Money Really Does Matter – I’m An Admitted Code Mercenary

I’m in it for the money.

Don’t get me wrong: I love software development. I love finding the smallest, most elegant solution to a problem. I love embracing and exploiting new advances in the industry. I love refactoring code towards perfection.

I love solving people’s problems and making systems better and doing neat things and being respected and viewed as someone who is fairly intelligent.

Yet in the end what matters to me most is the compensation: The wage, the bonus, the equity, the benefits. And then some.

There, I’ve gone and admitted it. I’ve bucked the trend of the selfless, in-it-for-the-challenge developer.

A Mercenary Against Misleading Rhetoric

Contrast that with the recent claims that there are Nine Things Developers Want More Than Money, or that money is a bad motivator, or the outrageous “One thing that programmers don’t care about..They don’t care about money“.

This we-don’t-want-no-stinkin’-money thing is becoming a bit of a meme, both by those with the fat wallet who want to keep as much as possible — trying to convince you that you should agree and want what serves their interests — and developers who want to demonstrate that somehow they must be really good and passionate and great because, they claim, they don’t care about the money. Somehow their lack of greed, we are to believe, must make the work more pure.

I call shenanigans.

Some who claim that they aren’t in it for the money are simply lying: Instead of rich compensation up front, they’re hoping that a short period of poverty will be followed by an embarrassment of riches and influence. You can find this in many startups and open source projects where pseudo-idealistic developers will give the speech about how little money matters, but eventually will detail how their labor of love is going to net them millions months down the road. That’s a story that I’ve heard play out far too many times, and it’s just entirely disingenuous and misleading.

It’s common for developers (and even just pundits) in the open source market to build as much namespace as they can, which later gets leveraged into riches.

Others are basically young and naive (and usually just out of college), believing that the project they’re working on is for the greater good, or that unspoken or vaguely promised compensation will pay off big-time later (again the short-term “money doesn’t matter!” creed is a facade of selflessness). They’re often the backend developer working away developing the product, and then getting punted when it hits the big leagues.

Sorry, gus, but we just sold out to MegaCorp, and they’re going to port the data over to their platform and migrate the user list. You’re not needed anymore.”

Then there are those who truly in it for passion alone. This is a very rare individual, and while many try to present themselves as this sort of person, they are astonishingly rare in real actions and motivations.

Money Is More Than Just Paper

Money is freedom.

A John Carmack interview — one of the best developers this industry has seen — from back in 2000 has always stuck with me-

John: I have sufficient money that I don’t need to work anymore; I really don’t have to. That’s a nice freedom, the freedom from anyone having the ability to have any leverage over you, as long as you’ve got the money to take care of yourself and you aren’t wrapped up in having more and more money. There are a lot of people even though they have a lot of money, they can still be manipulated by the carrot of having more money.

His money is the freedom to do what he wants, when he wants to. It is the freedom to say “screw you” to excessive demands (John works overtime because he is so into it, not because someone hangs the axe of job security over his head), and to have the mobility and versatility that such financial means bring.

Many will read this far and see a seeming contradiction in what I just quoted: Isn’t John saying that the benefit of having so much money is that he isn’t manipulated by the carrot of money, while I’m advocating basically being enticed by said carrot?


The difference is that John is already there, contrasted with the reality that many of us not there are fighting to pay the monthly bills, desperately fearful that we demand too much or present the image of underworking or ask too many questions.

Many developers aren’t seeking the carrot of money, but rather they’re threatened by the spiked-tipped bludgeon that is the lack of money (aka loss of job). If you think people do the wrong things for extra money, realize that they do far, far worse to avoid the lack of money.

The goal of amassing net wealth is the freedom and confidence that comes with the ability to control your own destiny. It’s the ability to live in a nice home, and have children if you want (without desperately clutching onto whatever spin comes out claiming that the lack of choice is a benefit), and actually take a couple of months to go traveling if you wanted. It’s the ability to decide to start a business, and to have the leverage and means to do it with minimal stress or risk.

And most any activity is much more enjoyable when it’s optional. It can be fun “slumming” when you’re wealthy, or working in the soup kitchen when you’re volunteering, or cleaning garbage on Earth Day, while none of those are quite as enjoyable when you have no other choice.

[It should be mentioned that income alone isn’t enough, and those who are cursed to spend more than they take in will forever be running to stand still (or go backwards), but I’m speaking to those who have reasonable financial knowledge to efficiently use wealth for quality of life while maximizing their leverage in doing so]

Of Course Money Isn’t Everything

This isn’t to say that other things don’t matter, and I’m not saying that I’d sit on a slimy rock in the pouring rain punching in market numbers for 16 hours a day if it paid well. It also doesn’t mean that I’d risk future earning potential working on outdated platforms or working on trainwreck projects or acting as a maintenance programmer when some middle managers sell the executives on the idea of buying an outsourced insurance platform.

Yet the importance of compensation can’t be underestimated.

It does mean that I’ll happily do jobs that aren’t sexy or glamorous or superficially interesting (I say superficially because most any programming task of consequence can be challenging and interesting if approached in the right way. Just because it’s a P2P app or a first person shooter doesn’t mean that it’s going to be interesting or rewarding work, just as it isn’t intrinsic that Wall Street/Bay Street apps B2B are going to be monotonous, unchallenging, or boring). It doesn’t mean that I’ll do work that is criminal or morally repulsive.

Watching Out For #1

All I’m presenting here is a bit of a counterpoint, and a bit of advice: Look out for #1, because that’s exactly what many of the people you are dealing with are doing (and of course #1 to them is them). Make sure that equity positions are solid, and that the financial rewards align with the risks. Make sure that you’re paid enough that you can build enough cushion that you don’t become a financial slave, easily controlled and abused.