Even with an MCSE title and plenty of experience in hand, negotiating for a top salary and plenty of perks can be tough. Here are some tips on how to walk away from the table a winner.

You Can Always Get What You Want

Even with an MCSE title and plenty of experience in hand, negotiating for a top salary and plenty of perks can be tough. Here are some tips on how to walk away from the table a winner.

Although your MCSE title prepares you for a lot, when it comes to negotiating, you’re on your own. In fact, negotiating to get what you want is a street-learned skill that you begin to acquire when you’re very young. For example, if you grew up in a large family, from Day One you learned how to negotiate with your siblings. Many of those same skills apply to you as an MCSE trying to get ahead by negotiating—and not only with your employers—to get what you want.

So what do you want as an MCSE? And why do you need to negotiate to get it? Often the first thing item on the list relates to compensation, so I’ll make salary my primary example. (Don’t overlook the things you might want with all that new-found MCSE wealth, such as weekend cabins and ski condos. You can use these same negotiating skills to acquire more toys!)

So you want the highest salary possible. Many moons ago, I worked that angle as an oil-spill worker on the Exxon Valdez project. The money was huge, but so was the trade-off. Instead of comfortable surroundings and relative autonomy, I did hard physical labor in bad weather under the constant watch of a stern supervisor. From that project, I learned that compensation isn’t everything. I suspect you’ve had a similar experience: high compensation but poor working conditions. Perhaps you agree with me that compensation isn’t everything.

Now that I’ve got you in this enlightened mode, take a moment to open a new spreadsheet and create a “Wants Matrix.” Across the columns, list various “want” and “nice to have” variables, including big salary, lots of vacation time, short commute, autonomy, friendly boss, plenty of training, and so on. Try to come up with at least 10. Now, name a row “Rank” and proceed to rank these variables from 10 (must have) to 1 (could do without). Only repeat each score once (that is, there can only be one “10”). You’ve now ranked your negotiating priorities, which you’ll need in a moment.

Set Priorities

Now, take that spreadsheet and in the rows below “Rank,” make row labels for “Top” and “Bottom.” Then proceed to create top and bottom positions for each ranked item. For example, if you ranked compensation “10,” then list the top position of the salary you want, say $70,000 per year. Now list the bottom position for compensation—that is, the lowest salary you’ll accept (say, $50,000 per year). Create these top and bottom positions for your remaining ranked items.

Once you’ve completed that exercise, you’ll have an idea of your best-best and worst-worst scenarios. Here’s an example: If everything went your way, your perfect MCSE-type job would pay $70,000 per year, provide four weeks vacation, extensive training, have either no boss or a hands-off one, offer a commute time under 15 minutes, and allow you to work at home once a week. The worst-worst scenario would be a low-paying job with a long commute and a dominating boss who allows no training and expects to see your face promptly at 8 a.m. every day. In reality, the attainable position lies somewhere between the two, as you’ll see.

Another benefit of the spreadsheet exercise is that it helps you prioritize what’s important. For many experienced MCSEs, compensation isn’t the primary issue. Having a short drive to work and extra weeks of vacation time, often called quality of life variables, are more prized than an extra $5,000 a year. But you need to remember that at the negotiating table, so that you don’t become distracted by a fat salary offer or signing bonus and forget what you really want.

Wants Matrix: It helps if you head into a job interview or salary negotiation with a clear picture of what your priorities are. Then you can be hard-nosed during the negotiating process about what you have to have, what you can live without (or with, as the case may be). First, list 10 job factors that vary in importance for you. Then, rank each, where 10 means "most important" and 1 means "whatever." Take your chart with you on interviews—as you get a clearer picture of the company, you can decide whether you really care that, say, you'll be paged around the clock, since the salary is high and you're allowed to work at home part of the time. (Note: columns and rows are reversed here, to fit online column width.)

