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Programming The Almighty Buck

Taking a Look At High-End Programmer Salaries 133

Posted by timothy
from the today-let's-take-the-gold-robot dept.
msmoriarty writes "Our reporter decided to try to document the high end of programmer salaries (at least in the US). It seems that $300,000 to $400,000 and up is not unheard of in the financial industry, but the highest salary we could document was apx. $1.2 million, earned by Sergey Aleynikov, who was later convicted of stealing proprietary source code from a previous employer, Goldman Sachs."
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Taking a Look At High-End Programmer Salaries

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  • Ah, but (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hognoxious (631665) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @08:22AM (#36306860) Homepage Journal

    But programming was a minor part of Aleynikov's job.

    His primary duty was keeping his mouth shut.

    • Re:Ah, but (Score:5, Insightful)

      by chord.wav (599850) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @08:31AM (#36306924) Journal

      Same as any well-payed job.

      "Every organization rests upon a mountain of secrets" - Julian Assange

    • Re:Ah, but (Score:5, Interesting)

      by dintech (998802) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @08:32AM (#36306932)

      Yes and No. Non-disclosure is considered a given in any job and would have been in his contract. You'd have to be out of your mind to try to steal code from a bank since there's a lot of monitoring in place to watch for it. (Disclaimer: I work for one).

      The reason he is paid so much is not because he's a programmer who keeps his mouth shut. It's because he's a programmer with experience and understanding of how high-frequency trading systems work.

      An individual's first job in banking is likely to be better paid than any other IT job. However, you have to build up a lot of domain experience before you can get paid those kind of salaries. Some developers even make the jump over to the business side to unlock bigger bonuses, but a maths PhD is usually required. For others the top money is in contracting. £500 - £1000 per day, more in short contracts. But again, you need domain experience.

  • Financial Industry (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ThomasFlip (669988) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @08:26AM (#36306886)

    From my understanding, programmers making 300 - 400 thousand in the financial industry are typically quantitative analysts or financial engineers with masters degrees or Phds in these fields. Their primary duties are things like modeling complicated financial scenarios or finding statistical anomalies to exploit in high frequency trading. Yes they code their strategies but I don't know if I'd put them in the same category as your typical programmer.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Recruiters quite often send me 6 month - 1 year contract roles that offer rates around £800-1000/day, which works out at about $500,000 a year. Granted thats contract rates so its not quite the same...but these are primarily developer positions. I'm sort of tempted to actually go to an interview, but I don't think I'd survive in those environments!

    • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @08:34AM (#36306944) Journal
      I periodically get contacted by recruiters for banks, because my CV mentions Haskell, and there's a massive shortage of Haskell programmers. They're offering silly salaries to people with no experience in the financial sector. Still not quite enough to convince me that I want to move to London and work on tedious soul-destroying stuff though, they'd need to add another zero onto the end for that. If I could telecommute, I'd be quite tempted - I'd pay off my mortgage in about six months.
      • by Kinthelt (96845)

        I periodically get contacted by recruiters for banks, because my CV mentions Haskell, and there's a massive shortage of Haskell programmers. They're offering silly salaries to people with no experience in the financial sector. Still not quite enough to convince me that I want to move to London and work on tedious soul-destroying stuff though, they'd need to add another zero onto the end for that. If I could telecommute, I'd be quite tempted - I'd pay off my mortgage in about six months.

        Please pardon my ignorance, but the financial industry uses Haskell??? I thought that was just an academic language.

        • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @09:19AM (#36307278) Journal

          They wanted people with any functional programming experience. A lot of these companies use their own in-house languages[1], but functional programming is popular because it's easy to verify functional programs, and because languages like Haskell facilitate rapid development. Cincom does good business selling Smalltalk to trading houses for a similar reason. Typically, a small improvement in a trading algorithm gives you an advantage for a day - maybe less. Being able to go from idea to deployment in under an hour is something that Smalltalk and Haskell give you, and that's something that the financial industry values highly.

