Lately, it feels like there’s never been a better time to be a software engineer. A fast-moving, increasingly essential digital marketplace keeps driving the demand for skilled developers higher and higher. Plus, even as the world fitfully emerges from the pandemic, the economy keeps expanding. Businesses need new talent or they risk falling behind the competition.

As signing bonuses and salaries skyrocket, anyone would feel the temptation to follow the money. After all, who knows what the next economic cycle will bring. Might as well get paid while you can and worry about the details later, right?

Unfortunately, taking the highest salary on the market can come at a similarly steep cost. Long hours, toxic work cultures, and dead-end environments are just a few potential byproducts of viewing your paycheck as the main priority. Before you chase down the biggest salary, you need to consider what really motivates you.

Is it all about the money? Well, let’s pretend you’re earning the salary of your dreams. What does the rest of your workplace look like? Are you being challenged to learn new skills, pursue a leadership role, or shine as an individual? Or are you a cog in the machine? Depending on what you picture, you likely need more from your next job than a large direct deposit notification.

In every industry, work-life boundaries matter

Employers have been pulling out all the stops to court in-demand development talent. But for as long as software engineering has been associated with high salaries, the tech industry has also been tied with difficult working conditions.

Long hours, narrow deadlines, and scarce time to recharge are common repercussions of a fast-paced, competitive industry. You can land a high-six-figure position at a market-leading tech brand if that’s your goal. But the value of what you’re expected to deliver generally increases as well. Simply put, you’re not logging off at 4:30 pm as companies look to maximize the return on their salaried investment.

Obviously, not every big paycheck carries toxic disappointments about work-life balance. But even as the pandemic has redrawn the employment landscape, you can’t overlook its lessons when considering a new employer. Is an uncertain climate the right time to lose valuable flexibility with your schedule?

Evaluating a new work environment comes down to looking for a sense of balance. Most leadership teams at high-paying firms won’t encourage you to take time off after they see you haven’t taken a vacation in a while. Ours will, but Four Kitchens is a bit of an anomaly.

Some high-paying positions demand that software engineers are solely responsible for shouldering a heavy load. But at a smaller agency, developers more frequently have the support of a close-knit, experienced team. Plus, if you value the flexibility of remote work, you should evaluate the details of any company’s policies. Ultimately, you need to ensure their approach to managing your work hours meshes with your own.

Workplace culture simply can’t be bought

Working on the product side at a big tech brand offers rewards beyond an outsized salary. After all, you’re working on something many people use. Who wouldn’t want to have that sense their work is making an impact?

Don’t lose sight of the impact of your work as an individual, though. That happens too frequently at a large firm despite (or because of) its other excitements. Amid so many product launches, dev teams, and org charts, you can quickly feel like you work at a sub-company within a sub-company. You may get to know your team, but you’re not going to interact with anyone in other departments, much less the people making the decisions for your company.

Client services agencies simply don’t have the salary budget of a multinational corporation. But at a smaller firm like ours, everyone has more of a voice to influence their work. We document our best practices for any project, but Four Kitchens is always open to improvement. In fact, our new hires tend to be the ones who are best equipped to find ways to iterate and innovate that may have otherwise been missed. We value that input!

If a workplace’s culture is structured to recognize your value as an individual, you stand to see benefits that can’t be bought. Though “humbly confident” tops our list of Core Values, we’re not going to take that too far. Even if someone consistently attributes every success to their team, that won’t stand in our way of recognizing an individual’s positive impact. Any team is only the sum of its parts, and Four Kitchens is committed to finding ways for everybody’s contributions to expand as well.

Freedom to grow and experiment is priceless in development jobs

A common complaint about smaller firms is the limited potential for career advancement. To address that challenge, we set up an ecosystem of practice groups to tap into the expertise across our teams.

Practice groups are small groups of people with similar interests. We have a front-end design practice group, a CMS practice group, an accessibility practice group, and so on through the many elements of digital projects. Every two weeks, the practice groups meet and share insights about their specialties and where they’re headed.

Formed outside of any organizational hierarchy, practice groups provide leadership opportunities that may not exist otherwise. Any engineer who has a clear aptitude for a given subject is free to lead the group. Over time, as practice group leaders have flexed their organizational skills, some have gone on to become technical managers at Four Kitchens as well.

Fundamentally, we’re invested in seeing success from the people we work with—both as part of a project team and as individuals. Most of the time, any new technology we adopt is the result of being championed by someone on our team who’s interested in the topic. As each member of our team grows stronger in what they do, the whole organization does as well.

Digital technology doesn’t sit still for long; neither should any of us.

Loyalty isn’t a dirty word—even in digital development

As in-demand skill sets like Node.js development attract increasingly high salaries, technology professionals can fall into a mercenary-like mentality. As you bounce from workplace to workplace to follow the highest bidders, you collect a wealth of experience. But if you want your work to make a real impact, you need time to settle in.

It’s one thing to sample various work environments early in your career. But as you reach a certain point with your work experience, you gain so many more opportunities to experiment and explore after you’ve grown into a job and become proficient. If you’re working at the right firm, you’ll have so much more freedom over time because you’ve established a level of trust with your leadership and your team. From that point, your work can take you further than from one high-paying place to the next.

There’s a reason why developers at Four Kitchens typically stay with us four to six years or longer. If you’re ready to think a little differently about your work and its impact on you and the rest of the world, we should talk.