Updated: Nov 18, 2021

There are tons of posts, and books, and talks about negotiating salaries. This isn't going to be that. This is going to be about what comes before that: motivating yourself to negotiate at all. Why should you negotiate your salary? It feels risky, it's scary, and scary things are uncomfortable. It is possible to lose an opportunity because of it (although I would argue, the benefits will really outweigh this risk, long-term). But it is so worth it.

Our dog, who negotiates for walks constantly

One thing I've realized is that all those posts, books and talks don't help if you don't ever start. Just making the decision to negotiate is a real blocker for a lot of us. Just deciding that you're allowed to. Well, you're allowed to.

I've been telling everyone this lately. Feels like in 2021 many of us need to hear it again. Just this fall, I've helped four different people talk and write and work through big, scary salary negotiations. And honestly, it rocks. They've gone through these big conversations and they've all come out the other side with more than they expected and stronger relationships.

That's why I like talking about negotiating. I like it when we can all talk about it, despite all the pressures and forces trying to keep us isolated, all the toxic environments making us feel like we don't deserve better treatment at work, all the imposter syndrome making us wonder if we can ever change anything. So I talk to my friends about their jobs, and whether they're happy, and if they're not, I like trying to help them get happier. But separate from just caring, I really love thinking about negotiating.

I used to be terrified of it. I wasn't raised to negotiate, and I didn't see any examples of it until well after college. Research training does its best to make you careful, deliberate, and detail-oriented; it does not tend to make you speculative or adventurous.

But there was always another part of me that was adventurous. The storyteller in me. The person who founded a startup, and who moved across the country for school, and who took buses when she couldn't afford a car and refused to be cowed even when showing up for fancy interviews after riding the bus. And when I realized negotiating is always about storytelling, something really clicked for me, the adventurer who could see these challenges as exploration, and creativity, and maybe even something fun. I challenged myself to get over the fear of failure and to experiment with this like it was any of the other skillsets I have taught myself. And you know what? It is a skillset and you can teach yourself. And that skillset that you can teach yourself can be transformative. When you can really, deeply ask yourself: do I know the value of my work? Have I ever written it down, or said it out loud?--that's part of truly understanding the work you want to do.

I've realized that so few of us really feel comfortable with this stuff. So few of us get any encouragement to think about it. And so many of us are hurt by that, quietly undervalued, quietly disheartened, and quietly discouraged. I get that negotiating isn't a magic solution. Individual resilience doesn't fix systemic issues and there are always situations in which people might not have the power or risk tolerance to do any of this. We need to work towards better systems.

Salary negotiation is just a place to start. But still, what a time to start: roughly 75% of the people I hang out with regularly are interviewing for new jobs, and places need them. No time like the present. No feeling like standing up for yourself. I strongly, strongly encourage you to give negotiating a go, if you are in that place I used to be in. In my experience, it's absolutely worth it. Here are a few of the things I've found extremely helpful to remember:

  1. You should probably negotiate. You really should. I will never give an ultimatum but I've heard too many people say they are a special case when they aren't. The evidence strongly suggests the vast majority of us are underpaid. It's rare to walk into an offer where negotiating isn't a useful tool. Isn't negotiating just a conversation about needs and values? How many times do you get the chance to get thousands of dollars (or more) based on ten or fifteen minutes of your time (or less)? Crucially, there is a negotiation gap for marginalized and underrepresented people in every field I've seen research on. And, I have found that people really show you who they are, when you raise an uncomfortable conversation about your needs. So we especially deserve to tell the story of our value and to learn about the place asking us to join them, based on the way they respond to us.

  2. You are negotiating about the value of the work that a role is going to do. This is a big one. It's easy to feel like a negotiation is a place where you have to argue about your own inherent worth, dignity, or belonging. It feels personal, icky, and threatening. But your worth is not determined by money. I find it much easier to negotiate when I remember I am talking about the value of future work. This also helps with learning that past pay is not a great guide for your future pay in other roles. For those of us who have often been systematically underpaid and want to correct that...this is a huge piece of the puzzle. I've found it most helpful to focus conversations on the value of the work. Believe in it. When you bring this mindset to it, you start to see that negotiating is proof that you understand the value of the work.

