Big Tech negotiation
by Josh Doody
Site Reliability Engineers (SREs) are a necessary yet hidden driver of success for pretty much every technology company. You’re an SRE, so you know that, but what you might not know is how well your unique skillset and narrow focus position you as an extremely valuable contributor to those companies’ success.
In this article, you’ll learn how to maximize the value of your skillset by getting more high-quality job offers and negotiating those offers to be as strong as possible.
There are two things you need to know to get more high-quality job offers and to set yourself up to have maximum latitude to negotiate those offers when the time comes.
Companies desperately need SREs, but they only need so many of them. You’ve chosen a very valuable specialty, and one of the valuable aspects of that speciality is that one engineer can do a lot of valuable work for a company.
This means companies will pay top dollar for your expertise, but they’re only filling a few roles to other, less-specialized roles. That means there’s going to be significant competition for these openings, and that means you need to show the companies that you are the best candidate for one of only a few openings.
Your salary negotiation may actually begin before your interviews even start. How?
“Before we schedule your first interview, would you mind telling me a little bit about what you’re currently making and what your salary expectations are for this role? We don’t want to waste anyone’s time if our expectations are misaligned.”
If it doesn’t, it will! This is a very common question that recruiters ask very early in the recruitment process, sometimes as early as the “pre-screen” interview before you schedule any formal interviews.
It is not in your best interest to tell them your salary history or salary expectations and this can be the biggest negotiation mistake you make.
This is so important that I’ve written an exhaustive article on how to avoid sharing your salary expectations, and you can read it here:
You can recover if you’ve already shared this information with your recruiter—that’s covered in the article too—but it’s much, much easier to negotiate job offers when the first number is suggested by them during the offer stage.
Now let’s talk about how to negotiate your SRE offer once you have the offer in hand.
To get started, you need two major components:
First, you need to decide which dimension you’ll counter on. Then you need to decide how much to ask for.
One tendency that seems common to engineers in particular is they want to address all possible contingencies at once. This often leads engineers to try to negotiate on many dimensions at the same time—I call this the “kitchen sink” method because they throw everything but the kitchen sink into their counter offer.
“I would like this much salary, and this much sign-on bonus, and this much more equity, and some extra vacation, and to work from home one day a week, and I would like a parking stipend” and on and on. They feel like they’ll only get one swing at the counter offer and they want to make sure they hit something with that swing.
The problem with this method is you give the company several options for how they’ll work with you in your negotiation, and they’re pretty much always going to choose to focus on the cheapest, most convenient options for them. That usually means they’re focused on the things that are the least valuable to you and it’s easy for them.
In the list above, the company might say, “Sure, we’ll give you $100 a month for parking and you can work from home one day a week. Ready to sign?” It would be much better if they offered more salary or equity or something with real monetary value, but now if you want to pursue one of those you have to acknowledge that they gave you something you asked for while continuing to ask for more stuff.
I recommend countering on one dimension—usually salary or equity—and focusing on the thing you care about the most. It’s better to focus the negotiation on the thing you care most about so they are focused on that thing too.
One last note on this: Before you choose the primary dimension you’ll focus on, do your best to make sure they have flexibility there. I’m specifically thinking of Amazon, where they cap base salaries for most senior positions. If you’re already near the cap, you’ll want to focus on something else like equity.
When it comes to equity, my rule of thumb is to stay away from equity unless you’re talking to a public company whose stock value is a known quantity. If a public company is offering you RSUs you can put a value on those RSUs and, while they’re not as valuable as cash in hand from salary, their value—at least right now—is a known quantity. If it’s any other kind of equity, I steer clients away because it’s extremely difficult or impossible to accurately put a value on that equity; it’s a lottery ticket.
If you’re skimming this, here’s the punchline: ask for 10% to 20% more than they offered you.
For most of the experienced SREs reading this article, you’ll probably do best by pushing to the higher end of that range. If this is your first SRE role, you might want to stay closer to 10%.
Regardless, you sholud counter at least 10% above their initial offer
What we’re really talking about here is how aggressive you should be with your counter offer. The best way to think about this is to consider what the company sees when it looks back at you. How badly do they want you—specifically you, not just any SRE—on their team?
Sometimes they’ll make this really easy by telling you exactly how badly they want to hire you during your interviews. “We’ve been trying to fill this role for months!” is a pretty good indicator that they want you on their team pretty badly. On the other hand, “We’ve got one opening and we’re considering seven different candidates—it’s amazing how much interest we’ve had in this role.” is a pretty good indicator that they may not specifically be interested in hiring you so you don’t have as much latitude to be aggressive as you might otherwise be.
The second major component of your counter offer is your case for why you’re more valuable than their offer indicates.
Earlier in this article, I suggested you would get more high-quality SRE job offers if you position yourself as the candidate for a particular role. This is another situation where positioning is important.
In case you missed it before, here’s where you can learn more about how to use positioning to show them that you’re the candidate for this particular role: How to position yourself as the best candidate for the role
This may seem like an afterthought, but it’s very important—here’s why: You should send your counter offer in an email. This is so that you don’t engage in a real-time negotiation with professional negotiator ifs you don’t have to. But it’s also because your counter will often trigger the company’s internal approval process since you’re requesting a non-trivial improvement to the offer they made you.
When your recruiter submits your counter offer to the Comp team or whoever needs to make those approvals, the approvers will likely ask why you should be paid more than their offer. They typically don’t make offers at random, and they slotted you into a certain pay range based on how they perceived you.
This is your chance to make your case on your own behalf in writing so that the approvers see it. The alternative is that your recruiter offers a half-hearted summary of you as a candidate, and chances are they will not make your case as well as you’ll make your own case.
