Why I Turned Down Double My Salary

Last year, we moved across the country from Orlando to Salt Lake City. Before we reached this decision, I researched other companies, looked at other jobs and interviewed other places. In the end, I had to make the decision: is the extra money worth it?

. 9 min read. Financial Independence, Personal.
empty swing sets

The past year has been a big one for me. Aside from seriously starting writing here on Minafi (last June!), I also moved across the country from Orlando to Salt Lake City. This was a huge decision for us that took months of research, planning, downsizing and yes, even job interviews. I ended up moving for my current job, keeping my current position, but that wasn’t the only option.

When it came to jobs in Orlando, I felt like the company I was with (Code School / Pluralsight) was the best possible work environment I could be in. Aside from amazing people, a focus on team improvement and a great product, the focus of the company – teaching people to code in fun ways – was something that got me out of bed every morning excited to work on.

Later on, while there I wrote up my own personal mission. It ended up being strongly tied to this field. It helps motivate me at work and here on Minafi:

I help empower people to transform their ideas into reality by enlivening education.

I rarely considered working elsewhere, and if I did I knew it would likely involve a move from Orlando (I don’t prefer working remotely). So when we decided we might move to work at the Pluralsight headquarters in Salt Lake City, I wanted to evaluate my options and make sure it was still the place I’d prefer to work.

The Job Criteria

Being in tech, there’s no shortage of amazing companies that are constantly hiring. I lucked into being in a very lucrative field – something I’m very aware of. I’m also fortunate enough to be farther along in my career with some savings in the bank. When I started evaluating where else might be interesting to work, I asked myself a few questions:

  • Does this companies vision match up with my personal vision?
  • Do they focus on self/employee improvement?
  • Is it a product I love?
  • How is the team?
  • What do they think of work/life balance?
  • How long do people stick around on this team, or on other teams?

Finding companies, even on paper, that matched these criteria wasn’t easy. “Enlivening education” by itself limited the field to only companies that focus on training in some way. I also didn’t want to switch to a direct competitor. If I wanted to continue doing the same field of work I’m currently doing, I’d just stay where I am.

Having established criteria for a job also gives you things to ask about during the interview. When someone asks no questions, that’s a red flag.

What About Salary?

When I was starting my career out, I optimized much more for salary. It’s not uncommon for people in tech to change jobs every 2 years (or more) and rake in some impressive salary bumps along the way. I did this in my 20s, working at 4 different companies between age 22 and 27 – each at a respectable 10%+ bump.

Earlier in a career is the time to do this. I didn’t know what I wanted to do long-term and I didn’t have any kind of personal mission. I was figuring that all out and learning valuable skills from multiple employers and talented tech teams. There have been a number of studies about the relationship between salary and happiness which point out the “perfect” salary for different locations. I realize now that when I did reach this salary, my motivation for earning more went down drastically and I started optimizing more for a happy workplace.

The Job Application

It had been 7 years since the last time I applied for a job, and that one didn’t involve a resume. The last time I needed one was 10 years ago. When I hear about people struggling to find jobs out of college, whether that’s a place that fits with their vision or just a place to pay the bills, I can only imagine. Applying for jobs is stressful in the best circumstances – which I include my own. Add to that the weight of debt, immediate bills and everything else life throws at them and I feel incredibly lucky to be in the situation I’m in.

For my case, I was able to update my resume, add in a cover letter and cold-submit it to the one company I found that matched with the above criteria. I won’t mention the name here, other than to say the cost of living there is much higher than Salt Lake City or Orlando.

Submitting a resume to an online system isn’t the recommended way to get the job of your dreams. When I read about the hustle people put into getting their foot in the door, I’m seriously impressed. In the tech scene, I’ve done the schmoozing and networking thing at local meetups to search for interesting companies, and look for people to hire. For one of my jobs, I did aggressively pursue them when they weren’t responding to my emails. Turns out they were busy launching a new product, but eventually hired me when they had more time.

After adding my application to the pile, I waited. Luckily, I wasn’t waiting long – they emailed me that week to interview. I scheduled a chat with them, asked about preparation needed on my side (none mentioned) and anxiously awaited.

The Job Interview

Having not interviewed anywhere for a while, when the time came I had more than a few butterflies in my stomach. In my mind, I was down to two companies I might want to work for, and I wanted to make the best impression. This was a phone interview, answering a lot of questions about how I work, my process, what I focus on when developing a product.

What Are Product Managers?

