Redmond's 2011 Windows IT Salary Survey: Bigger Bucks

Our 16th annual salary survey shows that compensation for Windows IT pros has gone up and raises and bonuses made a comeback after a mostly flat year in 2010.

[Many respondents agreed to talk with us on the condition that we maintain their anonymity. We refer to them by first name and last initial throughout this article. -- Ed.]

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IT salaries and the recession: One day, we might talk about the first topic without mentioning the other, but this is not that day. That's because the recession's sting over the last five years lingers among Redmond readers. When asked what impact the recession had on their IT budgets in the last year, 47 percent of readers say the impact is major, and that impact is felt in salaries, but more often in hiring.

Nevertheless, Redmond's 16th annual IT Salary Survey offers some sweet rays of good news this year: Salaries, raises and bonuses have all gone up in the 12 months since we last surveyed readers (see Chart 1). The increase in average salary, to $84,608, is 1.2 percent higher than (and nearly double) last year's flat 0.6 percent increase over 2009. Still, it might take some time before we see salary increases like we saw employers dole out before the darkest days of the recession. Hopefully this will all be part of an attempt to retain the best employees, and these increases may actually come with the return of benefits like stock options, 401(k) matching and training dollars. Well, one can at least hope.

With higher salaries also thankfully came better raises and bonuses, which we'll get to later in this report. We'll also peer into other parts of the salary picture to see how Microsoft technologies, IT expertise, or education and other factors can impact compensation.

Some readers note a gradual recovery for IT jobs in a still-tough economy: "The recession isn't over," says Kris B., who isn't an economist but a developer with a digital agency in Spokane, Wash. She explains: "In some ways, the IT industry may be more recession-proof than other industries because technology is the driving force behind so much of the economy." Her sentiments on IT and the economy are shared by dozens of other readers, many of whom agreed to be contacted after we conducted the initial survey.

"I think the employment situation for IT people is gradually improving," says Kim T., an IT executive in Chicago. Still, he qualifies that statement by saying, "As long as we're in tough economic times, there will be downward pressure on salaries."

Keith M., a systems integrator for an outsourcing firm in Richardson, Texas, agrees: "I believe the worst part of it is over, but that the recovery will be slow. I expect slow improvement [in compensation] over the next 12 to 18 months."

Worth One's Salt
With the average salary inching up nearly a grand over last year -- a tough economic year -- to $84,608, how can we be certain our results are trustworthy? One way is to look at the median. The median figure is the salary that's dead center among all salaries (that is, half of the respondents make more than the median, and the other half make less than the median). The median this year is $82,000, which is $2,000 greater than last year's result. An improvement of 2.5 percent over last year's median tells us the average salary isn't that far off of center. The median percentage increase is higher than the mean percentage increase, which indicates that our numbers are fairly accurate.

Chart 2 shows salaries by range, which shows the range of salaries that affected the average. What we find here is that most ranges fell slightly from last year, but if you look at ranges between $80,000 and $99,999, you'll find that those categories increased. Viewed by percentage, those ranges look even better: The number of respondents who said their salaries ranged between $90,000 and $94,999 was higher by 52 percent over 2010, while those in the $85,000-$90,000 and $95,000-$99,999 categories were up by 18 percent.

And, finally, it's always a good idea to benchmark our results in the context of the real world (our survey, after all, is just a measure of Redmond readers' earning power). For that, we look to other salary surveys. A good one comes from information systems management consulting firm Janco Associates Inc. Janco's 2011 report shows median salaries from 2010 ($77,604) to 2011 ($77,873) increasing by an anemic 0.35 percent. By that standard, our results appear quite liberal.

IT recruiting firm Robert Half Technology (RHT) had a survey that came out at the end of 2010, and even then it doesn't provide numbers that can be compared apples-to-

apples with our survey. But digging into the information a bit shows that the RHT data has network managers looking at a 4.3 percent increase, while business intelligence analysts saw a 5 percent increase (a 4 percent to 5 percent increase seemed to be the running theme with all computer-related professions that the RHT survey measured). Against parts of its survey, our results appear very conservative.

The granddaddy of all measuring sticks, the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (its sample is vast and comprehensive), has data specifically on network and computer systems administrators throughout the United States. If we were to pick a category from it that typifies the Redmond magazine reader, it would be network and computer systems administrators; the Labor Bureau's report shows that segment making $82,650 annually. Now, that's in our survey's ballpark.

For Some, an Unexpected Raise
Base salary is just one part of the compensation picture, of course. There's good news with raises, too. Year over year, raises went up 15 percent, with the average among those who received one at $2,624 (see Chart 1). That figure includes those who said they received no raise; counting only those who said they received a boost, it goes up to $4,249.

