I Doubled My Salary and Likability as a Beginner Dev & How You Can Do It Too

I Doubled My Salary and Likability as a Beginner Dev & How You Can Do It Too

One surprising but easy skill made all the difference


6 min read

Hello all you wonderful devs!


Recently, I was at a fancy coffee shop in downtown Denver with an entrepreneurial friend of mine. He brought up this stereotype (which I don't agree with):

"Engineers have terrible communication skills! I want to help them but I don't know how." - my friend, stereotypically

I leaned in close and told him how I would do it: through improv comedy.

He laughed.

I laughed and said:

"No, seriously. Improv comedy helped me become more likeable and double my salary."

Now, I had his attention.

My Story

I've always known I wasn't the best developer.

My code looks like spaghetti. And not nice spaghetti. Like Olive Garden spaghetti.๐Ÿ

Early in my career, I was surrounded by geniuses who:

  • Automated everything in their home as a hobby

  • Worked on Python package management tooling as a hobby

  • Created game mod dependency management tooling as a hobby

These folks ran circles around me as a dev. But I noticed something interesting...

Even though they were tech geniuses, they kept getting passed over for promotions.

That's when it the first thing clicked:

print(tech_prowess == promotability)  # prints False

So if technical ability isn't the only promotion material... what else is there?

My manager told me the answer in a one-on-one: soft skills.

I asked to see how he was fostering soft skills in his direct reports. He said he would recommend books, but not see any results. He couldn't find a way to have his direct reports apply the lessons.

That's when the second thing clicked.

Improv comedy can be a way to foster soft skills.

Benefits of Improv

Most people don't understand improv.

They see improv as a performative, comedic art form. This is true with improv in public, at a comedy theater. But what they don't see is the practice of improv.

Improv in private is life-changing.

I had been performing improv for years, even before I became a developer.

I had discovered that:

It's a gym for your soft skills

You grow your communication muscles by going to improv.

You are thrust into imagined scenarios where you have to:

  • Empathize

  • Adapt quickly

  • Listen actively

  • Pivot to new information

  • Be creative under crazy restraints

  • Make decisions with incomplete information

And yes, these are all skills you can learn at work.

The difference is at work, there are real-world, high-stakes outcomes of your soft skills capabilities. In improv, since everything is made up, there are no stakes. It's pure practice.

There's a reason they are called soft skills and not soft talents.

You can build skill. You can't build talent.

It makes you more lucky

This comes from Jason Roberts' view of luck:

luck = doing * telling

You have plenty of technical expertise. Otherwise, you wouldn't be a professional developer!

However, if you don't have the ability to tell people:

  • What you do

  • In terms they'll understand

  • To produce an outcome they want

You are not going to get far.

Improv forces you to consolidate information in a punchy, succinct way and communicate it to others.

It increases your telling variable, thus increasing your luck.

You practice talking and listening

This sounds dumb, but I've had weeks where I put my head down and grind out Python or SQL for 40+ hours straight.

I don't say a word. I don't listen to anybody else say words.

When I come out of an 8-hour SQL session, I even have trouble talking to my wife.

She'll ask me what I want for dinner, and I'll reply:

SELECT online_order_link, menu
FROM restaurants
WHERE name = 'Chipotle';

Improv gets you talking and listening.

It cannot function without you practicing both skills.

You have to:

  • Say things quickly

  • Synthesize new information

  • Actively listen to your partner to build a scene

How did I use these skills at work? I:

  • Gave straight answers, quickly

  • Was able to "ingest" new changes in the business

  • Respond in the conversation with information they cared about

I was a good speaker and great listener.

And up goes by telling variable...

Become more comfortable with risks

When I say risks, I am not saying "push changes at 4PM on a Friday". ๐Ÿ’ฅ

When I say risks, I mean:

  • Talking to new people

  • Speaking up in meetings

  • Presenting confidently on topics

  • Publishing media on the internal Slack channel (for fun and education)

You feel good putting yourself out there.

You approach your work with confidence.

You know you can adapt if things go wrong.

How's It Going?

People are shocked when I tell them I'm a software developer who majored in Electrical Engineering.

They can't wrap their heads around an engineer who's a good communicator (there's that stereotype again...).

Other things I've noticed from being a developer who does improv:

  • My salary doubled due to enhanced communication (I could express why I deserved more money)

  • Coworkers would get excited for my presentations (it was applicable to their needs)

  • Coworkers were more willing to help me with (and be more forgiving of) my developer shortcomings

  • Coworkers, VPs, and directors I hadn't met, in different departments, knew my name

  • The President of the 1,000-person company approached and chatted with me at the holiday party

  • People looked forward to working with me

  • I had more fun at work

How You Can Do It Too

tl;dr: Take an improv class. Online or in-person.

Here are my tips for taking one for the first time.

Step 1. Skip the comedy theater.

Counter-intuitive, right? Here's why:

Comedy theaters want to funnel you into their eight-week, $250 improv comedy courses. This is how they make their money. The "sales-iness" and comedy-first focus of these events can turn you off from improv.

Don't do it for your first time.

Step 2. Find a workshop that charges money.

Problems with free workshops:

  • Repeat attendees hate newcomers: "They don't even know the basics!"

  • Teachers have no incentives to teach well or build community.

  • Free = perceived as low value = lack of focus.

Workshops charging even $5 will not have these problems.

๐Ÿ’ก Tip: Improv workshops are sometimes called "improv jams" - use this term while searching.

Step 3. Consider the outcomes.

There are two outcomes from trying improv. You either:

  • Learn how to connect with people (including coworkers)

  • Get better at communicating

  • Make local, adult friends


  • Laugh for hours on end

Where's the downside?

Even one single improv class will radically change how you view soft skills. You will see they can be cultivated with intentional practice.

It's leetcode, but for conversation.


Let me know if you have any questions. I'd love to answer them for you.

And if you take an improv course, let me know!

๐Ÿ‘‹ Hey, I'm Gus, developer, improviser, and content creator.

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