From high school dropout to Lead Software Engineer earning $195KFeatured

Our Salary Paths series aims to give fellow Elphas a reference point for salary negotiations and encourage more women to talk about compensation. We hope that opening up the conversation will contribute to more pay transparency and equitable pay.

Interested in sharing your Salary Path with us? Please fill out this form here and we will get back to you (can be posted anonymously, too! 😉 ).


I dropped out of high school at 16, got my GED, and started college early. I started out as an art major but always loved math. I remember the day I picked computer engineering out of a book. I figured it would make a decent amount of money and would be fun – I had no idea what I was getting into.

2013-2019: A <Embedded Software Engineer> $70-96k

In my last semester of college, I had 4 job offers (all from GHC). They ranged from $50k-$68k. I talked with the hiring manager for the job I wanted and explained that even though they had the highest offer, my Dad said I should ask for more. Yes, I used the Dad card. It worked, and they came back with $70k.

2019-2020: B <Senior Software Engineer> $145-149k

I was referred by a friend I made through my volunteer activities and got an offer job A couldn’t compete with. I remember asking for $130k and the recruiter said they weren’t gonna put that down so that they didn’t lowball me.

2020-2022: C <Senior Software Engineer> $170-175k

I was referred by another friend I made through my volunteer activities. My friend who referred me negotiated my salary before I even talked to the owner and customer. She has always pushed me to ask for higher salaries.

2022-2023: D <Senior Full-Stack Software Engineer> $175-179k +stock +bonus

I was watching a YouTube video where I saw a paramedic use this handheld ultrasound device. I was so interested in it that I looked them up and saw they were hiring. I was told that the position was for only $150k, but I got them to go up to $175k to match my current salary and also to have my first week be vacation.

After I was laid off from job D I had a meeting with a career coach. I told her I was hesitant to answer the “What salary do you want” question and had already said things like, “Well I hope to keep my previous salary of $179k”. She tells me, hell no, they don’t need to know how much you were making, they don’t care about your lifestyle, they only need to know how much you are worth. You tell them straight up, that you are worth x-x amount. End of story. Best pep talk EVER!

2023: E <Lead Embedded Software Engineer> $195k

Back to my roots, after being laid off I posted on LinkedIn and had lots of people reach out. One happened to be an old coworker from my first job, A. He remembered how awesome I was (thank you past Zaza) and referred me. I told them with confidence my salary range was $180-200k.

Below, I’ll get into some of my reflections on how I was able to increase my income from $70-195k in 10 years including the importance of side gigs (with lessons learned), financial literacy, and determining your why.

Don’t underestimate the side gig

Always have something on the side, it can be as simple as volunteering, or as crazy as a startup. It will help you build your skills in a way you can’t at most day jobs and it might just help you land your dream job.

I started out volunteering a lot in the women in tech space. It started with GHC and a college women's group. I continued that trend after college and got involved with a local Girls Who Code and eventually became the Systers Keeper. It’s through the connections I made here that I was able to land 2 of my day jobs and attempt a startup.

After I got laid off from job D and I was interviewing, I found myself talking about my side businesses a lot. I used to be very hesitant about mentioning anything, but instead, I started framing it to their benefit. I told them all the skills I learned that I wouldn’t have learned at a normal day job (as they tend to be limited responsibilities) and that they would help me in the position I was interviewing for. I am so glad I took this risk because they all loved it!

It’s okay to fail… and fail I did… lots :)

I have a natural entrepreneurial spirit and over the years I have tried my hand at various startups. My favorite was my first one, a dog treat company (we made freeze-dried raw organs). While our treats were a hit, I sucked at online marketing and my treats were not very scalable due to the freeze-drying method. So after I lost my local store’s business once the pandemic hit, I decided to close it down and take what I learned to my next idea. Lessons learned: Make sure your business is scalable, plan plan plan, and know your limitations

My Dad and I were talking about fever monitoring for businesses at the beginning of the pandemic (before it was widely a thing) and we realized we had a big opportunity to get something out the door. We went into business together, I brought in a couple of friends and we got to work making a prototype. I learned the hard way that my Dad… well let’s just say we had different working styles, and things got complicated, so we decided working together wasn’t a good idea. Lessons learned: Don’t go into business with family.

