Our new 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 arrived in Germany from Australia in October 2015, with no idea what the future would hold for me. I had a one-year working holiday visa, and the plan was to use that time to audition as much as possible. In the meantime, my savings and my high-interest AUD$12,000 (USD$8,105) loan were my only means of subsistence.
In the 8 months that followed, my time was spent learning German, applying to Young Artist Programs, opera houses and agents, and catching trains all around the country. It might sound glamorous, but it was not.
Opera auditions are grueling and demand an extremely high level of preparation, on top of all the paperwork and travel booking needed to arrive in a city, sing for 10 minutes, and then get straight back on the train to somewhere else.
The responses were sometimes positive, sometimes neutral, but the answer was the same: we don’t want you.
On top of that, I needed work.
Having a background in marketing, and residing in Nuremberg where Adidas is based and operates in English, I applied three times to their marketing positions, only to receive automated rejections mere minutes after sending my CV.
The message was clear: we don’t want you.
Desperate and already eating into my loan, I applied to teach English. Finally, I received responses: a few online platforms, some school tutoring programs, and an English-speaking summer camp for German kids. I also found work in a cafe and a craft beer bar, both run by Americans.
My mornings were at the cafe, my afternoons were online teaching English, and my nights were at the bar talking to soldiers. All of these operated at minimum wage.
This persisted for 8 months, until finally I got my break: a part-time chorus position covering maternity leave at Hessen State Theatre. It wasn’t (quite) my voice type, but luckily they loved my audition and I got offered the job on the phone literally as I was walking out the stage door.
Being paid €1100 (USD$1107) a month to sing felt like a dream come true!
However, to pay off my loans I still needed to supplement it with freelance English teaching and German-to-English translation. I would often be translating Amazon ads on my laptop in the dressing rooms, waiting for my call onto stage!
After a year, a full-time position in my actual voice type opened up and I was earning €40,000 (USD$40,173) a year before tax.
By the time I got pregnant and moved to the other side of the country, I had been singing for seven years. As I mentioned earlier, I had originally been working in project management and marketing, so this in itself was already a huge achievement. Finding full-time work as a classical musician is no joke, and I was very proud of all I’d done.
However, going on maternity leave and having time to reflect, I realised it was time for a change.
In Germany, there’s a retraining scheme called a “Bildungsgutschein” (“Educational voucher”) in which jobless people can be trained in in-demand skills. Thanks to the German government’s investment in me, I was able to sign up for a full-time, one-year web development course, plus still receive my jobless benefits and have the cost of childcare covered. Before that course was finished, I had been snapped up by Novatec Consulting GmbH as a Junior Software Engineer.
With only one year of retraining, I was already earning more than what 7 years of singing opera had gotten me.
It was eye-opening.
Breaking into software engineering as a junior
I’d like to pause to talk about how I got this job, since it is notoriously difficult for juniors to find their first positions. I’ve written an entire book on how to do this and talk about it constantly with people on LinkedIn and Twitter.
The short version is that I leveraged my existing skills: I wrote blog articles about what I was learning, I tweeted regularly, I had a YouTube channel, and I used my portfolio website to feature a “video cover letter”. By tweeting out this video cover letter, I got twelve job leads overnight.
If you’re someone who is good at public speaking or who doesn’t mind seeing themselves on camera, I highly recommend recording something similar: who are you, what is your tech stack, what are you looking for, why are you confident you can do it. In short, you bring the first ‘get to know you’ interview to them, before they even look at your CV.
A full-circle moment
One mistake I did make early on, was to underestimate the ways in which my other career/s actually gave me an edge. Rather than emphasise what they taught me, and why they made me a great colleague, I focused far more on trying to fit the mould of what I knew German companies wanted.
I didn’t make this mistake again.
Just one year after starting as a software engineer, I got an offer to become Director, Product and Engineering (Projects and Organisation) at Axel Springer National Media and Tech, the tech subsidiary of Germany’s biggest media company. Customarily known as a publishing house for tabloids, and having previously been a real ‘boys club’ as a result, the company was in the process of transforming into a digital enterprise, including scaling up its investment in startups and digital brands both in Germany and internationally.
They needed someone passionate about technology but sublimely confident on a stage. Someone who would enjoy going out and meeting other engineers and techies, and ‘geeking out’ about all the cool tech stuff they’re achieving, while also being passionate enough to promote the needs of historically excluded groups internally for the other engineers now that their global culture was changing to one of multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion.
In short, they needed me.
I was headhunted for this position, and since I was happy in my current workplace I felt no pressure to project a certain image just for their benefit. I was totally open about my mixed work history, about my strengths and weaknesses, and about what I wanted from a workplace.
Suddenly, my “wasted” Bachelor of Arts in Media and Communications was relevant domain knowledge. My “irrelevant” years as an opera singer were now a huge selling point. The weirdest add-on was the fact that all my years in uni dancing in pride parades were also relevant! All of the things I had tried to bury at the bottom of my previous CV were suddenly things I could highlight and of which I could be proud.
This job not only doubled my software engineering salary, but also launched me into six-figure territory, something which is not as standard in Germany as in the USA, for example. It is a figure I thought I might be able to reach in 5-10 years, certainly not with less than 1 year in tech.
The reason I was able to make this kind of money so much earlier was because I was falsely viewing myself and my value as beginning with my first tech job. Instead, I found a position which leveraged all of my work experience. Rather than negotiating with one year of experience, I was negotiating with 13 years of experience.
Overall, the credit has to be given to the headhunter who found me and saw the value in what is an extremely weird CV. However, I do believe that my active participation on LinkedIn, even (or especially!) when not looking for a job had a lot to do with it. I was often speaking on podcasts, Twitter spaces, and YouTube lives about my career change and my advice for other engineers, and eventually that advocacy (both for them and for my story in general) truly paid off.