          [1] In an industry where having a 5ms advantage over your competitors translates to millions in profits, there are lots of in-house languages, frameworks, and so on.

          • Being able to go from idea to deployment in under an hour is something that Smalltalk and Haskell give you, and that's something that the financial industry values highly.

            I am afraid to ask, but... what about testing?

            This would really explain a lot of things.

            • by swalve (1980968)
              At that level, you don't need testing. You are right. You only need to test when you aren't sure if you are right or not. It's like asking a network engineer to implement an IP address change in the dev lab first.
            • by squizzar (1031726)

              I think that was the point - 'functional programming is popular because it's easy to verify functional programs'. Writing in one of these languages means that you can prove the correctness of the code, presumably automatically, so presumably very quickly.

            • Testing? (Score:5, Informative)

              by TheLink (130905) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @01:06PM (#36309772) Journal

              If your bosses know the right people you don't need testing.

              They just cancel the transactions if you screw up:
              http://money.cnn.com/2010/05/07/markets/explaining_wall_street_turmoil/ [cnn.com]

              Or prosecute the humans who beat your algo:
              http://www.computerworlduk.com/news/security/3244186/norwegian-traders-convicted-for-outsmarting-us-stock-broker-algorithm/ [computerworlduk.com]

              Technical know-who trumps technical know-how.

            • The code works by natural selection. If it executes a buy&sell sequence that amounts to a profit, it is allowed to continue it's rule execution on additional trades. A code monitor manage the rules that are in play. If something is performing poorly (losing money on repetitive trades or stuck holding an asset for an extended amount of time), its assets are dumped back to the market and it's pulled out of the mix.

              In high frequency trading, you can also run your code in a simulator mode that will track '
        • by jcr (53032)

          the financial industry uses Haskell?

          You'd be surprised what the advanced technology groups of major banks are into. They're always looking for ways to increase programmer productivity and cut development time.

          -jcr

          • by guruevi (827432)

            Advanced technology like OS/2, Windows NT, mainframes with UltraWide SCSI disks and 56k modems. You'd be surprised how much ancient stuff banks rely on simply because it's "safe because nobody else uses it" or "it has worked fine for the last decade" or "phone lines are safer (even safer than SSL)".

            • by mdw2 (122737)

              You're confusing what banks do with OUR money (read: normal people) which is put it on OS/2, win95, etc systems, with what they do with THEIR money (read: corporate and high-net-worth individuals), which is spare no expense to make sure it is maintained and grows consistently.

            • Phone lines can be vampire tapped without notice. It does require physical presence, but its not inherently safer than SSL on a risk chart.

            • by jcr (53032)

              Advanced technology like OS/2, Windows NT, mainframes with UltraWide SCSI disks and 56k modems.

              No, that's the ordinary IT department in a typical bank. I was working for the trading desks, where they want everything as fast as they can possibly get it.

              -jcr

      • by jcr (53032)

        Back in my NeXTSTEP road-warrior days, most of the customers were financial firms, and I also found that there were pockets of Smalltalkers and Lispers doing modeling and trading systems. The work I was doing then wasn't very exciting, but they paid well. The downside is that the body shops would often drag their feet on paying me, and on several occasions I had to get the customers to threaten them to make them pay up.

        -jcr

      • *googles haskell helloworld*
        FORTUNE HERE I COME

    • by Anonymous Coward

      From my understanding, programmers making 300 - 400 thousand in the financial industry are typically quantitative analysts or financial engineers with masters degrees or Phds in these fields. Their primary duties are things like modeling complicated financial scenarios or finding statistical anomalies to exploit in high frequency trading. Yes they code their strategies but I don't know if I'd put them in the same category as your typical programmer.

      This is accurate. The best-paid developers in finance are writing their own requirements, not coding to someone else's, and are usually not labelled programmers but quants, algo traders, strategists, or trading technology.

    • by cshark (673578)

      The only programmers I know that make that much own consulting companies, and I would like to be one of them.