When we look at Chart 3, which shows raises by range, we find that more than half of respondents reported receiving a raise of up to $10,000. And here's another piece of good news, if you can call it that: Only 36 percent of all respondents reported no increase, which is 4 points fewer than last year.

"I received a 10 percent raise, which, although it was somewhat unexpected, was gratefully received," says Vito D., an application development manager in New York City.

"My salary did go up from last year by 4.5 percent," says Brian O., an IT manager in Branford, Conn. "I was happy, to say the least, because our pay had been frozen for a year."

Chris M., a systems analyst in Willis, Texas, says his salary increased 15 percent -- through a job change. "My salary went up from last year, but that's only because I was laid off right before Thanksgiving due to outsourcing my position as a systems administrator to a contractor."

An IT director in Wilmington, Del., who asked to be identified only by the moniker of "Snow," says she was surprised by a $7,500 salary increase. That's because she got pretty much the same increase a year ago, despite the company performing poorly: "My department delivered on very challenging projects."

Darwin P., a developer in Louisiana, took a bold step that resulted in a 10 percent raise: "I resigned and was lured back with more money."

Darwin's situation is more common than you might think, as employers seek out skilled workers who need little or no training. "I think that, like many IT houses, people are being asked to do more," says Josh L., who has earned a 3 percent raise in the short time he has been with his company in Chattanooga, Tenn., working as a tech specialist. "Many of the individuals that are left at many of these places are rising to the occasion to make things happen, even though overall times are tough."

Making It to the Bonus Round
Let's complete the main compensation trifecta and look at bonuses. More than half our readers told us they went without this year. Even so, at 51 percent, that's 3 points lower than last year's result. In most cases, the lingering recession had some impact.

"Coming out of the recession, we weren't expecting any bonuses," says Vito D., whose statement echoed the sentiments of many of our readers.

Not all companies play stingy with bonuses, though. Mainly, it's non-profit organizations or public sector positions that don't give bonuses. According to Hank L., a systems administrator with the police department in Guilford, Conn., there's "no such thing as bonuses in the public sector, at least not here."

For those who did receive a bonus, it was higher than last year's on average, at $3,093, or 10 percent bigger year over year.

Peter D., an IT director for a health-care provider in Columbus, Ohio, says his bonus "was unexpected, as we've been trying to contain costs for the last couple of fiscal years."

Kristin G., a software test engineer for a marketing company in Little Rock, Ark., says her "company's policy is to offer quarterly bonuses based upon revenue. And we've been in the black throughout the recession and have continued to receive bonuses, although some have definitely been smaller than others!"

"I did receive a bonus, but it was not enough to bring my overall pay to the level it had been in 2009 before [my company] did across-the-board cuts," says Keith M., the systems integrator from Richardson, Texas. "I hadn't been expecting it as the account I was on was portrayed as being underperforming financially. Our team was one of two teams that was green on the performance dashboard for that particular account, however."

"I got a small [bonus] last year, less than 1 percent of my salary," says Ray R., an IT specialist with a federal agency in Seattle. "I don't expect one this year, but if I get one, it will be small."

Exceptions to the Rule
One segment of our readership that rarely saw a raise or a bonus, though, was those working for U.S. government agencies, or those who contract to them. What helped this segment was that salary increases often came in the form of a cost-of-living adjustment (or COLA, essentially a federally mandated raise).

"Our budgets are based on federal budgetary process," says Scott G., a systems architect at a Tennessee aerospace engineering contractor, whose salary was boosted by a 2.5 percent COLA. One can't blame Scott for looking at the future skeptically, as the U.S. government may look to cut defense spending: "Our budgets will continue to decrease."

The Virginia-based federal telecommunications integration company that Rebecca G. works for went against the grain and gave her an incentive bonus, but no raise or COLA. IT director Rebecca cited "lack of a federal budget ... business was down as a whole," and explains the incentive this way: "I think a one-time hit to the bottom line looks better than a recurring one."

Ray R. says he was affected by a federal pay freeze, which meant 2011 was salary deja vu, at least for the time being. "I've found that you nearly always get a better pay raise when you change jobs," he says.

As for the 12-month outlook, respondents are predicting similar raises and bonuses. "I think companies are trying to invest in their employees again and now that they're starting to turn a bit of a profit; they're sharing some of that in the way of raises and bonuses," says Kristin G. "But I don't think companies are willing to go crazy about it; they will remain conservative for another few years."

Salaries by Job Title
Let's slice and dice those numbers a bit and look at salary by job title (Chart 5). Network project leads top the list this year, at $98,081, displacing last year's list topper, programming project lead, which jumps down two spots. Managers have been steady over the last two years, holding on to second place.

Based on percentages, network project leads also gained the most, at 14 percent year over year. They were followed by trainers, who -- while the biggest salary losers last year -- improved by 7 percent this year. Database programmers have been fairly consistent in the rankings, but dropped from the top spot to fourth from a dollar perspective. Still, based on percentages, they managed to go up nearly 7 percent from last year's result. Managers and help desk support stayed flat from a year ago.

