Working as a programmer is great work if you can get it, and there are usually plenty of opportunities out there. So why would someone want to take a pay cut to go to a new job, especially when that is one of the most common ways programmers can get a raise?

There have been a few times in my career where I took a pay cut to take a new job and was happy to do it. There were other times I would have considered it if the new job fit everything else that I needed. In this blog, I'll get into some of those instances and my thinking.

(And no, I'm not being paid by Big Tech to convince programmers and software engineers to take lower salaries on their next gigs. These are my real stories. Shame on you for thinking that.)

When I wanted to build experience in something new – that would pay me more later

Technology changes. There are still Fortran and Cobol developers out there, and they get paid well simply because no one else wants to write that code. Sometimes, it pays to take a pay cut to learn a new technology in the long run. Eventually, Fortran, Cobol, and other technologies you could work in now will be dead.

I jumped from PHP development to front-end development in React and Angular, taking a minor pay cut in the process. But I saw what senior front-end developers were getting paid, and I knew that particular future looked better.

When I really had my heart set on (don't laugh) a fintech job

It's not so true anymore, but there was a time I would have taken a pay cut to work in fintech. I wanted to be a quant. I figured running software all day while I did other things would be a great way to make money.

I have since changed my mind about that. Now, I see it only as gambling, where all the success stories suffer from survivorship bias.

I could see myself taking a job in the publishing industry one day, when my kids are grown and I wouldn't mind a pay cut. I enjoy reading and writing.

Programmers have the work they do, but also the industry they work inside of. When you love both of those things, you will most likely do your best work, love it more, and change the industry. If, in your case, that means landing a gig in video game programming, VR, self-driving cars, or some kind of software platform for clean energy, you would probably be happy to leave a little salary on the table in the process.

When I decided that maybe I was hitting the code a little too hard

I have had a few jobs that demanded a lot of my time. Many times, there were 12-hour days and 60-hour weeks. When I was a junior developer, I didn't mind that much; I was getting paid twice as much as the job I had before I became a working programmer, and I was just going to grin and bear it. I wasn't about to question anything.

I finally quit that job after six years and realized that I had waited too long. There are many jobs out there, and quite a few of them let you have a life. I did not know this.

Now I do.

On the other hand, I've also felt that I needed more free time for coding side projects

You may have a coding side project away from work that is absolutely occupying your imagination – one that does not yet pay the bills, but one day could. Nevertheless, you want to give it focus and priority. Higher pay usually comes with more responsibility and more work; taking a pay cut could mean more time for your side projects.

(I, of course, have made time for plenty of coding side projects in my career. I wrote about some of them here.)

Programmers can be social, too...

This one wasn't so technical.

There was one job I left because I felt out of place. I wasn't sure why. I couldn't list the reasons. But when I got to work early, I would listen to music in my car until it was time to go in. This was something I hadn't done since I worked menial jobs.

So when a friend of mine called and said he had a job and that another friend of mine worked there already, I made the move. Just two weeks later, I was a much happier employee.

Just remember: A job isn't always just about tech stacks.

When I left a (kind of) tech city for a non-tech city

This may not apply as much after the pandemic, when many programmers work from home, but I had to take a pay cut when I moved from Phoenix to Kansas City.

The numbers show that were I relocating from, say, Silicon Valley to Kansas City, I would have taken an even larger haircut. But remember that cost of living factors into these kinds of moves. And if you're relocating to live around family again, like I was, then some things simply are more important than money, anyhow.

Conclusion

A programming job can pay you a lot. But with all the opportunities out there, it can also be flexible. Pay doesn't have to be your focus. You could look for a better tech fit, a better company culture, or better work/life balance.

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