OK, let’s pause for a second here. The role I currently do, and the role that I was applying for is in this field called Product Management. Let’s see what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:

A product manager communicates product vision from the highest levels of executive leadership to development and implementation teams. The product manager investigates, selects, and drives the development of products for an organization, performing the activities of product management.

This is an OK way of phrasing it. I especially like that they “perform[] the activities of product management”. That’s really helpful.

In actuality, how this position works at every company is much different. At my current job, the responsibilities look something like this:

  • Understand vision from high levels of executive leadership.
  • Work to move towards that vision in the area of responsibility for each product manager.
  • Set objectives and key results for your specific area of responsibility.
  • Conduct user research (user interviews, surveys, focus groups etc) to understand user problems in your specific area.
  • Formulate a hypothesis to solve these problems, and conduct more user research to validate these (and iterate until you’re confident in your solution).
  • Get buy-in from leadership on this course of action.
  • Work with development teams to execute on this deliverable.
  • Work with other PMs to execute on cross-team parts of this deliverable.
  • Understand the impact of this change using qualitative and quantitative data.

To boil it all down, there’s a lot of research – talking to users, analyzing usage data and talking with others. After that, there’s a sales/convincing side – showing why this is what’s most important to be worked on. There’s quite a lot of iteration to get things right. There’s also project management in there as well – keeping the team you work with focused and organized to execute on these parts.

This involves some extremely awkward user interviews where we show them something and they completely don’t understand it – or they go off on a tangent and we need to get them back on track.

At the end of the day, the PM is responsible for the success of the product. If after all this research what’s delivered isn’t what solves customer problems, it falls at the PMs feet.

Bottom-Up vs Top Down Vision

The common trend in the product industry lately is for the teams and people closest to a problem to have more say in what’s built. This switches the structure from the typical “CEO Hitlist” of features to individual teams iterating on different parts. Depending on the size of the company, this may not make sense. At a certain point, specialists just know more.

When Code School was small, for example, we had no Product Managers. Instead, the responsibilities above were (informally) distributed throughout the team. Having people that can wear multiple hats helps in those early stages.

How Do You Test Product Managers?

Having not hired PMs and not interviewed for my current position (I changed job roles within the company when it was needed) I wasn’t too sure about this. Somehow I’ve been a “Product Manager”, “Product Owner” and “Product Director” at times in my career – but all by starting as an engineer and just taking on additional responsibilities.

In my past time as an Engineer/Engineering Manager, understanding if someone was technically capable was the easy part. Figuring out if someone was a good communicator, how they handle conflict and how they empathize with their peers/teams/users isn’t as easily quantifiable.

Having spent less time in this product field, I had (and have) significant imposter syndrome. I didn’t have much practice with these types of questions, but luckily I did have experience. Here are the types of questions asked:

  • If you were to change anything about the project, what would you have done differently and why?
  • How did you handle disagreements with key stakeholders, whether engineers, cross-team dependencies, or executives?
  • How do you articulate a future, and how do inspire your team to build that future?

These questions have been my life for the last few years. Finding an answer to them wasn’t a struggle.

The Interview Call

When it came time for the interview, I called in and started chatting with my would-be manager. We jumped into these questions and more, getting an understanding of the way the company worked. All of the PM-related questions seemed easy to answer from multiple sources of experience. Nothing was too focused on communicating the product user journey, which is one of the areas I consider myself to be the weakest at.

When we got to talking about salary, I was shocked by the numbers. The starting salary would be almost double my current salary — really?!  Well, that’s good news. I made it a note to run that through a cost-of-living calculator to see what that translated into in “Orlando dollars”.

The PM role at each place is different, so I started to probe about how the team works. It turns out this change would be far different than I imagined. Apparently, this role wouldn’t even talk to users. Instead, I’d be more of a technical liaison between teams working together, but with no actual product to manage (other than the nebulous “technical” side). That was a little bit of a downer, as it wasn’t in line with working on a “Product I love” part of my criteria.

When asking about the team, I was surprised to hear the number of PMs was relatively small for such a large company. This would limit the number of peers I could learn from, and collaborate with.

The Choice

After the call, I immediately looked up what the cost of living was at this location. It turned out to be about 65% higher than Orlando. If my salary were almost double, then I’d still net some extra cash in my pocket but nothing that’s going to immediately change my life.