  3. When we stand up for the value of our own work, it will enable us to stand for pay equity for other people. This is also something I really believe. Accepting being underpaid can have a real impact on how your coworkers, colleagues, community members are paid. Conversely, standing up for yourself and succeeding gives you more power to contribute to pay equity for your colleagues. Arguments against negotiating and social pressuring will make you feel like you're being combative or "taking away" from other people by valuing yourself. I do not believe this.

  4. Numbers--real numbers, salary numbers--are not bad things. Numbers are not rude, confrontational, aggressive, or mean. Salary information is not impolite. They are simply pieces of information. Do not cut yourself off from information. Companies sure won't cut themselves off from any information they can use. It is absolutely mind-twisting to me that we carry so much secrecy around this information. I have a lot of empathy for the fact that these conversations are difficult! But think about this: employers get to know incredibly personal information about you, get to know details of your daily life, and they certainly know down to the cent how they're using money in exchange for people's time. If they're comfortable with it, you should be. I strongly encourage you to get in the habit of asking for numbers, expecting numbers, telling people you need to know numbers, and sharing numbers with your friends. Small moments of embarrassment and fear are worth it for creating more community around this, for having people to talk to, and for getting information.

  5. Getting a new job is not the only time you should negotiate. I've helped several friends negotiate for re-leveling and other big transitions in their teams. Look, we all join places or take on jobs that can grow beyond what is recognized. In a healthy organization, you should be celebrated for having the strategic insight to notice if this has happened and the initiative to try and change it. I know this is easier said than done. But being your own advocate without apology is a powerful thing and does not turn off just because you are already a member of a team.

  6. You should help other people negotiate. See 4. above: quickest path to the most accurate information is to talk to your friends and close colleagues about this stuff. I have found that the best way to learn, myself, is to help other people. I started helping people negotiate simply because I cared about them, but I've also realized it's an amazing way to see many examples of these complicated scenarios and do some supercharged, accelerated learning. Plus people will always remember you for caring about their success. And that takes us back to 3: working toward pay equity together.

I frequently tell people this thing, because it took me a long time to learn something so simple: people can't give you what you want until you tell them what you want. There are so many factors in our social ecosystems, our upbringings, and the barriers we face that discourage us from even taking this first step. But you should ask for what you want. Give people the chance to give it to you.

If this advice sparks something in you and you want more personal support, reach out: I offer a small number of 1:1 coaching slots to help people tell their stories in salary negotiations. More details on this to come!

  • Cat Hicks

In my work as an applied researcher so far, a few big truths have come up again and again. They aren’t the hardest concepts to understand, nor are they the most technical and nuanced problems in stats, nor the most tangled strategic insights. But these ideas have come up again and again, even though they’re simple. They’re important. I keep these reminders ready at hand when I think about any research project, strategic initiative, or real-world problem. Things change over time. Think about interaction effects. Examine operationalizations. Do the documentation before you think you need to.

And for my work, this is a big one: be mindful of deficit thinking.

Deficit thinking is interpreting an observed difference as resulting from failing, lack, absence: that’s the deficit. The thinking part is when this calcifies into an interpretation that we apply to everything. It is individualistic, oblivious to systems, and it turns into bias when we apply it unevenly. We usually apply it unevenly. The “different” group is only allowed to exist as a lesser version of the default group.

It’s not a new term or a new concept. There’s a ton of work on this idea in education [1]. Deficit thinking, and the interrelated patterns of using individualistic over-explanation for structural problems, have been explored deeply by people better than me at this. We are more likely to give environmental explanations for privileged groups and deficit explanations for marginalized groups [2]. The consensus is that deficit thinking from people in power and from organizational cultures is damaging, inaccurate, and distortive.

