contract position in the meantime as the only iOS programmer, working with a customer I had done work for in that first consulting job. It was an hourly contract, but the pay was decent, although I can't remember it anymore. For the last few months, I only worked sporadically, as I had completed everything in the iOS app they wanted while the remaining team still had work to do. Eventually, my final job came through, and I moved halfway across the country.

That final job was made possible by my manager at the OTA, now working for this company, who wanted me specifically, as the company was finally moving mobile development to vertical organizations instead of having a central group do everything. This company was extremely large and well-known, and this division used and built a lot of technology to support the real-world business of our division but was not considered a tech company. It was my largest employer; pay for where we were was good, but nothing compared to a Meta, Alphabet, or Apple. When I retired, I was earning about $180,000, including bonuses, although calculating the total compensation is hard due to 401k contributions, etc. I think interns at Google make more (although I am unsure if they still do internships in the work-from-home era).

Nonetheless, I was always fine with what I got paid, though, for the first time, I worked a lot more than 40 hours a week. I owned a nice house on a half-acre lot with a pool in a quiet neighborhood within the (large) city limits. Good luck finding that in Silicon Valley!

Could I have made more in my life? I could have been hired at Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc., and made up to 3X more per year. I never considered money to be my only interest; I always preferred working on small teams where I could make a difference. I would rather be on a team of 1-5 than be on a team of hundreds or even thousands, no matter my position. I always preferred to work locally rather than constantly move around; my year in Silicon Valley in the mid-90s was an outlier, and my final move to where I am now was the only real move. Your income depends greatly on where you live and the cost of living. If your living expenses are 3X and your salary is 3X, it's not all that different. I made enough, and I don't regret it.