This speech pathologist taught herself to code—now she earns $93,000 as a software engineer

Welcome to Paycheck to Paycheck, where workers with the same job across the U.S. share how much they earn, how they got to their salary and their best negotiating tips. Ready to join the salary transparency conversation? Apply to be a part of the series here.

In this installment, a 27-year-old shares how she makes $93,000 working as a software engineer in Austin. Read how her salary stacks up to other software engineers around the U.S.

At 27 years old, Sarah has already reached a salary milestone she didn't expect to hit for another few decades.

She currently works as a software engineer for a start-up in Austin, where she joined the company at a base salary of $80,000. It was her first job in tech after working as a speech pathologist for two years, and the pay was far above what she thought she'd be earning at her age.

"Had I continued as a speech pathologist, I would be lucky to make $80,000 a year after 20 years of working at one location," she tells CNBC Make It.

After the start-up closed a big deal at the end of 2020, Sarah was awarded a $13,000 pay raise, bringing her annual salary to $93,000 a year.

Here's how Sarah advocated for her pay in recent years, and why she believes it's important for her to share her earnings as a woman working in a male-dominated field.

Changing careers

Sarah, who asked to be identified by her first name only to speak freely about her pay, went to college and grad school to become a speech pathologist. After graduation, she had trouble finding steady work that paid her a full-time wage.

She made it work by taking two part-time jobs, one at a nursing facility that paid $26 an hour, and a weekend job at a hospital that paid $34 an hour. "It was hard work and long hours," she says. "At the end of the day, I didn't enjoy the work and needed a different path."

One day, Sarah confided in a female friend who works as a software engineer, who sat her down and explained what her day-to-day looked like. For the first time, Sarah could picture herself working in tech.

"I never saw myself as cut out to be a software engineer," Sarah says. "I don't know if that's because I'm a woman or some other reason. The second she gave me those details, I was like, 'I can totally see myself doing that. Why am I not already doing that?'"

Sarah looked into ways to transition into tech. She found free and low-cost online courses and taught herself to code after work. She added her skills to her LinkedIn page, and a recruiter with an Austin-based start-up invited her to apply for a six-month software engineering internship.

After Sarah completed the internship, she was hired on as a full-time employee. She now has almost two years of experience working as a software engineer.

Learning to negotiate: 'What does my brother have that I don't?'

Sarah didn't negotiate the rate of her paid internship — she was shocked to be hired at all.

"At the time, I was just thrilled that someone was going to pay me," she says. The internship posting listed a pay range of $16 to $24 an hour, and the company offered Sarah $24 an hour right off the bat. "Maybe it was strategic on their part, but in my mind I felt I was already getting the upper range," she says.

When her internship ended, however, she came prepared to negotiate her full-time salary. The company offered her a base salary of $72,000 a year.

But based on her research using online salary databases, focusing in on her level of experience and the Austin market, Sarah thought she should be making more.

Around the same time, Sarah's younger brother was starting his first software engineering job and secured a role that paid $100,000 straight out of college. "It was a bigger company in a different market, so you can't directly compare the two," Sarah says. Still, "I felt like I deserved more than that $72,000. I mean, what does my brother have that I don't?"

Knowing that her pay could go much higher, Sarah brought the pay rates she found online to negotiate. HR raised her offer to $80,000, which she accepted.

"At $80,000 I was pleased but still ambitious to get more," Sarah says.

After a few months of hard work, her perseverance paid off. Her company closed a large deal at the end of 2020 and rewarded all employees with raises. Sarah's new salary now comes out to $93,000 a year. She also recently earned a $2,500 performance bonus.

"Now at around $95,000 with my bonus, I'm really proud to be making what I make," Sarah says.

Moving forward, Sarah knows to always negotiate for more, "even if you think you got the upper range of what's available. Someone else will always negotiate, most likely a man, so you shouldn't miss that opportunity."

Transparency and equity in tech

Tech jobs are known for commanding high pay, thanks to an exploding need for people to build the products and services we rely on every day, and a shortage of workers with the right skillsets to keep pace. The average software engineer earned roughly $153,000 in 2020, according to a report from Hired, a marketplace for tech jobs.

But for such a fast-growing and socially impactful industry, tech is widely known for its lack of racial and gender diversity. Like many industries, white men are consistently paid more than peers who are Black, Hispanic and women — making discussions of salary transparency and pay equity all the more important.

As a white woman, Sarah is fully aware of these gaps and tries to be as open about her pay as possible. "Transparency is key to be paid fairly," she says. "Had I not had access to data online, I probably would have accepted what I was offered when I deserved to be paid more."

She wants her own salary story to help other people new to tech, especially women and young girls thinking of entering the field.

"In the bigger picture, there aren't enough role models of women in tech being transparent about their work and what they make, which could help young girls aspire to do that," Sarah says. "A lot of girls think of tech as a field that they don't belong in — I know I felt that way."

Check out:

From $70,000 to $120,000: Here’s how much 3 software engineers earn around the U.S.

This 26-year-old doubled his pay by switching to computer science—and using a key negotiating trick

15 of the top companies for women working in tech

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