      • by cptdondo (59460) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @09:20AM (#36307282) Journal

        I owned a consulting company. There's a reason why you make so much. You work that much harder, and you put your entire financial future on the line every time you sign a big contract or fire an employee.

        I now work for a public utility. Regular hours, no worries, and a regular paycheck. Yes it's half of what I used to make, but I have half the hours and a quarter of the stress.

        • by swalve (1980968)
          No shit. People have no fucking clue how much it costs in raw dollars to employ someone. It's basically double.
        • Thank you for reaffirming my decision to write boring business logic programs for a large corporation. I now have a personal life again and time on the side to program personal projects, which was always my first love in programming.

        • by TheLink (130905)
          In some jobs you earn twice as much, but end up looking twice as old and feeling twice as old...

          And it's not just the hours of work that you should count. It's the hours of free time.

          Assuming each day you have 8 hours sleep (laugh, but studies have shown that most people's health suffer if they get less than 7-8 hours), 1 hour for showers etc, work 8 hours, have 1 hour for lunch and 1 hour for dinner, that leaves 5 hours for other stuff.

          But if you work 12 hours a day, that leaves only 1 hour for other stu
    • by Xest (935314)

      Yes, primarily these people are mathematicians, programming is only a secondary skill that helps them in their role.

    • by EatAtJoes (102729)

      It's not hard to get to 300-400k in the financial industry as "just a programmer" (ie not a quant), you just have to become a manager and work up the ranks a little.

      The good news there is being in management doesn't mean you stop coding. Depending on the project, tech work can consume upwards of 70% with the rest dealing with PHBs.

      The bad news is ... it's the financial industry, which means you're surrounded by workaholics with no sense of how much money they're making. There's a lot of stress surrounding p

  • by Sir_Sri (199544) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @08:28AM (#36306902)

    I know a few guys who a decade ago were in the million a year range, and are now in the 250-300k.

    If you're working with people databases, financials, or just on a product that happens to do crazy awesome (minecraft) you can make a pile of money. But expect 100-200k range if you're really good these days it seems like.

    That's not to say you can't make money in direct offshoots of programming, for example becoming a producer on a project, where you may touch some programming still but are now more managerial, or design.

    • This is a good point. A solution architect for instance likely has a coding background but is more in the design or producer field. Consultants also can have varied skillsets, usually specialized in an industry other than just comp sci or coding. Logistics is good, or reporting tools like sap or crystal.

    • But why cant programmers earn as much as producers and managers? Its no longer unskilled labour we are providing, programming is a highly skilled profession and it takes just as much brainpower and time as management. I for one am hoping to stay a programmer for life (because i love doing it) but it seems very unfair that i cant get paid as much as a manager/producer for contributing to an important part of the project.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        In theory, managers make more than leaf nodes because they have more responsibility in a financial sense. It is true that in most cases, they are not personally liable for the budget they manage, but it's still stressful. Say you have a team of 5-6 working for you.. that's an annual burn of a couple million or so. Someone else is always asking you "can we make that 1.8 instead of 2" or "can we add these 7 new features, but keep the cost the same". Then, there's the hassles of finding work for your team.

        • Just to add a touch to this.
          I have an awesome manager. Been with my company for 20 years (I've been here a little over 11.5).
          My previous manager was new to managing here and had only been with the company for about 5 years...
          What a difference.
          My current manager earns every cent he is paid. I don't know how much he makes (I'm ball park guessing about $150K/yr) but he's worth more. The team under him (about 30) runs very well, he spends most of his time making sure we get what we need (correct docs, suppor

      • by swalve (1980968)
        Because the manager produces more by virtue of his skills. (Note: in a mostly efficient workplace) His skills are more leveraged. If the worker fucks up, his salary is wasted. If a manager fucks up, his salary and the salaries of all his workers are wasted. And good managers are rarer in the marketplace than equally good workers. Neither is more important than the other, but a good manager can create more value/profit to a company than a good worker.