Yet in tech, generally speaking, these years of conversation about deficit thinking have simply not made inroads. It’s not that tech isn’t interested in social science. In my experience (and contrary to a lot of pushback I’ve gotten over the years from well-meaning and disparaging academics), tech is very interested in social science. But the translation is difficult for a lot of reasons — not least of which that there aren’t enough of us in tech, and that we get siloed from each other. But another reason is that the translation happens haphazardly.

There are many frustrations inherent to watching what concepts do and don’t gain traction outside of academic social science research (“nudges” caught on like wildfire for some reason), but this is one of my biggest, most of all with any tech that enters the realm of education. Despite being enthusiastic about optimistic concepts like growth mindset and grit, despite many words spilled in tech celebrating the idea that people can overcome and past does not determine potential, tech tends to airlift in only the most individualistic versions of these ideas. Growth mindset is translated in tech as a concept only about individual perseverance, never about an organizational culture’s attitudes towards failure and mistakes. They have mindsets. We have “truth” and “data.”

I think a lot of people in tech want something different. We don’t always have words for it, but it’s there. It’s why it’s so grating when an organization puts up flyers saying “anyone can learn anything!” while they won’t even look at resumes from people who don’t have a degree from a tiny list of supposedly top schools. It’s why we wince when we see products claim that they are going to swoop into the world’s most complex issues, health or education or civic action or justice systems, to “educate” and “fix” and “save.” And it’s one of the reasons we mismeasure so much in this work, in my experience. Operating from a deficit lens, we assume that success can only be measured when people look and act like us. Operating from a deficit lens, we discard achievements that would contradict that narrative. Operating from a deficit lens, we already have a biased causal narrative in mind about exactly why we see something that we’ve already decided is failure.

It’s a lot of confidence in objectivity where none is warranted: failure isn’t even objective. I use this example a lot when I give talks about my work, and it always resonates with people. I’ll say it again here: a student struggling under incredibly difficult adverse circumstances, who gets a C grade in a math class, is giving us a fundamentally different measure compared to a student facing no adversity at all, who also gets a C grade in a math class. Often we’re comparing the wrong things altogether. Under a strengths-based lens, we might start to realize that the student who got a C grade in a math class still showed up to that math class instead of dropping out of school. We might begin to question how useful a grade is, as a measure of the achievement of a student who is taking care of younger siblings while their single parent works. We might consider how enormous other definitions of success really are: showing up at all. Trying. But this also forces us to localize the problem outside of individuals, and and often, onto ourselves.

It remains both interesting and deeply painful to me that tech has lifted half-concepts from social science, or contextless concepts, the feel-good story of individual potential but not the critical importance of a sustainable architecture for that potential. When I say tech I’m not saying “everyone” in this big, complicated industry. A lot of the people I’ve worked with in tech really do want to think about this, or have done their own thinking about this. But when I network in tech, when I talk to funders or VCs or heads of engineering, they often ask me about the mysteries of psychology. The vast majority only want to talk about some user, amorphous and distant. When they talk about doing social good with tech, they conceive of it as bestowing knowledge or skills onto the blank slate of an individual. They don’t think of it as inviting someone in, as a moment for us to learn what we might have been missing about a person all along, and giving that person the chance to show it.

Tech rarely wants to talk about communal, societal, and environmental psychology: the fact that we are all in it together, and that we need to learn things about our own thinking as much as scrutinize the psychology of people inside our products. Or more. And it’s a pity, because I think despite being an industry obsessed with impact, we are missing an absolutely enormous way that we could have impact.

  1. e.g., Valencia, R. R. (Ed.). (2012). The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice. Routledge.

  2. e.g., Garcia, S. B., & Guerra, P. L. (2004). Deconstructing deficit thinking: Working with educators to create more equitable learning environments. Education and urban society, 36(2), 150–168.

  • Cat Hicks

I was trying to get the registration stickers for my car. I should’ve gotten them, but I hadn’t. Instead, I’d gotten three different letters from the DMV informing me that my registration was paid but not complete. The automated system wouldn’t send the stickers. No one knew why; certainly not me, since I had paid the registration far in advance and gotten the required smog test, and not the woman at the DMV who answered after I sacrificed three hours on hold in the traditional supplication.

