Paycheck to Paycheck

This 34-year-old earns $125,000 as a project manager—why he prefers to work on contract rather than as an employee

Alister Shirazi works as a project manager in San Diego, California.
Illustration by Gene Kim

Welcome to Paycheck to Paycheck, where workers with the same job across the U.S. share how much they earn, how they got to their salary and their best negotiating tips. Ready to join the salary transparency conversation? Apply to be a part of the series here.

In this installment, a 34-year-old shares how he makes $125,000 working as a project manager in San Diego, California. 

Alister Shirazi's ultimate career goal is to never have to work for anyone ever again. And he believes the technical skills he learns from his contract work will get him there.

Shirazi, 34, currently works as a project manager in an independent contractor role for a tech company. Though it means he has a boss for now, he sees it as a way to learn new skills and add some big names to his resume, which makes him more competitive in the industry.

Right now he earns $60 per hour for a 40-hour workweek as part of 12-month contract; that comes out to just shy of $125,000 per year.

Here's why Shirazi views contract work as an investment in his long-term career goals.

Getting into project management

Shirazi studied economics in college, earned an MBA and launched iPhone repair businesses in California and Brazil, where he spent time after business school. After a few years, he sold his businesses to move back to the states and build up his savings. He took a business operations job with a start-up in the Bay Area with an $80,000 starting salary, "which I thought was great, but is actually not enough after taxes to make it work."

He got interested in coding after he was assigned a menial task he really didn't want to do: "I automated it using Python programming and didn't tell anybody," Shirazi says. "Eventually I told my boss and asked for something else to work on, because I was getting bored."

Shirazi learned more about coding and data science through free community college classes and low-cost online courses. He eventually transitioned into a project manager role to apply his technical skills to the business.

But his pay didn't budge for nearly two years. He talked to his coworkers about their pay, and they encouraged him to advocate for a raise. "I made a whole presentation [to my boss] about my accomplishments and goals and said I wanted a raise within two weeks," Shirazi says.

The two weeks stretched into months, but Shirazi finally went from earning $80,000 to $100,000, and then to $120,000 with a bonus. "From that point, I didn't ever want to go backwards," Shirazi says, "so I only looked for opportunities that would take me upwards in my career and salary."

Landing a job in 4 days

Once Shirazi had more technical skills and project management experience on his LinkedIn profile, recruiters began reaching out. He suddenly had offers to join tech companies he always admired. In July 2020, he landed a six-month contract with one as a project manager for $60 an hour.

There are some things he doesn't like about contract positions. He doesn't get health benefits, retirement plan contributions, stock options or other perks of a full-time employee. The pay for contract jobs is often fixed, even before any interviews, so there isn't room to negotiate.

He also finds job leads through a contracting agency, which takes a cut from his hourly rate. But it's similar to working with a recruiter, Shirazi says: If they like you, they'll keep you at the top of their roster and work to find you new jobs once your contract is over.

For now, Shirazi focuses on the benefits of taking short-term contracts, like how they're a lower barrier to entry into some big-name tech companies where he can learn about the industry, gain new skills and network.

"I'm happy that I have the opportunity to bounce around because it gives me a diverse skillset, and I can add it to my personal brand equity," he says.

That personal branding helped him land his current gig. Shirazi took an informational interview for his current job on a Tuesday and got an offer by Friday.

The $125,000 he makes after the recruiter's cut is "enough" for now, Shirazi says. He works from his home in San Diego, but says the pay wouldn't be enough if he had to commute to an office.

"I think of it as using my salary to finance my dreams, which is to open other businesses," he says. "I'm OK to get my money, learn and get out."

'Anybody could do this'

Shirazi says he's open about his salary as someone who broke into tech "because I want people to know that anybody can do this."

Being a good project manager means being a generalist in a lot of ways, Shirazi says. Most importantly, "you have to be resourceful, a critical thinker, a planner and a good communicator."

Check out:

This 26-year-old doubled his pay by switching to computer science—and using a key negotiating trick

6 ways to figure out how much you should be getting paid—before negotiating your salary or a raise

What to say if you aren't offered enough money in a salary negotiation

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