how can I increase my wages? – part ii: niching down

Forty-eight percent of respondents to Stack Overflow’s 2018 developer survey described themselves as “full-stack developers”! That’s a lot of full-stack devs out there!

Many developers love their work, and are perfectly happy that they are paid anything to do what they love. However, just because you’re getting paid to do what you love doesn’t mean you don’t need or want more money! Money is like a road: it helps you get where you need to go. It helps you get where you want to go. When you’re sick, it can pay for health care expenses. If you’ve got a family, it pays to put the food on their plates, go on vacation together, send your kids to college. Even if you don’t have responsibilities, it pays for fun stuff – whatever you like to do when you’re not coding!

I would argue that there’s no such thing as “too much” money. After all – you can always give your money away if it causes you problems! So, maximizing your income seems like a no-brainer, as long as doing so doesn’t impact you negatively in some way.

You can increase your wages simply by asking for more. But what happens if you’ve asked for “more” many, many times, and people keep telling you “no”? Then the problem may be that the value you provide is not worth what you are asking.

One possible answer is to drill down into a niche area. Adding a subspecialty to the skills that you’re offering can be the thing that makes a higher paying client find you appealing. But, how do you choose a niche? And how do you get experience in that niche if you haven’t already worked at it? It’s a catch-22.

Looking back at that Stack Overflow survey again can help! Scroll down and look at all the commonly used technologies… Hopefully, you will have one or two of those under your belt, and maybe more. Now look at some of the less commonly used techs. For example, under the databases section, we see that MySQL is the most popular database. Chances are that you have experience using a MySQL database, either with a hobby project, with a current client or job, or sometime earlier in your career. That’s great! But look down the list a bit more, and you’ll find there’s quite a long tail of databases listed. For example, we see things like Neo4j, Cassandra, and Google Cloud Storage listed.

Drilling down, of all 100,000 developers taking the survey, 3.7% said that they use Cassandra. At first glance, that doesn’t seem like a lot, and you might think you are better off experimenting with PostgreSQL or SQL Server. However, 3.7% of 100K is 3700 devs. And that’s just a small fraction of all the devs in the world. So there’s definitely a market for people with Cassandra skills. In 2017, 3.1% of respondents said they worked with Cassandra. It looks like there might be an uptick in this skill.

But, you say, why not broaden your skills with PostgreSQL? There’s clearly far more demand for that skill than for Cassandra.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with doing that, of course. But there are a few reasons that something less popular is a wiser choice.

First, a skill that is common to a very large pool of developers becomes commoditized. You won’t stand out from other devs if you have experience with PostgreSQL. You will if you’ve been using Cassandra. No doubt, many clients or hiring managers will skip right by “Cassandra” on your resume. However, for the client who absolutely needs a developer with that skill, your resume will be exactly what they’re looking for.

Second, when skills are hard to find, (and I don’t mean skills like “playing the nose flute“) you can often charge more for them. I don’t have solid proof of this. However, ZipRecruiter claims that the average salary for a “Cassandra developer” is $122K/year. In contrast, the average salary of a “MySQL developer” is $104K/year. I don’t want to use those figures as definite proof of what I’m saying because I don’t know how ZipRecruiter got their data, and I’m sure there are lots of other factors involved in salary comparisons. Also, I don’t think there’s a job title such as “Cassandra developer” or “MySQL developer”. However, it does give you some indication that there’s more money sloshing around for those who have rare skills.

A little research like I’ve done above can give you an idea of where the trends are going, and what skills might be hard for employers or clients to find. If something looks appealing, it can be worth investigating the technology. Can you add it to one of your side projects, so that you can say you’ve got experience in it? You don’t have to become an expert. You can explain to a potential client what your experience is, and let them decide whether that is enough.

Niching down” is one way to get yourself a pay increase.

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