As an SRE, a major component of your case should be that you have specialized as an SRE—there are many software engineers, but very few have pursued SRE. Most companies have relatively few SREs and finding good, experienced SREs is difficult.
In three or four sentences, write down why you are a uniquely valuable candidate for this role. How are you specifically going to make their team better when you join it? How will you help them meet their goals and overcome their challenges using your skillset and experience?
For each sentence try to include two things:
For example, here’s how you might position yourself as an experienced SRE who won’t need any hand-holding to get up to speed on a team working on large-scale distributed systems:
That’s a simple example, but if the hiring manager is struggling to solve big problems in that sort of system, you are reminding them that you can start solving that problem for them now—not after six months of ramp-up and training.
That will encourage them to accomodate your counter offer the best they can since they know they can get help immediately if they can just persuade you to join their team.
There’s a good chance your reaction to “you have to make your own case” was something like “I don’t like self-promotion” or “I’m not comfortable talking about myself”. This is a common reaction.
You are the best-qualified person to advocate for you. Your recruiter or hiring manager will not only understand, but they will appreciate that you are thinking about your skillset and experience as they pertain to the business needs of the company. SREs who understand and care about achieving business objectives are more valuable and useful than those who don’t.
Now that you’ve decided which dimension you’ll focus on, determined how much you’ll ask for, and summarized your case for why you’re uniquely valuable for this particular SRE opportunity, it’s time to send your counter.
I recommend doing this in an email and you can read more about how to assemble that email here: How to write your counter offer email
Once you’ve sent that counter offer, most of the heavy lifting for your negotiation is done. But there’s still going to be an opportunity to continue improving your offer beyond concessions they make in response to your counter offer, so let’s get ready for the final phase of your negotiation.
Remember how you chose a single dimension to focus on for your counter offer? Now’s your chance to see about improving the other dimensions of your offer as well.
You managed to keep things in email until now, but most recruiters will respond to your counter with “Thanks for considering our offer! Do you have a few minutes to chat?” They want to move to the phone and wrap things up quickly.
The rest of this section is about how to prepare for that phone call, which will often be no more than two or three minutes. Things happen quickly, so you’ll need to be prepared.
Because things happen quickly, and because you’ll probably be very stressed on your next call with the recruiter, I recommend creating a script you can use to navigate that call.
In addition to the dimension you chose to counter on, choose three more dimensions of your offer that you care about and list them in descending order of importance or value to you.
For example, if you chose salary, you might also add equity, sign-on bonuses, and vacation time.
The company will respond to your counter offer and they likely won’t say “yes”—instead, they’ll hopefully give you some of what you asked for, but won’t get all the way there. That’s your chance to either ask them for more of your primary focus or to see if you can improve the other dimensions of the offer.
Before I describe this process, here’s an article that will help you visualize what you’re doing here: Salary negotiation script example
Now that you’ve countered, you’ve narrowed the universe of possibilities to a pretty tight range of values. For example—following the link above—if they offered you $50,000 salary and you countered at $56,000, then they will most likely respond somewhere in that range.
What you need to do is think through how you’ll proceed for each possibility in that range.
What will you do if they come 90% of the way to your counter? Saying “Ok, when do I start” is pretty good there, in my opinion, because they basically gave you what you asked for.
What if they don’t budget at all in response to your counter? That’s a good indication that they are inflexible on that particular dimension and you will most likely want to probe to see if they have flexibility elsewhere.
What if they meet you in the middle? That’s a good sign they’re flexible in the dimension you focused on, so you might probe to see if they have more flexibility.
For each of their possible responses, plan your next move. Then include some backup requests for when they seem to be stuck on a dimension. Have you maxed out salary? Maybe you can ask for more equity. Have they maxed out equity? Maybe you can ask for a sign-on bonus.
The general idea is that if they say “yes” to something you ask for, then you’re finished negotiating. If they say “no” or give you a partial “yes”, then you ask for the next thing on your list. You don’t want to do this forever, so you let them know, “If you can do this, then I’m on board”—you signal to them that they can end the negotiation by saying “yes”. At most, you’ll ask for three additional things beyond your initial request.
Use the script example linked above as your guide. I recommend literally writing up your script and having it in front of you for your negotiation because things will happen quickly and you may miss something or even totally forget your plan once you’re negotiating in real-time.
When you’re interviewing for SRE roles, make sure to position yourself as the candidate for each particular role by describing how you’ll make their team or company better when you’re a part of it. How will you help them meet their goals and overcome challenges they’re facing?
Make sure you don’t talk numbers until they make you an offer. Don’t tell them your salary expectations, share your salary history, or otherwise engage in the negotiation until they make you an offer.
Once they make you an offer, pick the dimension of the offer that you care the most about, consider how aggressive you should be, choose a specific counter offer amount on that dimension, and counter in an email along with your case for why you’re more valuable than their initial offer indicates.
As soon as you’ve countered, think about how they might respond and script your reaction to each possible response. This may sound overwhelming, but your counter will create a negotiating window that’s pretty narrow. Script out your responses so you have a clear plan to follow when you have that final discussion with your recruiter.
That’s how you negotiate an SRE job offer to make sure you get the best compensation package possible without seeming greedy or losing the offer.
I'm Josh Doody, a professional salary negotiation coach who helps Senior Software Engineers and Engineering Managers negotiate job offers from big tech companies. On average, Software Engineers and Engineering Managers improve their first-year compensation by $47,273 with my help.
Apply for a free 15-minute intro call to learn how I can help.