“I see that you paid, and I see your vehicle. There’s just a code associated with your vehicle,” was what she told me. I had been working on a puzzle during my hours on hold. This is a waiting activity I recommend. I couldn’t trust the automated call-back queue after they hadn’t actually called me back. So instead I had been hanging onto the line and reducing the waiting music to a tolerable level and finishing puzzles.

“Can you help me understand what that means?” I asked. We were two people running scripts at each other. Hers from whatever gods helm the DMV and mine from qualitative interviewing and time spent embedded on engineering teams.

After a long pause, the woman on the phone said: “I have no idea." She sounded sincere and human, which is to say, she sounded pissed. Script broken, contact established. “They don’t give us anything but the code. All I can do is look up what the code stands for. This one stands for OTHER.”

OTHER is a category paradox, a response to say response not covered.

Confession: as a researcher I have written many OTHER categories into existence at the point of data collection. I know, I know. I know it's unsatisfying. Usually these are surveys. Sometimes they are my own labelling of a scenario, or scoring of a performance. Sometimes they are bins into which I shunt a hundred thousand or so datapoints. Response not covered. Interesting but unfortunately not the point of this study. Someone decided not to instrument whatever this was so I can’t make a prediction of it. I don't trust it. I was surprised.

I know also that I choose to go into this world of measurement trade-offs. Research is always a sandbox, always a construction of a limited field. There are a lot of possible things you could store in a spice cupboard but it’s understandable your labels would say pepper and not dragons. Yet there are also good reasons to open a paradox, even a tiny one, even in your sandbox. Sometimes you have limited fields in the free version of the survey software your lab lets you use. Sometimes you only have a few labels that you feel confident spelling, defining, or throwing out to your participants, and you want to give them the chance to be generative participants, not just reactive participants. Sometimes you don’t trust the people you’re working with to protect the complexity of your participants and you write OTHER for things you already know, or live (and you hope that it doesn’t hurt people who know, or live, like you).

We--data people, researchers, some random engineer at the DMV doing her best--create standardized responses because we want to reify patterns. This requires cutting things up and picking dividing lines, even when we know real things might bleed over each other in the margins. We accept a lot of penalties when we define measurements: the flattening of vast spectra of experience into homogenous ranks and order numbers, the “best-of” choice that we know every reader has to make, the extraordinarily profound limits of our own imaginations. Still it’s a tool. We live for patterns. We live because of best-of choices, sometimes.

And then sometimes we use OTHER. OTHER is a pattern breaker. OTHER is an admittance of the missing. Writing OTHER as a response option, every quantitative researcher knows, takes away some power from your analysis and shifts it into the unknown investment that is personalized accuracy. Stakeholders don’t like this. Stakeholders don’t often hire you for this.

But OTHER can be beautiful, a validation, a pilot test in miniature, a rummage bin for people's unwrangled self-words, their non-standardized representations.

The woman at the DMV gave me the phone number of the Meta DMV, DMV Plus, the place where codes go to die. My problem had become some kind of higher order problem, and I needed a translator. I opened up another puzzle.

Meta DMV had the kind of hours that speak to organizations under meta stressors. You could only reach them during a lunch hour window on a particular weekday. There was no callback waiting queue.

I called and called and called. I logged in and out of the DMV website. The OTHER code was not visible on my customer UI. It was invisible, backend, logged somewhere. I had already paid my registration so I couldn’t pay it again (I was about ready to). I didn't want to drive my car with an expired (??) registration so OTHER cost me experience as well as time.

OTHER can be insulting. OTHER can be painful. I have no desire to pretend it’s not, least of all when otherization in the sociological sense is itself a decision with cascading permutations. Those included and excluded from “default” definitional measurement have always known this. This exclusion shows up in our data science, and in our standard methodologies, and is all the worse for being invisible to so many who create those methodologies.

