Congratulations! You got the interview. Just don’t mess it up with these common mistakes. What you might not have thought about yet is the negotiation. Whether you realize it or not, the negotiation process usually starts during the interview. So plan ahead and get an early start.

Negotiating has never felt natural for me. It goes with the territory of being an engineer. Everything we do is about working more efficiently, taking only what we need, delivering something that works consistently within the physical bounds allowed by nature, and building our reputation based on the merit of the products we produce. The engineer’s creed reinforces this service-leadership mentality. That’s all fine and great until the engineer has to negotiate terms of a salary agreement, loan, statement of work, or other legally binding contract. There’s an old saying when trying to do something that’s frustratingly difficult, “It’s like teaching engineers how to negotiate.” So regardless of whether it comes naturally or not, negotiations are key to sustaining lifelong performance. Yet I don’t know of an engineering curriculum that provides training in this area.

For all of you engineers out there getting ready to negotiate a job offer — here’s a big secret — companies WANT to hire VERY GOOD negotiators! Of course you want the good negotiators on your team and not the other! The better you are at negotiating your job offer the more they’ll want to hire you! This, in engineer speak, is called a positive feedback loop. Positive feedback loops often precede something breaking. So it is critical to know and understand the limits on the negotiation.

Here’s a few tips:

Tip #1 —  Ask lots of questions, like with any engineering system. Stories are an excellent way to get info. Make every effort to understand the company’s philosophical approach to the hire. Why have they established the pay range and targets they are looking for? What’s the average, plus min/max standard deviations pay/timeoff/hours/resources for people in similar positions over the last few years? What ancillary benefits have new hires received? Has anybody broken the bounds? What’s the best hiring negotiation story they have? When they ask why you want to know this information, it’s simply because you want to be a very good fit and return maximum value back to the company for the long haul. In short, turn over as many of the stones as you can. You might find many are unnecessary or un-informed.

Example 1: One of my students fresh out of ME 406 was negotiating his employment with a major aerospace company. One of the forms passed to him in the interview to sign was the Intellectual Property (IP) form where you give away the rights to all of your inventions to the company while employed by the company, even if they were developed at home. He simply said that he couldn’t do that as he’s a clever guy and comes up with inventions totally unrelated to company work all of the time. He was shocked by how quickly an alternate form was produced from under the table, along with a big smile from the hiring manager. Turns out hiring managers are on the clock and assessed on their performance too.

Example 2: When I was negotiating the terms of my home loan I was given a 30+ page legal document and only four hours to read it. I was busy and didn’t have time. So when it came down to signing I simply went to the costs and expenses pages and asked what service each nebulous titled expense covered. When the answers started becoming a little contrived, I simply said I wasn’t interested in paying it as I couldn’t see how that service was being provided. A $600 expense was waived that I used to buy my first couch.

Tip #2 — “Ask for everything. Take what you are given.” Now that you have as much information about the company and wiggle room on the position as possible, ask for everything you can get. But don’t be a pig about it. Remember that you genuinely want to better the company going forward. You need to empathize with their needs and wants. Not just now as rational empathy arguments would imply, but long term in a tactical/conscious empathy way. This is a tactic from Chris Voss’ excellent book, “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your Life Depended on it.” While it may not be possible for the hiring manager to budge on traditional easily quantifiable metrics like pay and time off, you may be able to get some real ancillary benefits. Gym membership? Free childcare? Parking space? Travel? Sabbatical? Company computer/workspace? Hiring bonus? Maternity leave? Medical/dental? Rotation time to see the different facets of the company and decide who you work best with? Company credit line? Be systematic with a checklist; at least they’ll know they’re getting a systematic engineer. Here’s an article listing many forms of alternative compensation for an academic style position. Plan these strategically based on rational arguments. Know that once they say yes to something that you can go on a run and build momentum, until they say no that is.

Example 3: One of my students got a job with an aerospace company in the region. On day 1 he was given a company credit card with a $30k limit. “I wish I would’ve known that the limit was negotiable.”

Example 4: I was trying to buy a custom mattress for my home once. After using a competitor’s sale to bring the price down 20%, we were close to a deal. Salesman asked, “Are we where we need to be?” So I asked them to throw in a mattress topper. I got a big smile and a proud handshake from the salesmen. Negotiations don’t always end well. But the old folks tend to like to see young folks who don’t lose their shirts in deals.

Tip #3 — Know yourself and what you’re worth. If you have a unique set of skills (like cryogenics + hydrogen) — then the company is unlikely to get it anywhere else. If they need your skills, and push comes to shove, be prepared to walk away in as nice a way as possible. Remember that hiring managers are numbers and metrics based people who don’t want to waste time — just like you. They are the ones trying to hire you here.

Example 5: I was negotiating a consulting contract and was struggling to find standards for consulting engineer pay. I found a standard pay rate for consulting engineers based on experience I found online. It helped to refute the company’s argument that some guy from Stanford was charging a lot less.

Tip #4 — Remember that you’re about to be on the same team, so be as polite, objective, and efficient as possible. And if it doesn’t go well, you may end up on the same team sometime in the future. It really is a small world.

So Learn, Ask, Know, and Empathize — negotiating a new job is like jumping in a (LAKE). Empathizing, improvising, and working with someone on a negotiation like this can be a lot of fun. But it takes a little to get us engineers out of our shells to do it. The examples above are literally all I have. But I know enough to know that I’ll keep trying. Because when negotiations work well, everybody’s happy.