I finally out-earned my money-anxiety through accidental negotiationFeatured

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.

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Maybe it was watching my parents’ fights about money turn into divorce, or realizing we qualified for school lunch tickets because my mom’s income was below the poverty line, or experiencing my family go through bankruptcy when I was 16. Or maybe it’s because all the women in my family light up when they see a SALE sign.

The bottom line is that my family’s spending habits molded the relationship I have with money. As an emotional saver – or money hoarder – spending money always hurt. I was also taught that lavish status symbols were desirable.

Thus the story of my earnings starts with an urge for security and status.

Unlocking my first negotiation technique

When I graduated college I was a bit all over the place. I had studied neuroscience and biology with the intent to become a neurosurgeon. But something changed within me; I no longer wanted to do that. My whole 10-year plan, gone.

So, there I was, trying to figure out what to do with myself. Luckily, a trustee from my college was a Director at Accenture. She got me an interview for analyst (entry level) and it seemed to be going really well...until they ghosted me.

As I looked into other options, I started hostessing at a place called Joey Garlic's in Connecticut. During my interview, I casually asked the manager how much I would be making. That was enough for him to say “well I guess we could give you $11 an hour”. I was pleasantly surprised because, while I hadn’t exactly asked for more, it seemed like I was getting it!

First negotiation technique unlocked – just ask what the pay is. Also, ask if you’ll be getting that pay right away if you’re in food service. I, unfortunately, learned this when I found out I got minimum wage on my first paycheck. I'm not good at hiding my feelings so when paychecks were passed out, everyone could tell that I was upset. That's when I realized that I was the only hostess who had been promised anything above minimum wage and had accidentally incited a pay revolution.

Later my boss explained that I would get full pay when I exited training and advised me not to share my salary with the other hostesses. I didn’t stay long enough to get my $11/hr.

Not negotiating accrues heavy interest

I then worked at Pratt & Whitney in customer relations, facilitating conferences mainly. The great thing about this job was that since it was technically an internship they based their salary on the number of credits you completed and I had already completed a fourth year of college. So my pay was going to be the equivalent of 64K a year! Unfortunately, there was a hiring freeze so they couldn’t hire me outright but they were able to just keep me on as an intern. But I came to loathe my boss, so I was actively looking.

Around this time, the Accenture recruiter that I thought had ghosted me reappeared (she’d been on mat leave and nobody had followed up with me). I jumped at the chance to interview and take the offer...even though it meant taking a lower salary of 56K. I didn’t negotiate. It was arguably one of the worst mistakes in my career. If I had negotiated I might still be at Accenture. Had I negotiated, 18 months later when one of my clients asked for me by name in the contract (leverage!) I might still be at Accenture.

I decided to leave 3 years later upon discovering that even though I had transferred from CT to NYC and received a promotion from Analyst to Consultant in the same cycle, I was making >10K less than the newly hired NYC analysts fresh out of school. When I brought it up to HR they said “it was a really bad year for the company, we will get you up to the correct numbers next cycle”. That was a betrayal to me. Some years after my departure, Accenture did go through a huge pay rebalancing because I was not the only one getting pennies for raises while their CEO got huge bonuses.

Get it in Writing!

I joined a boutique consulting firm made of ex-Accenturians which promised 80K +5K signing + 25% bonus that was ‘always paid out every year’ but not in the contract. I was the first technical hire. It was hell. They had no idea how long work would take to complete and made unattainable promises to clients out of naivety. Also, whenever I sat in on a client meeting I realized that what the client wanted and my boss thought the client wanted were very, very different things. So, I worked a lot.

I had mainly taken this job for the perks and one of them was a company retreat every year in a chic destination.

In 2015 it was in Marrakech, Morocco. I remember watching the sun come up in a donut shaped pool on the top of the super high-end hotel after a night of drinking and partying with the other people in my firm and thinking “this is the best this job gets and I am absolutely miserable”.

That was in June. In October, after 8 months, I quit. I was stoked to theoretically be making 6 figures at 25. But, the year I was there was the year the bonuses didn’t pay out. I thought the perks were experiences that would make my life more full. But I was wrong.

Don’t join a job for the one-off perks and certainly believe nobody when they say you’ll get money that’s not written in the contract.

Don’t cheap out on the good stuff - that’s you!

And then I made another mis-step. I joined the cheapest, fastest coding bootcamp I could find…I got into the good ones but I decided to go to Startup Institute (SI was 7K, 8 weeks as opposed to Grace Hopper level programs that were 18K and 16-18 weeks).

I’ll sum this up by saying that the state of Massachusetts probed SI for education fraud and got MA students refunds on their loans.

I ran a survey on my graduating class six months after and so few of them had jobs in the fields that we were promised; most of them either were still unemployed like me or had gone back to the field they were in before going to bootcamp. So, I learned when you invest in yourself, pick the option that isn’t a gimmick.

My career has played out well but I may have stayed in hands-on coding longer and enjoyed it more had I not jumped at the cheapest option. And if I'd gone to Grace Hopper I probably would have met more women in coding which would have been awesome.

Don’t assume the worst

After 6 months of applying to PM and eng roles and barely even getting interviews, I landed a role at an ADP innovation lab in NYC. I told them I’d like to make 100K and they offered 105K with no bonus and I signed. I started developing apps on their proprietary platform. After a year my boss scheduled an impromptu 1:1 same day and I thought I was being fired. I was promoted off-cycle – the last three hires I had interviewed were going to be my team. I was going to train them and be their tech lead. About ~6 months later on-cycle I was given another raise for being in the top ratings.