I have faced down a lot of surveys where OTHER is the only label that fits my response and it does not feel like it will ever help: for example, at many “women in tech” events that might discuss sexism without ever imagining the ways in which gender-expansive people experience different weaponizations. The push for data-driven rarely extends to being measurement-driven. Being data-driven is usually about the point of analysis, not the point of collection. This is why they ask so much about coding languages and so little about causal inference in most data-related job interviews.

I’ve lived through a thousand mundane moments of grief about losing rich measurement working in this field. Data cleaning courses seem to spend a lot of time on dumping, not expanding. The fact that quantitative work sees success as majoritizing patterns means that what we dump in OTHER itself is rarely random and often systematic. Plus feature reduction is efficient and efficiency is, of course, profit. Being called inefficient as an applied researcher can feel like a death knell.

So it’s not a fix, using OTHER. I think it can be like cracking open a window, though. There is always a tension between exploratory research and confirmatory research. There is always a struggle to own the definitions and not have them applied to you. It is difficult to attain the power and the agency to create labels. Sometimes what you can do is sneak in an OTHER. Sometimes it’s breathing room against all of the frustration, a tiny little moment where you say: hey. YOU tell me.

I finished two puzzles in the course of never getting anyone at the Meta DMV to answer my calls. Several weeks later, I got a very tiny reimbursement check. Mystery thickened! Then I got a letter with my sticker that said: your process is complete.

(Ok, I never found out what the code meant. But here is my best guess: I had moved, but I had paid a registration fee with my car still listed to an old address without realizing it, maybe even while my address change was still in process. My registration had therefore been overcharged by the value of approximately three dollars and fifteen cents. This shunted my registration away from normal DMV processing, and into some baroque and time-dilated reality of reimbursement. They probably couldn’t send the sticker before they’d processed the reimbursement. Edge case, conditionalities I couldn't see, OTHER. Or maybe it was pandemic vibes hitting the DMV, I don't know. Everything has been an OTHER since March 2020 hasn't it.

I also got a ticket while my car was parked next to my house waiting for its sticker! So going nowhere didn't save me from the OTHER. I explained that I had paid registration: OTHER was not an acceptable supplication to that set of gods, who had codes of their own, the ticket was dismissed but I had to pay some kind of service fee and reduced ticket for existing while coming to their attention. Category? Probably OTHER)

I’m not telling this story to complain about it--it was kinda stupid to experience, but hardly heinous--but because I keep thinking about it. The invisibility of what that OTHER was supposed to stand for. The impossibility of solving a situation once the definitions were rendered unreachable. That woman on the phone who was allowed to read the labels but not see what they meant. Sometimes when I encounter an OTHER category in my data I play that excellent Sesame Street song in my head, one of these things is not like the other.

This trivial DMV story is an anti-example. I thought about writing down OTHER stories where the label worked--qualitative insights from open text survey responses that drove decision making and changed what we worked on next, or ways that I’ve used mixed-methods research to try to co-create data with participants in the first place. But this story just kept sticking in my head. We’re surrounded by OTHER everyday. We’re dealing with outliers by not dealing with them. We’re deciding that our categorizations must work because we have a code for them not-working, and therefore our sorting of things-into-categories is one hundred percent effective.

Despite this some of us become OTHER spotters, likely to volunteer for the labor of reading the text. I guess I'm one of those. In the classic Sesame Street song you have thirty seconds to identify which thing is not like the others and I think that mounting tension is very accurate. But I like OTHER. It can be a terrible solution but not having that strange category feels like it could be worse. Pretending that our responses are exhaustive when they are not. Worshipping at the church of standard limited options. Pre-selecting only for participant reaction, not participant generation. OTHER is dodgy, a standardization-breaker, but also a space for imagination. I like to think that it lets us admit that we have not drawn a boundary around the entire world just because we wrote out five possible answers.

I try not to create invisibilities masked by OTHER. I still like writing those small OTHER options whenever I can. I know, inefficiency, etc. I know that harried quantitative researchers or dismissive data scientists will probably ifelse(x = OTHER, delete) or whatever. But once in a while it must get through. Once in a while someone must read it, and consider the existence of a category they never imagined.