        Car analogy: the manager is the engine controller
        • I would agree with that. But I would like to qualify it by saying firstly, not every manager is good or productive. Most tend to just be mediocre narcissists who want an elevated position. Secondly, not every endeavor needs a great manager, many can get by with someone just to keep notes and makes sure that everyone knows what is happening, rather than requiring an outstanding visionary. I've always wished I was a better manager, but in general, it just means I need to hire more experienced guys who I can w
          • by arkenian (1560563)
            So am I the only one who has had the experience of working for a company where the managers made less than the engineers?

            Honestly... it wasn't a pleasant experience.

        • by radtea (464814)

          If the worker fucks up, his salary is wasted. If a manager fucks up, his salary and the salaries of all his workers are wasted. And good managers are rarer in the marketplace than equally good workers.

          If any of that was true you would expect managerial salaries to vary with competency, which they don't. They vary with industry and with company based on overall management culture and productivity, but within companies they vary based on political connections.

          The reality is: a good worker can make up for the incompetence of a bad manager, and the manager will take the credit. But when a bad manager screws up, the worker takes the blame.

          So while economic rationality would dictate that what you are saying

        • by ckhorne (940312)

          You must be a manager... ;)

          While I agree that the manager and developer may have equal importance, they don't always have equal value. In some cases, the manager makes the group work as a cohesive team. In other cases, the manager is there to make sure the developers have what they need - feed the machine and keep the shit (political tape, etc) out of the way.

          Everyone is only as valuable as the cost of their own replacement. Let's say that I'm a developer who works on medical imaging protocols (which I am).

      • Managers will always make more than the people they manage. It defines the power relationship between them. Any other situation is just plain crazy talk.

      • Some companies offer a technical track in parallel with the management track so senior employees who wish to advance and remain technical can do so. And even someone who is a "manager" can still keep their hands dirty in some organizations ... my manager just celebrated his 30th anniversary with our company (which wasn't his first programming gig), and he still writes code almost every day. Good code for the most part.

        A lot depends on the company you work for and perhaps also the specific area.

      • by Sir_Sri (199544)

        Because one is an evolution of the other, and the producers and designers ultimately decide the direction of products. You can do your job absolutely perfectly as a programmer, and still have the project be a complete disaster.

        In many cases (in fact virtually all programming places I've been) managers - as in the guys with business degrees and nothing else, are paid less than programmers with equivalent experience. I have a good friend who is an office manager for a team of doctors, and I assure you is pa

      • by TheLink (130905)
        Because in most companies managers have more say in deciding whether a programmer gets hired/fired, than programmers have say on whether a manager gets hired/fired ;).

        And if a programmer had that power over a manager, it's kinda hard for a manager to say "hey just do that or else..."

        So only in a few places you'd have star programmers earning bigger bucks than managers. Where everyone knows that they can kick the manager out and the programmer will still churn out world-class stuff. A few managers are actual
      • by russotto (537200)

        But why cant programmers earn as much as producers and managers?

        Because that one's salary is greater than the salary of those you manage is a hierarchical invariant in most organizations, and managers are higher in the hierarchy than programmers.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Their coffee suchs.

  • He only stole the source code because he wasn't being paid enough.

  • by vlm (69642) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @09:22AM (#36307300)

    It seems that $300,000 to $400,000 and up is not unheard of in the financial industry

    I've "heard of" people completing a couple week certification course getting a $75000/yr job in IT because they now have an A+ cert and there are huge shortages of personnel. Of course I "heard of" that exclusively in TV and radio commercials by for-profit schools charging outrageous fees. The reality of it is the typical BS degree holder can hope for and possibly even get a $8/hr helpdesk job; The cream of the crop will do better, but then again, they always do. Such is to be expected toward the end of the educational-industrial complex bubble. How reliable are the reports of $400K/yr cobol coders and $75K/yr A+ cert password resetters and what kind of numbers are we talking about? I can totally see a CEO's son getting a really special deal, but thats just an anecdote compared to the other 300 million citizens and non-citizens here.

