Why programmers are not paid in proportion to their productivity

Dec 25, 2009 Author: City Hall

The most productive programmers are orders of magnitude more productivethan average programmers. But salaries usually fall within a fairlysmall range in any company. Even across the entire profession, salariesdon’t vary that much. If some programmers are 10x more productive thanothers, why aren’t they paid 10x as much?

Joel Spolsky gave a couple answers to this question in his most recent podcast.First, programmer productivity varies tremendously across theprofession, but it may not vary so much within a given company. Someonewho is 10x more productive than his colleagues is likely to leave,either to work with other very talented programmers or to start his ownbusiness. Second, extreme productivity may not be obvious. This postelaborates on this second reason.

How can someone be 10x more productive than his peers without beingnoticed? In some professions such a difference would be obvious. Asalesman who sells 10x as much as his peers will be noticed, andcompensated accordingly. Sales are easy to measure, and some salesmenmake orders of magnitude more money than others. If a bricklayer were10x more productive than his peers this would be obvious too, but itdoesn’t happen: the best bricklayers cannot lay 10x as much brick asaverage bricklayers. Software output cannot be measured as easily asdollars or bricks. The best programmers do not write 10x as many linesof code and they certainly do not work 10x longer hours.

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