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What Do the Highest-Paid Programmers Make?

How much can a programmer get paid? Our reporter went on a quest to document the high-end salary range for programmers, including the highest verifiable salary itself. Here's what he found out.

So you hate your job. You're going to look around, test the waters. Someday soon, when you get the time. When you have the energy. But you've been saying that for a while now.

The salary, of course, is a big factor (after that jerk of a boss). But what should you be making? Better yet, what could you be making? You think you're good, and you're going to aim for the top. But what is the top? The problem is, nobody likes talking about their salary. But everybody wants to know about others' salaries. That makes reliable information hard to come by.

Never fear. I'm here to do the legwork for you. Read on to find out all you need to know about the highest salaries for software developers. And find out who makes top dollar -- the best of the best.

Keep in mind that I'm dealing with publicly available information. I'm guessing that the really high salaries go to coders in criminal enterprises like the Russian mafia and shady operations like illegal gambling.  They don't like to publicize themselves, naturally. So it's a good bet that whoever the highest-paid programmers are, you'll never hear anything about them, what they do or who they work for. And even in legitimate industries (think big-time financial trading or national-security contractor specialists), the highest-paid programmers are undoubtedly doing highly specialized, sensitive stuff that never sees the light of day (read on to learn about a very interesting and illuminating exception to this observation).

And even in the public realm, there a lots and lots of variables, so I'll mostly be dealing with averages. One of the major variables, of course, is location. That was confirmed by John Reed, executive director of high-tech recruiting firm Robert Half Technology, when I asked him about the highest-paid programmers.

"This is actually a tricky question, because so much depends on where you are in the country," Reed said. "For example, in Colorado, the highest programmer salary I've seen was for an SAP/ERP architect in the energy industry, and that was $150,000. However, a programmer in Silicon Valley, where the cost of living is substantially higher and high tech companies are flourishing, you see salaries much higher than this." Reed said that same position might pay $198,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the firm's widely used salary survey that indicates the regional variance for Denver is 102.7 percent, while the San Francisco regional variance is 135 percent.

I asked the same question of another high-tech recruiting pro, Janet Miller at TechnicalJobs.com. She belongs to a national network of recruiters and did a quick search of more than 2,000 jobs in her database. She found a Java EE/J2EE software architect position at a national consulting firm in the financial industry that required travel that paid $130,000 per year. She said the Java jockeys "seem to be paid the highest and [are] in more demand than C# and ASP.NET.

She pointed out that developers with high security clearance generally pull in the biggest bucks. "Companies that are hiring cleared developers for government work pay the highest," she said.  "These would be major government consulting firms.  Lifestyle polygraph candidates get paid more for the same skill set."

Speaking of databases and salary surveys, they're a good place to start to get widespread statistical information. It's no coincidence that they're among the highest-read features on this and every other similar Web site out there. Take, for example, Redmondmag.com's 15th Annual IT Salary Survey published last August. The data was sliced and diced many different ways. Let's look at the chart-toppers for several different categories:

  • Job title and experience: Programmer lead with 10-plus years of experience -- $99,666
  • Technology expertise: Extranets -- $100,566
  • Education: Doctorate degree -- $101,647
  • State: Virginia -- $102,773
  • Major metro area: San Jose -- $114,450

So if you really want to make the big money, go back to school for a doctorate and then become a lead programmer working on extranets in San Jose.

But wait, the survey also indicated that 4.2 percent of respondents made more than $150,000. So who are they? The survey didn't say, so I asked editor Michael Domingo, who produced the survey (full disclosure: we work for the same parent company). He dug deeper into the raw data and informed me of the following highest individual respondents:

  • Programmer/analyst in San Diego -- $175,000
  • Programming project lead in Houston -- $200,000
  • DBA in New Jersey (city not specified) -- $250,000

OK, now we're starting to talk real money. The latter position might not be a coder, of course, but it's interesting information.

Nobody does statistics like the federal government, of course, so I checked out the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. It had a May 2010 survey that reported the following mean annual salaries:

  • All occupations -- $44,410
  • Computer and mathematical occupations -- $77,230
  • Computer programmers -- $74,900
  • Software developers, applications -- $90,410
  • Software developers, systems software -- $97,960

However, digging down further into the data for the latter, highest-paid category, showed that the top 10 percent of systems software developers averaged $143,330.

Here are some more interesting salary information nuggets:

  • Payscale.com says the top 25 percent of computer programmers average (not including bonuses) $79,502 per year, while the comparable number for senior software engineers is $121,348.
  • SalaryList.com, which purports to scan real jobs, shows the highest computer programmer/developer salary to be $109,000.
  • Salary.com, which purports to use real HR data, says the top 10 percent of software engineer V positions averages $136,197.

But while all this is interesting, I still wondered who got the really big bucks in those specialized industries I mentioned earlier. I'm not about to put a media inquiry into the Russian mafia, of course, and the big financial trading firms wouldn't respond anyway.

So, to the rescue comes Sergey Aleynikov. He was a 40-year-old programmer for Goldman Sachs Group Inc., described in this Reuters report as "Wall Street's most influential bank." It looks like he was a specialist in those algorithms that control the stock market these days, capitalizing instantaneously on minute changes in market prices to automatically conduct trades and transactions (remember the "flash crash?") and make big bucks for the "high-frequency trading firms."

Apparently he wasn't satisfied with the $400,000 per year Goldman Sachs was paying him. That's right, $400,000 per year. So he allowed himself to be lured away by another big financial player, Teza Technologies LLC.

But he reportedly downloaded -- illegally -- some proprietary code to take with him, and he was caught. "Prosecutors say he planned to use the code to help his new employer … build a high-frequency trading system," Reuters reported from the trial last November.

And here's the good part:  "The prosecutor said that, at Teza, Aleynikov stood to earn about three times the $400,000 he was paid annually by Goldman Sachs as one of its highest-paid computer programmers," Reuters reported. That's 1.2 million.

So there you have it. There are big corporations out there making millions of dollars on the backs of computer algorithms, and some of them are willing to pay at least $1.2 million per year to programmers who can code them better than anyone else.

Kinda gives you a little more energy for that job search, doesn't it?

What's the highest-paid programmer salary you know of? Add to this story by posting in the comments or e-mail the author.

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