When we look at salaries by job title through the prism of tenure (Chart 6), we see things to be as expected: The more years in IT, the higher the average salary. And then there's the one oddity: Pay for those with six to nine years experience dropped 1.5 percent from 2010.

What's interesting to note is that respondents who said they had up to two years of experience in IT actually saw higher salaries in 2011. Some of the respondents we talked to came from non-IT employment segments, attracted to the higher salaries they heard about in IT.

The Specialists
Having expertise with a specific Microsoft technology can often boost your salary as well as make you attractive to prospective employers. As Chart 7 shows, it's Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) experts at the top, followed by BizTalk experts (also in the six-figure realm), with ISA Server experts placing third.

We expect this portion of the survey to change dramatically next year, as products like MOM get nearer to being phased out of mainstream support and those who possess that expertise have likely already started looking at many of the System Center solutions. Likewise, those who claimed ISA Server expertise and plan to update their skills would be smart to move on to its successor, Forefront Threat Management Gateway.

That MOM was higher this time was due to an anomaly -- many of those who claimed expertise in it were also some of the highest earners in our survey. Some of those high wage earners have moved on to executive management positions and are no longer using the product at their current job roles.

In any event, we want to report the results as truthfully as possible. But we also don't want to intentionally mislead and tell readers that MOM is the expertise they should be shooting for, based on salary. We can say with some certainty that respondents who aren't on the executive track next year will likely claim expertise in one of the Microsoft System Center solutions. Whether salaries for System Center experts go up or down next year is anyone's guess.

Experts in Technology
As we do every year, we asked readers to say which technologies are their primary claims to fame. Looking at those results based on salaries (Chart 8), extranet experts make the most. In fact, their $100,566 number is the only one to break through the six-figure ceiling this year when salaries are viewed this way. Right below that are those who work for outsourcing firms, followed by those with data warehousing skills.

When the salaries by technologies are viewed by percentages, they're mostly flat, but gainers edge out the losers. The biggest gains from a year ago are those with database development skills, earning 6.2 percent higher, followed by hardware design experts at 4.6 percent. Big losers are those with Oracle expertise, 5.9 percent, and those who claimed Novell skills, at 4.9 percent.

While it might be useful to look at salaries based on skills, it's also useful to see skills based on what companies are seeking right now. Respondents told us that they will be involved with deploying the following solutions by the end of 2011: Exchange Server 2010 (21 percent), SharePoint 2010 (20 percent), Office 2010 (20 percent) and Windows 7 (19 percent).

Virtualization has been a hot area for some companies, and our survey shows that 77 percent of respondents' organizations have already virtualized their servers, while 44 percent have virtualized applications.

Another 34 percent have also virtualized their desktops.

"Getting VMware to play nicely was a burden," according to Kristin G. "But overall it's been a helpful addition to the server farm and has enabled us to create multiple customer environments on a single machine without having to worry about one customer inadvertently seeing another customer's data."

Janis W., an enterprise specialist with a local government agency in Austin, Texas, says her company is "40 percent virtual and plans to continue to replace hardware with virtual servers."

Hank L. believes companies have mostly pragmatic reasons for virtualizing that, in turn, can percolate through company budgets into better compensation. "Because the economy is poor, anything that makes things more effective and efficient ... can be rewarded, as the return is much higher," Hank says.

Noteworthy is that 28 percent have started bringing Apple iPads into the network management fold, with another 9 percent planning to do that by the end of 2011.

Don't Worry, Be Happy
One new question we asked this year has to do with how IT professionals feel about their careers overall.

"I love what I do, and I'm paid well for it," says Darwin P. "The projects I work on are engaging and challenging. [Most of] the people I work with are great. I probably should rate everything [highly], but I can't shake the feeling that it could just be better."

Darwin is not alone here. Overwhelmingly, 85 percent agree with Darwin or, at the very least, say they like their jobs in IT. (In the PDF version of this article, we break that down and look at career satisfaction in its many component parts: benefits, work-schedule flexibility, job security and professional development, among others.)

What makes Deb W., a systems administrator in Colorado Springs, Colo., glad she's in IT is the "exciting job using cutting-edge -- or bleeding-edge, depending on the day -- technology." And, like Darwin P., she adds, "I work with a great team of people."

For some, corporate culture and working with a team can outweigh salary. It's a theme that we've seen repeating itself as we compile these surveys each year, and one we think will keep many in the IT profession for the long run.

"Most of the people I work with are an absolute pleasure to work with. Very talented, motivated and truly team players," says Vito D.

He isn't considering a job change out of IT, ever. "I absolutely love what I do and couldn't imagine doing much else," Vito says.


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