    • the typical BS degree holder can hope for and possibly even get a $8/hr helpdesk job

      Getting a new job and retaining a pre-bust job are two different things.

    • Re:unheard of (Score:4, Interesting)

      by somersault (912633) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @09:37AM (#36307426) Homepage Journal

      I'm not quite the Director's son, but I am his nephew :p My dad actually used to be the IT Manager here until he died, and I ended up with the job a few years later. I'm not even making $75K a year, but then again the whole company is pretty laid back and a nice place to work. I do a mix of in-house web app development, maintaining a downhole drilling simulation app for clients, and typical sysadmin/IT support stuff. I know I could be making more if I got a bunch of certifications, or worked on a lot of projects with loads of different languages and frameworks to help buff up my CV and look for another coding job, but I don't really have the motivation for it. I'm making more than enough to get by, and I'm still enjoying helping people out here. I do wonder from time to time if I should be making "more" of myself, like developing mobile games or utilities, but I prefer to have free time for other things right now.

    • by swalve (1980968)
      It all works out eventually. In the long run, people only get paid to the extent their work is valuable.

      Note: A+ ain't worth $75k. If you have a BS and can't pass the A+, you deserve $8/hr.
      • by danlip (737336)

        How do you explain CEO pay?

        • by Mycroft-X (11435)

          When every decision you and your management team make has profit implications of $100,000 or more, you get paid a lot if people think you'll make the right decisions.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            ...and it's really hard work to convince the right people that you are going to make the right decisions.

          • by danlip (737336)

            The CEOs get paid a lot even when they clearly made the wrong decision.

      • For one, if they care about an A+ certification, they're incompetent.

        Secondly, in the long run, a lot of people get paid a lot of money because of who they know and it has very very little to do with their work.

    • by JMZero (449047)

      There's quite a few people making $300k - both in the financial industry, and on the upper shelf at any big software company (MS, Google, Apple, Valve, etc..). I don't have statistics, but I've run into quite a few online or at events - certainly not nepotism types or "legacy knowledge ransom holders", just very strong programmers that have accomplished things and proven their value over time.

      At my company, there's people making $75k with no significant formal education. A+ doesn't seem to have any penetr

    • by jittles (1613415)

      How reliable are the reports of $400K/yr cobol coders and $75K/yr A+ cert password resetters and what kind of numbers are we talking about? I can totally see a CEO's son getting a really special deal, but thats just an anecdote compared to the other 300 million citizens and non-citizens here.

      I can tell you that there is a company here where I live that does Cobol programming for banks. I know someone who works there and they will start a Cobol programmer at around $200k with no financial experience.

    • by Surt (22457)

      The middle of the crop can get a $100K starting salary at google right now, straight out of college.

    • by blair1q (305137)

      This whole article is about anecdotes. The guy sorted by salary and then went looking at the ones at the top.

      Everything else everyone's discussing is noise in the bulk of the distribution.

  • by OutputLogic (1566511) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @09:28AM (#36307354) Homepage
    The article doesn't differentiate between base salary and "extras", such as bonuses, stock options, and other forms of compensations. Stock option grants can easily amount to a yearly base compensation in large Silicon Valley shops. And bonuses at Goldman Sachs [csmonitor.com] is even more.
  • Maybe some have been paid to forget ethics. Here is a list of science ethics papers: http://www.files.chem.vt.edu/chem-ed/ethics/vinny/ethxbibl.html [vt.edu]
    .

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Yes, finance gigs pay higher but there are LOTS of buts.

    First, there is so much legacy code and systems that your skill set might end-up lagging behind the market by 10 years. So if you ever want to escape the frigid NYC winters and move to California then you'll find your skill set obsolete. And realistically you need to work in NYC to make money in finance.

    Second, the big money only occasionally sweeps by your star. The trends in the market come and go. So the $400k Russian coder at GS might only make tha

    • Did I mentioned that the winters in NYC are freaking FREEZING!?

