I was at a technical conference a few months ago (LambdaConf was a great experience) and in two seperate, independent contexts, I’ve heard someone else say “Programmers make too much.” And in both contexts I noticed that the people around me pretty much accepted this statement as gospel truth…and that bugs me. Not because it threatens my income (my boss doesn’t particularly care what other people think of my salary), but because it betrays a fundamental ignorance about why anybody gets paid what they do. This in a class of people that take great pride in their intelligence and rightfully so.

Okay, before I start ragging on people, let’s clear away the sense in which this phrase is true. It is true that we should never have the arrogance to equate our income with our personal worth as human beings, especially relative to people in other professions. More so than many of my peers, I’m keenly aware of how fortunate I am, of what it’s now trendy to call “my privelege.” I discovered I could pass high school without even trying, and so…I passed. I could have excelled, I didn’t. I could show up, do nothing more strenuous than pay attention, and reliably pull out a 100 on the final exam in every course. I dropped out of college, had an interesting time overseas, and returned to college. 4.0 GPA, but dropped out senior year, because, hey, some guy called me in for an interview and offered me a salary that was roughly as much as I ever expected to make (And I now make almost 4x that).

I have no right to look down upon people that, say, went to trade school, went through the certification process to become a plumber, have worked hard their whole lives. Or to consider myself the peer of doctors, even if our pay is broadly comparable. So, there is a kernel of truth: I “make too much”, if the metric is simply that hard work = pay. One thing is true, I did not “work hard,” I just spent my entire life doing what I enjoyed, then found out that you can make an awful lot of money doing that thing.

So, if this is taken as nothing more than the old warning “there but for the grace of God go I”, then point taken. And I know people in my field that really, really need that lesson (with or without its religious connotation.) Every programmer has been given a great gift: our passion pays well. Go hang with the music majors if you want to know how lucky that is.

I’m aware that I’m fortunate. Maybe too aware. I can read the statistics: our household is comfortably in the top quintile by income. Yet, my wife will attest that I’m actually prone to bouts of pessimism and despair. My brother works at Walmart. His house is also nicer than mine. He has more TVs, more computers, newer and nicer cars, move movies, more games, more..everything, nicer everything. I drive an old used car, I live in an old house, I have one TV (and I held out on that for a long time.) I also, in one form or another, save about 20% of my income. And I’m prone to terrified moments when I believe that I am not saving enough. In a part of my mind, yeah, I’m convinced this whole thing is going to come tumbling down. And then where will I be, what will I do? Just some fat guy that likes computers. Heaven help me in a world where pay is only a function of sweat.

All so true, but…but… I do understand why I get paid more. And, not to be a jerk, but it’s actually really simple. But first, another group that everybody seems to agree get paid too much: professional athletes.

Why do professional athletes get paid so much? Sometimes, it feels like everyone is mystified by this. I don’t really follow sports, but I’m not mystified. The reason atheletes get paid more is because hundreds of millions of people are willing to each pay a little bit, either in cash or in enduring advertisements, to watch the best people in the world play a game. Thats enough to ensure that somebody is going to get billions of dollars for giving them that experience. If not the atheletes, then the owners of the teams. So if athletes getting paid a lot bugs you, then you must believe that money ought to go to the owners.

Why do programmers make so much? Because, we multiply the effects of everyone else’s work. If you can check your bank balance with an ATM, or an iPhone app, or an Interactive Voice Response application, then you are not asking a human being to do it. Which means that human beings at the bank can spend their time on people’s real needs and problems. That’s worth money to a bank. Lots of money. People are expensive and, more importantly, valuable. We spend too much of our lives at work to waste a human life standing around answering silly questions like “What is my bank balance?” Let a machine do that, and let that person help people with their mortgage applications. So, if multiplying human work is so valuable, who should get the money? And it really comes down to us or the stockholders. And I don’t begrudge the stockholders their profits, but I do want my share.

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18 August 2017