I’m privileged enough to be in a position where money isn’t the most important factor in this decision. If it were then this would be easy. While in my 20s with many more years to go until being financially independent, I would’ve jumped at the chance. Instead, it came down to my earlier criteria:

  • Does this companies vision match up with my personal vision?
    • Yes! Lots of interesting things.
  • Do they focus on self/employee improvement?
    • Not a huge amount.
  • Is it a product I love?
    • The product yes, but the area I’d be working no.
  • How is the team?
    • Relatively small, I’d be a part of helping establish things.
  • What do they think of work/life balance?
    • Based on research in the company, not so good.
  • How long do people stick around?
    • Not long, red flag level.

This was a mixed bag but definitely leaned towards the negative side for me personally. For someone else who wanted to help build up a team or loved the technical side of product management would have found a match made in heaven.

One other criterion that I didn’t list was location. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t in love with the idea of moving to Salt Lake City. My main impression was it’s a desert filled with Mormons with the oddest liquor laws in the country. No really, here are some of the weird liquor rules here in Utah:

  • In order to buy beer or wine (over 4%), you must go to a state liquor store.
  • Cocktails can’t have more than 1.5oz of liquor in them (“flavoring” doesn’t count).
  • Draft beer must be under 4%.
  • State liquor stores are closed on Sundays.
  • If you order a 2nd drink at a restaurant, you must finish the first before the server gives it to you.

Utah does have one very notable money related advantage though – a very low cost of living compared to the major tech cities in the US. The cost of living in San Francisco, for example, is roughly 85% higher than Salt Lake City. That’s crazy!

Team or Money

After considering all the factors, I decided to stay with my current company and team and the take the leap into Salt Lake City. Having a team of people to work with that I actually respect and love working with is amazing. Having the flexibility to explore solutions with others who are curious and empathetic helps to make me more of both.

There’s a Jim Rohn quote that helps establish this:

You are the average of the five people you most associate with.

The people you work with closest can inspire you to aspire or depress motivation. I’m lucky to work with a great group of people and look forward to seeing what happens next.

6 comments

  1. I think it’s awesome that you still investigated other options, even though you had a sure deal with your current company. It’s pretty easy to stick to the status quo, you know?

    Also, thanks for describing what a product manager does. Sounds like a super cool job! I’d love to interface with users. I’m wondering if lots of the same skills you have can apply to blog readers somehow???

    I agree that your team is super important, because you spend so much time at work. I swear, one job I stayed at way too long because I had a best friend I talked to all day.

    1. I know the feeling. I’ve stayed at not-so-great places due to the teams when the company maybe wasn’t the most interesting.

      If you love to interface with users, product manager might be a neat one for sure. I’ve talked to some PMs that have done 8 user interviews in a single day – which just sounds nuts to me. That’s a lot of understanding users and trying to distill things down.

      On the blog side, I do kind of feel like every blog comment, user email or Twitter interaction is a little bit of user research that helps understand Minafi’s readers a little bit more.

  2. I have massive respect for people who choose a job based on lifestyle over money. In theory, I could have probably made more money by jumping ship here and there when I did not but in that scenario the money is not right in front of you. I’ve never turned down the type of increase you are talking about here.

    I love your approach too. You wanted to explore alternatives, found the best fit and went for it. Knowing you did not want to move probably makes your current job more rewarding. It was also smart to check that cost of living calculator, those Orlando dollars are worth much more than they seem to be on the surface.

  3. Not sure what happened with my first comment. I’ll try again.

    I have great respect for those that take less money in exchange for a more rewarding job. I’ve yet to make a move like that myself. It may actually be my true #1 financial goal as it’s prioritizes your time more than dollars.

    I’m also impressed by the approach. You found the best potential job based on your values and went for it. Running the numbers through the cost of living calculator was key as well. The big paycheck’s in the big cities get eaten up with more expensive housing, transpiration and taxes. Trust me on that one.

    Congrats on making a move to maximize your happiness and not your bank account!

  4. I hate moving, the thought of packing up my stuff and moving almost gives me hives. That said, it sounds like the only “green” line of the new company would’ve been salary and even much of that would’ve been consumed by a difference in the COL. I think as we get older, we start appreciating and recognizing the other aspects of our lives we value and start optimizing for those as well. It’s hard to say no to 2x but it sounds like you made the right choice.

    1. “I think as we get older, we start appreciating and recognizing the other aspects of our lives we value and start optimizing for those as well.” Jim Wang

      Love this one, Jim. I agree with you 101%. Our priorities and the way we value and look at lives change as we get a little older.

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