      Sorry, but I laughed.

      - Canadian

    • lol also Canadian, also laughing.

      NYC isn't cold. And LA isn't exactly a relaxed environment compared to my environment.

  • So there you have it. There are big corporations out there making millions of dollars on the backs of computer algorithms, and some of them are willing to pay at least $1.2 million per year to programmers who can code them better than anyone else.

    There is no evidence in the article to support this conclusion. It would be just as easy to conclude, "... to programmers who can sell themselves better than anyone else." Of course, the data to support the conclusion probably doesn't exist, because according to Capers Jones in the 3rd edition of Applied Software Measurement, "a majority of software organizations have few measurements of any kind." The majority in this case is ~80%.

  • I believe it. I've got friends working as programmers for financial companies. Their salaries aren't in the $300k - $400k range but they're all earning $150k and above. But they easily earn double what someone would earn doing roughly the same thing in any industry. And the nature of the work isn't anything particularly sophisticated. But then that's the nature of the financial industry. Even secretaries earn fairly outrageous salaries. Those companies earn so much money that they can afford to be generous.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Here, in Italy, the medium salary for a senior developer is about 20.000€/y, or about 28KUS$/y (net amount on payroll), that's very sad.

    • by Xest (935314)

      Migrate to the UK exploiting the common market then, the median salary for a senior developer here would be at least £35,000 (~â40,000).

      I don't know why Italy is so out of whack with other parts of Europe, it seems very strange. It seems unlikely that Italy pays it's senior developers less than half of what the UK does.

  • Damn I'm underpaid! ;-)
  • I won't discuss my pay but I will state that having a willingness to put in more than forty hours a week has significantly boosted my bottom line. When the time of reviews/pay/etc come up I am usually up there on the minds of those higher up simply because I am involved across the board and always "seem" to be available. Yeah, I get an odd week that can break sixty hours but I generally set my schedule and do what needs to be done. No one I know in my networking group (you know, friends who do similar work

    • by euroq (1818100)

      I work 30-35 hours/week and make 107K + ~15% bonus. The trick is that I'm better at what I do than everyone else around me, and I can do it in half the time.

  • Its the most popular field for people not attending grad school. The attractions are high salary, technical work and staying in the northeast.
  • by Per Wigren (5315) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @12:32PM (#36309390) Homepage
    Personally I think that $/h is more important than $/y. I earn around $75k per year working 40 hours per week. If I could make $112.5k per year working 60 hours per week (same hourly wage) I wouldn't take it. I enjoy work but I value my free time more.
    • The idea is to work extra, save money, and use that to buy even more free time down the road (early retirement, for example).

      But most people forget the saving part, and spend it as soon as they earn it, and wonder why they feel poor on $150,000 per year.

    • by Synerg1y (2169962)
      To add, responsibility is also a huge factor in the $ part. A coder might be more technically skilled than his/her senior counter-part... but... who is responsible for company direction, dealing w/ management. new ideas, and when something goes bad? All that should play into the consideration of $ vs time vs responsibility. Having said that the best job is the one you can do in 40 hours, at 60, you have no free time, and no energy. Also, coming in to work knowing that if there's a fire it's not your ass
  • by tom229 (1640685)
    Thanks for showing me how underpaid I am.
  • A good programmer can't aspire for big bucks (>$200k) as a salaried coder.

    You'll have to mix entrepreneurial skills to your coding ones.

    Examples are:
    Build your own market playing blackbox and risk your dollars.
    If a business approaches you with a terrificly good idea, code for less and ask a percentage of the company or a partnership.
    Build your own idea/product.

    Bottom line, no risk = no money
  • Sure they'll pay 10-15% higher than your open job of the same position, but just be prepared if you need to go into a hostile zone (which will add an extra 10% of hazard pay). And it's a life long obligation to keep the IP developed under wraps--it's the law... and more worse if you need to sign an NDA with the gov't (been there done that). One good thing is the people are pretty easy to work with, though it can be a high stress environment.

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