Team leadership looked good on me.

After a year, I really wanted to move into management. And I didn’t think it would happen at ADP. One of my drivers was that I was grooming my teammates for promotions and my boss wasn’t fighting for them in the rooms I wasn’t invited to. I wanted to be in those rooms. I wanted to help engineers grow.

But my hunt for a new job was hindered. Because the lab had its own proprietary app development platform, I had never really pushed production code in a canonical language. How on earth could I join a company as anything other than an entry level coder? And I had a taste for being sought after, leading teams, driving cross team innovation. So…it was at least 6 months of interviewing and never really getting past phone screens.

Sometimes reticence can read like negotiation

Then, I interviewed to be an engineering manager at a 30-person startup. Looking back there were so many red flags (like no technical interview of any kind). Even my body warned me - my lip erupted with a cold sore within an hour of me getting home from the interview. But that discomfort is exactly why their offer became one I couldn’t refuse. The CEO pulled me in after what I thought was a first round of interviews (it was the only round) and asked what I wanted to make. I threw out 150K in my unpreparedness (28k more than I made at the moment!). And he said great and that they hoped to talk to me soon. My recruiter called with a 150K offer the next day. I really didn’t think I could do it, my intuition was saying no…but I was also elated I had finally got an offer! My recruiter must have talked to the CEO about my reticence; he called me back with a 175K offer. I said I’d think about it. ADP never even tried to counter my 53K bump, though my director said he would. I took the offer.

Fast forward a year - I had triumphed through adversity in my first manager role - I hired a big team who worked well together and I adored and we were rebuilding the codebase. I got a 10K bonus and 10K raise 6 months in. Killing it! Until I was told the company was having trouble - we needed to lay off a third of the staff. I got my wish of being promoted to Director of Engineering, while the other manager was laid off and I technically inherited his team. Be careful what you wish for.

I became completely depressed after the events of that day triggered some unprocessed trauma. I lost 10lbs in 3 weeks. I could barely bring my body back to that unsafe building. A lot of unprofessional behavior and trust eroding disillusionment went down. I went on a previously planned vacation, during which I found out all of engineering - my team and me - had been laid off.

With 2 weeks severance, I hustled back to NYC to try to get a job ASAP. I should have stayed on that remote island vacation - what followed were 6 months of depression, unemployment, and 111 rejections.

Radically candid about my worth

And then I got two offers in two weeks! Peloton and Google – both Engineering Manager roles.

Peloton came first and offered me 205K + 15K signing (after negotiation) + about 255K in stock over 4 years (8500 units in Dec 2019; I was the last person to get an offer in their prior way of calculating stock that was more advantageous as far as I know) and I don’t think they had bonuses. All of this is from memory since I no longer can gain access to the offer letter.

Google came in next with 182K salary, 20K signing, 15% yearly target bonus, and 250K stock over 4 years. I had been expecting 400K stock because I’d talked to so many of my leadership community peers who made me think that would be normal. So, I asked for it.

My recruiter said I’d need to make the request for more money via email. So, I typed out:

1) I’m grateful for…[the items in the offer I don’t want to change].

2) However, I’d like to request an increase in the [item to change] that is being offered to [desired number].

3) The reason for this is that [some practical reasons for the ask. In my case I would be getting less vacation time than I had previously and starting at a time when I would have to wait for more than a year to get more stock].

4) the special sauce I could bring to the role or why they should offer more. In this case, my past experience connecting disparate teams.

5) If you can amend your offer to this compensation, I’m happy to accept and start ASAP.

Google said yes 2 days later to 400K in stock over 4 years (100k/yr). I signed the same day and started a week later.

2020: 182K salary, 20K sign on bonus, 400K stock (100k/yr),

2021: 193K salary, 33K bonus (18.8%), and 130K stock refresh. (32.5/yr)

2022: 211K salary, 40.5K bonus (21%), and 170K stock refresh (42.5/yr)

Plus every year I have received cumulatively 5-6K bonuses for small things throughout the year (not included in the chart below).

And so, with the GOOG stock price increase, 2022 is the first year I will have earned half a million dollars.

And that was the number in my head where I can no longer even remotely justify sweating a $2.75 subway ride…or a $30 dinner. My money anxiety has no leg to stand on anymore. Sure if I were wildly irresponsible I could still go broke, but that’s not me. If I could tell the 16 year old who was watching her family go through bankruptcy that in another lifetime she’d be in the top 1% of earners… well, I feel truly fortunate.

* ESPP - employee share purchase programs allow employees to have a percentage of their income put aside to buy stock in the company at a discount. Purchase is usually twice a year. My stocks in both companies have tripled or more. Especially since both of these companies behave somewhat as index funds (they have most of the fortune 500 as clients).

** There may have been stock grants here as part of annual compensation but I didn’t stay long enough to vest and have no records. My 401k match was also not vested when I left (about 7k).

*** The startup founders offered us stock buying options so the non-founders could own together about 10% of the company. I calculated the chance of recouping my money would only be if we sold for 80M or something. I declined.

@Narcisa140 this is a great story. Thank you for sharing your journey. To those interested in financial planning (to prevent situations that would provoke financial anxiety), my startup is waiving the fee on intro calls with our CFPā€™s. šŸŽ‰Limited to 100 spots only. Sign up here:
Thanks for sharing this! I really resonated with how you explained your attitude toward money coming out of school, given your financial environment while growing up. It really closely matches mine, and I am still in the process of earning my way out of that anxiety.