The highest paying industries for software engineers

Commentary: Developers make a good living, but industries that entertain tend to pay better.

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Image: iStock/stefanamer

It may be, as Cloudera co-founder Jeff Hammerbacher once said, that "the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," but the ones who are getting paid best? Those are the engineers ensuring we stay fixated on our digital gadgetry and online entertainment like Netflix. At least, that's one big takeaway from IEEE's annual salary survey data. While we may like to opine about the need to invest in clean energy, a robot-driven future or education, software engineers in these industries make dramatically less than their entertainment-oriented peers.

What we say vs. what we pay

Of course, software engineers are not, on average, starving. According to the report, the median income for tech professionals was US $154,443 in 2020. Hardly poverty wages. 

SEE: Hiring kit: Principal Software Engineer (TechRepublic Premium)

We also know from a separate Harvey Nash salary survey that certain categories of tech professional got pay increases last year. According to that report, development managers, user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) designers, system architects and data science professionals saw the biggest increases, while across the board roughly 40% of tech professionals got a salary bump last year. 

This isn't particularly surprising. After all, with companies building new applications to deliver better customer experiences, it makes sense, for example, to place a premium on UX and UI. What is surprising are the industries that are getting paid most.

For engineers working on consumer electronics, median salary was $185,000 in 2019 but jumped to $209,373 in 2020. Meanwhile, for engineers focused on broadcast technology (think: Netflix, HBO Max etc.), an engineer could expect a median income of $148,000 in 2019, climbing to $209,000 in 2020. Why are we willing to pay top dollar for these two industries? According to the report authors, "Though there's no way of telling from the data collected, it wouldn't be a huge leap to suggest that our dependence on home entertainment during the pandemic gave these categories a boost."

Or, as Nirvana might sing, "I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now, entertain us."

What about lower on the list? Into vehicular technology? That will earn an engineer a median salary of $176,026 this year. Web development? $165,000. Machine learning? $162,948. 

But you have to go down to the very bottom of the list to find energy and power management engineering ($140,000), robotics and automation ($131,950) and education ($120,000). Things like battery engineering feels like it should be near the top, given its importance to electric cars. Nope. Robotics is big, too, with increasingly widespread adoption in areas like factory automation. Still, nope. And education, well, that's a perennially underfunded area, despite its importance to informing the next generation of workers. 

Ultimately, we pay to play. Perhaps that's not such a bad thing in the pandemic era, when people have needed something to take our minds off the sadness and/or monotony of COVID-19's impact. Still, it remains to be seen if this possible over-investment in entertainment will hurt us down the line.

Disclosure: I work for MongoDB, but the views expressed herein are mine.

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