Common programmers may expect to earn at least $60,000/year but it is rare for even superstar programmers to command above $150,000, excepting very specialized markets like kernel driver development.
If we are to assume that companies would not generally hire employees
not worth their keep, the talents of the most elite of programmers are
going almost wholly unrewarded. The first lesson from this is that
companies should seek the brightest programmers as the brighter the
programmer, the more efficient the returns. Put another way, it is
well worth a company’s money to pay 30% more annually for an engineer
who will accomplish many times more work. A secondary discovery is
noting that, if all this is true, outsourcing to lesser-skilled
programmers as a small cost savings is a foolish conservancy and must
only be a short-lived fad.
As a programmer, however, the most powerful corollary is that wage
labor for my skills is insensible. The advantage of software is its
easy replication: once formed, a service or product may be readily
resold without further expense. The financial success of my labors is
scarce limited by anything but the quality of the marketing
performed. Consequently, for most markets we find software development
has almost infinite leverage – in exchange for a fixed amount of
labor, there is a nearly unlimited upside. The programmer who accepts
a salary for his endeavors sacrifices the leverage of his own work for
the comfort and security of a regular check, which as already noted
must but for the lowest-skilled far underestimate the value provided.
In a small sense this is allayed by stock options and the like, but
these are principally to give the appearance of offering the
wage laborer a slice of the success of his efforts; after the first
dozen employees, it is rare to find an engineer not a VP or CTO to be
in possession of anything but the shyest portion of a company. The
feeling of ownership, however false, usually suffices to content the
laborer that he is being treated justly.
Much of the preservation of the status quo in intellectual property is
owed to the mild complacency that accompanies a reasonably safe and
secure existence. In truth, while the expert engineer may only be
seeing a small portion of the value he creates, he does not find
his station unbearable. With six-figure salaries, stock options, large
bonuses, retirement plans, and rich benefits, few luxuires of modern
life evade his grasp. It is therefore only the most greedy or
adventurous that care to break these golden shackles, taking in their
place the gritty tackle of a life of uncertainty and profligate
But in taking the full risk and reward of the enterprise upon himself,
the programmer who is not sorely wanting in skills of business
or marketing must soon find himself enjoying the fruits of
his labors, albeit many times only after years of difficult and
uncertain unpaid labor. A quick look at many of the most successful
entrepreneurs shows this model to be practically the norm.
The discovery of wealth is thus to be found at the temporary expense
of comfort and security. But, while there may be intervening poverty
while the entrepreneur’s first efforts are underway, with success is
found the ultimate in job security – the freedom to survive without a
wage. The freedom enjoyed by the wealthy and self-sufficient in this
world is equalled only by the fierceness of the slavery forged by
debt. For while there exist industries around multiplying the fortunes
of the rich, many more exist to multiply the debts of the poor and
those impatient of luxury. Wages and debt go hand in hand – for
creditors only make loans which can be repaid regularly. Consequently, the
singular most important question they ask when ascertaining credit is
one’s present wages. The consumer is then set in a delicate balance of
monthly income to monthly expense. Such a balance can ill afford the
years of poverty required by independent enterprise, especially when
the financial burdens of family and higher education enter in. The
wage slavery of intellectual property workers therefore has as much to
do with the requisites of servicing debt as it does the soft comfort
of a regular paycheck.
It is a bittersweet tale of modern capitalism that so many should,
under pressures of debt, dispose of their freedom and leverage, so
sacrificing the gains of their labors almost entirely to one, who
through prudence or happy circumstance, finds himself to have the time
and disposition to form a new endeavor. The further gains of this
cycle repeat themselves, excepting a few choice workers who themselves
through chance or talent came early to join an endeavor and partook,
by way of stock, of a not inconsiderable portion of a success. It is
this fleeting and elusive happenstance, not entirely unlike a lottery,
to which graduating and aspiring engineers are exhorted, though the
chances of anything but modest gains are slim.
To my fellow programmers and knowledge workers, I beg of you to then:
Debt is slavery; having to service debt removes your freedom and flexibility to pursue wealth & happiness.
TAKE RISK IMMEDIATELY
There is no time like the present; while you have plausible reasons
why you should not take risks at present, these reasons will only
multiply in the future. The sooner you take risk upon you, the easier
it will be.
STRIVE ALONE OR IN SMALL GROUPS
While a large company has much to offer in comfort and
infrastructure, most IP work doesn’t actually require vast amounts of
in-house experience. Much can be outsourced. Having a small group or
working solo will let you see a healthy portion of the value you are
It is terrifying and gratifying to live off of the fruits of your labors alone, not coddled or ruled by another.
This, truly, is the American dream. For engineers, there has been no other time better to seize upon the travails and rewards of entrepreneurship than the present.
Go get ’em!