I ended up changing the company name and going 50/50 on it with one of the friends that we brought on to help. We decided since we had a prototype (though no customers) that we would try to do a VC raise. We spent about a year learning everything we could, making pitch decks, joining startup communities, reaching out to investors, etc. Nothing came of it and at that point, the pandemic seemed like it was ending (ha!) and we were very defeated by all the no’s. So we decided to close that company. Lessons learned: VC funding is extremely difficult and it’s important to have better communication and clear roles/expectations for founders. Community is also very important.

During my previous venture, we were in talks with a potential advisor. That advisor reached out and needed an interim CTO to create an MVP for his medical startup (a physical telehealth kit where doctors can get live sensor data during the visit). He had grants from a university incubator so they paid me $120 an hour (roughly 10 hours a week) and I was able to hire my own team (all paid through the incubator). This wasn’t my startup, but I had free rein to manage the funds and team. We were able to successfully deliver an MVP to their first customer (and they loved it). I pulled in about $17k for this work. Lessons learned: How to talk a founder into reality, management of a $50k budget, and how to work with a customer.

For the next round of development, I offered to contract out the devs through a company so that they didn’t need to worry about payroll. They agreed and we came up with a number, deliverables, and timeline (all in Slack). I then created my current contracting company, ZaaWink Labs, and got to work. This was supposed to be a $30k contract. This turned out to be a huge mess and we are still in the middle of resolving payment issues, so I won’t say much more about it. I just signed a contract for another project worth $20k and equity, so I am excited about that. Lessons learned: Don’t start ANY work until an official contract is signed, if possible get paid ahead of time, and don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself.

The importance of financial literacy

I’ve found over the years that we need to teach ourselves how to be financially stable. Right out of college, I fell into the trap of student loans, lots of credit card debt, and living well beyond my means. Growing up, it was always: go to college, get a job, stay there for 40+ years, and retire. I now firmly believe there is a better way. Instead, I think it’s important to get a good job (college or not), live below our means, and try to increase our salary, whilst also making our money make us more money. :)

My salary over the past couple of years has enabled me to pay down my debts, buy a house at 31 (I’m only 34 now), and start saving. I currently have a net worth of about $100k (which still blows my mind). I am now at a point where I am finishing out my 6-month buffer and researching ways to grow my net worth.

Worst financial decision: Purchasing my first dog, Gluon. I put his $3k cost on a credit card, whilst already being eyeballs deep in debt.

Best financial decision: Leaving my first job for that $50k pay bump and educating myself on finances.

While I do believe in living below your means, I don’t believe in frugal living, as we need to stay happy while we are building our wealth. I currently live on about 70% of my take-home pay; that includes a budget for Lego, my 2 dogs, 3 cats, and bearded dragon.

Find your WHY and the rest will follow

This video best describes why knowing your why is so impactful:

I know a lot of you read this to learn how to increase your pay, but I ask you, why do you want to increase your pay?

Over the years my why has changed. My why when I started college was all about my abusive childhood and to prove I could make it (which I feel I have 🙂). I had a goal to make enough money to start a non-profit to help abused children. As I healed and got older, my why has shifted to my physical health issues and mental health. Knowing I may have trouble working in the future motivates me to be financially stable when that time comes.

When I think about what makes me the happiest, it’s inventing things, creating projects from scratch, and delving into the unknown. Thus my long-term goal is to build a stark-like lab and have the financial freedom to sit around and invent stuff all day – essentially an incubator lab that can invent stuff and then spin off companies.

So, I now turn it over to you: What’s your why? What’s your biggest fail and lesson learned? What’s your worst/best financial decision?

Super Cool. Thanks for telling us your journey, really inspiring.
Thank you for sharing your journey @zsoriano! As someone who has similar scale of salary increase in 10 years, there's so much I can relate. Your stories are so inspiring and full of great lessons. I love how you concluded each of your life event and story with a "lesson learned" - concise and powerful.
Thanks! I had no idea I would have that scale of salary increase. I remember graduating college thinking I'd just make like 50k a year till I retire. :D
Nicely done!