Career awareness: Are you being paid in carnival cash?

You’ve gone through multiple interviews with several companies, and finally you’re starting your dream job as a data scientist or software developer, whether as a fresh graduate, or experienced hire. You’ve made it, right?

Your first instinct is probably to do your best to learn and contribute to the new role in a “nose to the grindstone” fashion. This is where I suggest taking a step back and digging deep into something a lot of us in tech (especially individual contributors) don’t think about: the organizational structure and how employees are compensated.

This might seem counterintuitive, since we want to pay our dues, first. But consider the scenarios I’ve seen all too often: Do you want to learn about how you could get promoted, 2 years later? What if, when you finally have the conversation, you learn that you need to spend one more year preparing a promotion packet? You regret asking the question too late, since if you’d known a year earlier, you’d have gotten started already. It’s simply too much lost time in one’s career, and damaging to team morale.

This is why I want to share some action items to make sure that you can build your career intentionally, and avoid the traps of “carnival cash” as a substitute for true compensation or promotions.

Carnival cash

I borrow this term from Erik Dietrich. In short, “carnival cash”, in the professional world, are perks with no real value outside of that specific company. Examples are:

Note: I am not saying these things don’t mean anything - they indeed can show appreciation and build team culture. What I am saying is that they are mostly worthless outside of that company. No one outside of your company, be it your friends, family, or your colleagues in your next role, will care if you had an office.

So, I value these things, but never mistake them as a proper substitute for true compensation. I have seen many people make that mistake. You might have seen a lot of these scenarios in your career as well. The following examples come from many different organizations from people I personally know.

Common patterns of carnival cash

Once again, here is a disclaimer that these little gestures of appreciation aren’t pointless. Often, being recognized for hard work and good results means a lot for morale. I’m just saying that they should not be used as a replacement for true compensation. The rule of thumb is that if it feels too much like flattery and trinkets, it’s carnival cash. If one is getting praised highly for a long time, but with no corresponding increase in true compensation, then they’re getting paid in carnival cash.

In this situation, the employee should bring up conversations regarding their true compensation, for example a pay bump with a corresponding promotion, instead of becoming complacent with the little toys and baubles that wouldn’t mean anything for their career and financial health in the future.

I use salary as a loose gauge for “true compensation” out of convenience, but note that this can be things such as work life balance, or types of non-monetary benefits that truly can help in the long term. This, of course, depends on what the individual values. What might be carnival cash to me, might not be to you, and vice versa.

Promotions - true compensation or carnival cash?

I somewhat disagree with a specific point in Erik Dietrich’s overall terrific post, where I borrowed the term carnival cash from, that promotions are more often carnival cash than not. This certainly can be true if it’s a situation where it’s a clear retention tactic, e.g. “we haven’t given this employee a promotion in 5 years, even though they’ve been asking for 2 years… but now they’re leaving, shocker! Let’s quickly offer that promotion and pay bump as a counter offer!”

In this case, the company had been knowingly paying in carnival cash, and hoping the employee wouldn’t notice. If the employee hadn’t gotten another offer in hand, the company likely would have continued to pay in carnival cash for as long as they could get away with it. This can happen regardless if the carnival cash happens to be a promotion.

However, to use my rule of thumb of whether it can help outside the company or in the future, I personally conclude that promotions can count as part of true compensation and not 100% carnival cash. This is due to me valuing public speaking and other types of career growth, in which a corresponding title helps me.

This brings us to the next point - how can one be aware that they’re being paid carnival cash over true compensation? The process can be opaque, and it was certainly was mysterious to me when I was beginning my career. Here is what I would suggest.

How to increase career awareness

Immediate actions that can help drastically with your career and toward true compensation, regardless of experience:

With this knowledge in hand, it’s time to ask some tough questions.


Frankly, I’ve written this post with some folks in mind, who have sought advice from me regarding career growth, and carnival cash situations they have encountered. I am compiling and sharing these thoughts in the hopes that they can benefit readers as well.

Let’s keep learning and growing in our careers with intentionality!

I hope that some of these thoughts were helpful. As usual, you can find me on LinkedIn or to discuss this post.

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