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The highest paid workers in Silicon Valley are not software engineers

Contestants in the 2006 Google Global Code Jam stare at their computer screens at Google's New York office Friday, Oct. 27, 2006. One hundred of the best computer coders from around the world compete for prize money and bragging rights. The finalists from 20 countries are flown to New York by Google for the competition. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
AP / Mark Lennihan
Not the highest paid people in the room.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In Silicon Valley, software engineer is synonymous with eye-watering compensation. Monthly salaries for engineering interns (about $81,600 per year annualized) are about twice the median wage in the rest of the country. While the reality of high-paying coding jobs is not wrong, programming isn’t the only way to climb Silicon Valley’s career ladder, and it’s definitely not the most lucrative.

Online hiring platform Hired released a report on Aug. 25 analyzing 31,146 interview requests from 1,848 companies made through Hired’s platform during the first half of 2016. Their findings show product managers consistently get the top salary offers, $133,000 on average. Software engineers were offered an average of $123,000 followed by designers at $115,000 during the second quarter of 2016. Analyses of H1B work visas and Glassdoor data from Google, Facebook and other tech giants arrive at similar conclusions.

The salary advantage for product managers has only grown,  says Hired’s data scientist Jessica Kirkpatrick. “We see that software engineers have always been paid less than product managers, but that the pay gap has widened over the past year,” she wrote by email. The trend holds after accounting for experience. Software engineers, on average, are paid about 10% less than product managers in their first year as well as after six or more years of experience.

Product management skills are coveted, argues Ken Norton, a former Google product manager and partner at GV, Google’s venture arm, because “in the long run great product management usually makes the difference between winning and losing.” Product managers must shepherd a product from concept to completion by setting the vision, understanding customers, enforcing timelines, managing teams, and keeping an eye on the business model.

While software engineers enter product management roles, a computer science education isn’t required. It’s not even the most important skill, says Hunter Walk, former director of product management at Google and the co-founder of the venture fund Homebrew. “The best product managers possess a broad set of skills which allow them to somehow manage wearing these multiple hats,” he writes. Walk himself holds a bachelor’s degree in history and an MBA.

The only role that tops product managers’ salaries–and only briefly in 2015–was data scientist, says Hired. That anomaly is unlikely to crop up soon, says Kirkpatrick. Interview requests for data science candidates grew by 20% during the past quarter, the most of any role, but the number of data science candidates on Hired grew by 50%. That oversupply is likely to drive down salaries.

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