MCSE Negotiator Rank Top Bottom
Compensation 8 Top salary for your region of the country, years of experience, and certification titles. Company known for underpaying its technical people. Turnover is high. "What's an MCSE?"
Benefits 7 Full with no deductible. You're covered, but with $500 deductible and $10 co-pay. Family members $100/month.
Location 6 10 minutes away. 30 minutes away if you avoid rush hour.
Working Conditions 1 View of mountains when you raise your eyes from your 17" monitor. You stare into opposite cubicle during long waits for a server connection to your 486.
Vacation 9 4 weeks. 2 weeks, and never during "crunch" periods.
Management 5 Trustworthy; seems to care about you and your career. Mildly sleazy; cares about self and own career.
Atmosphere 10 New ideas accepted eagerly; little to no micromanagement. Management accepts ideas and passes off as own; Dilbert-like atmosphere.
Training 4 6 MCSE classes a year. Fuggedaboudit! "You'll just leave for a better job."
Future Promotions 22 Track for promotion to Principal within 5 years. After 5 years, you no longer get paged on weekends.
Flextime 3 Biggest priority is getting the job done. You can work at home on occasion. "The server went down Saturday at midnight. Where were you?"

Stay Focused

One of the points of completing the above exercise is to set clear priorities for yourself. Once you’re negotiating, whether at your existing job or with a potential employer, that’s not the time to juggle what’s most important to you—you need to be clear about that going in.

In any negotiation, good preparation on your part will insure that you avoid poor outcomes. Keep that spreadsheet you created earlier as a reminder of your goals and priorities. When you sit down to negotiations, start with the highest ranked variable—following my example, you’d begin with salary. During the give and take of negotiations, your spreadsheet will remind you about which variables you don’t mind compromising on—the ones you ranked lowest in importance. I recommend that you take your spreadsheet with you to the negotiating table. It’s your game plan and allows you to stay on track and avoid miscues.

Another point to keep in mind is to stay focused. I’ve been on both sides of the negotiating process (boss and employee), and I’ve seen the process go different ways. First, many take it too personally. It’s hard not to when things like compensation are at stake, since that can seem in many ways to define your self-worth. But I’ve seen people flub negotiations by not only taking the process personally, but also by making personal attacks. Remember, from a pure negotiations stance, the personality of the other party doesn’t play into your goal of trying to achieve your best-best goals. Nor is the negotiating process a reflection of your worth—it’s just a business process. Try to keep that in mind as you negotiate.

Also, people can lose focus when they believe in winning at all costs. MCSEs are a competitive lot, but that competitive spirit can work against you when winning becomes the end in and of itself. Remember that by its very nature, negotiations are exercises in compromises that should leave all parties feeling empowered. You need to give some as well as take some to get what you want.

Maybe You Can’t Have It All

Compromise is another way of saying you can’t have it all. For this example, I’ll return to the toys that the well-compensated MCSE might acquire. Suppose you find that ski condo of your dreams—it’s on the top floor corner with a tremendous view and only an hour from home. Sounds like the perfect fit. So what’s the compromise you might have to make here? If you really want it, amenities and all, it’s highly unlikely that you can also negotiate a low price. In fact, not only will you pay the buyer’s asking price, but you might even pay a premium just so you don’t lose it. You’ve compromised to get what you want.

At the negotiating table, be ready to give up something you want in exchange for something else. Say you want to work at home part of the time because you want to be there when the kids get home from school. The boss really wants you around during the work day to handle escalated support issues. So you negotiate a flex-time agreement that allows you to come in early and leave early several times a week. You win, the boss wins, the company wins—everyone gets something, but no one gets everything.

Everything is on the Table

Remember that everything is negotiable at some level. If you can’t get the compensation you want from an employer, see if you can negotiate some additional training or weeks of vacation. You might come up short on the salary side but get four weeks of training and 10 weeks of vacation a year instead. Works for me!

One last tip: Do yourself a favor during negotiations and buy time if things aren’t exactly going your way. You’d be surprised how a respite can provide insights you might not have had initially. By meeting again at a future date with the other party, you’ll have time to update your negotiating spreadsheet and plan some creative alternatives and counter offers. If you plan correctly and stick with your priorities, you’ll find that it’s true—everything is negotiable.

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