What is the Highest Salary a Programmer Can Make? Mar 2017

There are a few ways programmers can score big money — high-value consulting, entrepreneurship, early-stage stock options coming to fruition in a liquidity event but the simplest of them all is a Big Fat Paycheck. In general, programming is a well-compensated skill, but when it comes to certain industries, or certain skills, or a combination of both, compensation gets an order of magnitude more than the decent salaries.

These outliers in compensation are more apparent in the United States where the fight to find and retain talent has protractedly been intense, especially, when it comes to technology giants and aggressive finance sector companies.

In most cases, engineers who get paid prodigiously happen to be more than an engineer. Their role entails leading other engineers and working alongside higher management but despite that, complex engineering is the essence of the work. That could be heading a team to build a massive cloud infrastructure, for instance.

Finding actual salary figures is tough. Leaving aside a few companies, which pride in having an open salary system, most have an inconspicuous way of deciding compensation which, again, is subject to individual’s specialised skill and bargaining prowess. Because of this, a precise analysis is next to impossible. Therefore, this is a loose collection of salaries that I have seen mentioned on forums, articles, and news to provide an approximate picture.

Starting from the lower end –

$250,000

Dan Luu, an ex-Google Engineer, compared the benefits of working for a startup vs. a big company. In the blog post, he conservatively estimated the compensation of a senior engineer at Google, with four years of work experience, to be $250,000 (salary + stock + signing bonus).

Even though not exceptional in any manner, it’s much above-average for engineers with the same level of experience in the Silicon Valley, which can be anywhere between $120k - $180k.

In some cases, you can even cut your way short to that figure with skilful negotiation. In mid-2016, Haseeb Qureshi did this remarkably well to land a $250,000 offer from Airbnb despite having less than a year of programming experience.

Notable technology companies pay well as a part of their standard compensation structure, which makes it only a matter of clearing the interview to receive the generous offer (although, negotiating is always advantageous).

$500,000

Paycheques of half-million dollars are beyond the territory of standard compensation structures. The tech giants can offer it to those with outstanding senior-level skills in a valuable role such as that of a cloud architect.

Building and maintaining cloud infrastructure is an onerous project which makes skilful engineers invaluable contributors. According to Eran Medan, an AWS consultant and Hacker News user, compensation for senior engineers in this space can start from $300K and may reach $500K if someone is brilliant.

In certain roles the superior skill-set might not even be necessary. An HN comment posited that senior engineers at Airbnb can make upwards of $500K. Sounds implausible? Stock options are a major part of these lucrative offers and paying some more for a talented engineer isn’t particularly a bad deal.

$1M

To make a million dollars a year, you have to be slightly more than brilliant; you have to either be insanely experienced or prolifically accomplished.

IT World, a technology magazine, found that at the highest-end of Senior Engineering roles at Google, engineers are reported to earn $630k in base pay with $80k in cash bonus and $300k in stock grants, which amounts to little more than a million dollars. But bear in mind that this is the highest reported salary at Google; only a small fraction could be making this much.

In certain cases, the skills needed to make seven figures can be less demanding. Hacker News user HFTGuru claims to earn an annual performance bonus of anywhere between $400k - $800k with a little downside of working 10-12 hrs/day. I am guessing the keyword at work here is “low-latency C/C++ programming” — the expertise that many HFT companies yearn for.

Another person that comes to mind is Sergey Aleynikov, a 40-year old algorithmic trading programmer who used to work for Goldman Sachs making around $400k per year. Thereafter, he was offered $1.2M, threefold his existing pay. Sadly, Sergey was later prosecuted for code-theft from his ex-employer, Goldman Sachs.

$3M

If making a million is insanely hard, what to say about something upwards of it. Like, $3M dollars a year? In 2014, Business Insider ran a story of a startup founder who offered $500,000 salary to hire an engineer from Google. The engineer declined, stating that big-G was paying him $3M a year.

There is a meek possibility that the engineer might be one of the mighty legends who have been with Google from the outset. Some Redditors have predicted that it could be Jeff Dean, who has worked on a large number of Google’s current systems including advertising, crawling, indexing and searching. Certainly, if you are an engineer of that stature, Google ought to do everything to retain you.

> $3M

Going beyond that number sounds almost ridiculous but going by a credible sounding claim, there is a possibility of someone getting more. Niall Dalton, a Hacker News user, claims that people at high-end of K Language skills can make around $500k-900k in base pay with $1-2M added bonus in RSUs. According to him, people can get offers in range of $1-10M to build “a competitive technology”.

And what is K Programming Language? It’s a proprietary array-processing language used in congruence with Kdb+, a column-based time-series database. Both of which are extensively used in financial systems.

The rewarding pay, however, is not simply for being familiar with the language and database system. The major skill is having a strong knowledge of low-level details combined with knowledge of distributed computing. In any case, this is an immense sum to pay for a niche engineering skill but from another perspective, not so much if your work handles billions of dollars.

Edit: I erroneously interpreted HN comment to mean a base pay of $500k-$900k per quarter. The numbers, however, are for annual compensation. The article has been corrected to reflect that.

Conclusion

Highly paid programmers can make anywhere from a surgeon’s salary to a top executive’s pay but it’s only a minute fraction of the engineering workforce that reaches this level. Success of this level is driven by a combination of working on something massive, having years of valuable experience in a specialised field and some bit of luck.

Programmers have the potential to create immense value for businesses and million-dollar paycheques is a small indication of that. So next time you’re negotiating your salary, try a little harder!

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