- Frank Niu is a former software engineer who gives finance, investing, and career advice on TikTok and his podcast.
- He says he was able to retire because he saved, invested and job-hopped his way to high salaries.
- This is his story as-told-to reporter Jenna Gyimesi
I spent around ten years working in the tech industry as a software engineer at companies like Netflix, Grubhub, and Credit Karma.
In 2020, I lost a close family member at the beginning of the pandemic. This made my wife and I reevaluate some key decisions in our lives, including if we wanted to risk sending our kids to daycare. I realized that I could stop working and stay home with my kids while maintaining a relatively comfortable lifestyle.
Through a combination of job-hopping, aggressively saving, investing, luck, and earning high salaries, I was able to retire comfortably at 30.
In an effort to be transparent about my previous high salaries — and to also illustrate the importance of job-hopping — here’s how much money I made on a software engineering path.
How much money I made working in tech:
IBM, Software Engineer, $74,000 salary, $5,000 signing bonus: I started my career at IBM in 2014, right out of University. I left partly because it was a huge company with too much process, and partly because the praise I received for my work was not reflected in my salary and raises. I didn’t feel like the money I was making was representative of my value to the company, so I left.
Dwolla, DevOps Engineer, $125,000 salary, $5,000 signing bonus, stock options: After IBM, I moved to San Francisco and joined a small startup called Dwolla. They had a great tech stack and had much less process. It was the opposite of IBM. Because of the increased expenses of living in San Francisco, my take home pay was similar despite the salary bump. I enjoyed working there, but the company was struggling. It was on the edge of bankruptcy and so I looked for something more stable.
Credit Karma, Senior Software Engineer, $138,000 salary, $100,000 stock package: I accepted a job at Credit Karma in 2016. I was only there for a year and a half when the cryptocurrency market started booming in 2017. I quit my job to start a crypto startup with my friends that eventually failed.
Grubhub, Site Reliability Engineer, $140,000 salary, $200,000 stock package, $7,500 sign on bonus: Things were getting serious with my girlfriend and we wanted to buy a house. We searched for a city with good job opportunities and a lower cost of living, so I went to Grubhub in Chicago. This was great timing because the stock went up like crazy soon after I joined. I got super lucky. My total compensation increased to more than $300,000 per year.
Netflix, Senior Site Reliability Engineer, $525,000 total compensation: Netflix is unique because they pay all cash compensation with an option to allocate money into their stock option program if you choose to. My wife also got a promotion and we both started earning the most money we’ve ever made. We saved and invested over 70% of our income during this time.
Focus on health and safety of family over earning money
After Netflix, I could have probably gotten an even higher-paying job, around $600,000 to $700,000, but I have two young kids, and COVID was raging across the world. A close family member had just passed away two years ago and this made us reevaluate if we wanted to risk sending our kids to daycare.
I also started thinking more deeply about the point of trying to climb the corporate ladder — was there even a point? I would get paid more money, but I would be spending more and more hours at work. And when I wasn’t at work, I would think about work.
We had enough money and assets, which was an extremely fortunate position to be in, and so I decided to retire.
If worse comes to worst, I’ll get another job later down the road and start making money again. Software engineering skills are in high demand, and they’ll continue to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
4 steps to earning more money in your career
1. Prepare for interviews. You can get a tech job if you prepare and have the right skillset. You don’t have to go to the most prestigious schools. But you do have to know enough to get past the interviews.
Here are three resources I recommend looking into when trying to land a job at a big tech company.
- The Tech Interview Handbook: It’s a master list of the technical questions and topics that you should know how to answer.
- Leetcode: A lot of tech companies have coding questions. Many companies take these questions directly from leetcode — Facebook is especially notorious for this.
- The System Design Primer: This teaches you how to design large-scale systems. For example, a question might be, “How would you design a URL shortener?”. The primer has tons of resources on how to build systems at scale.
2. Leave your job every few years. People who leave their jobs every two years(or less) will typically out-earn their peers over their lifetime because the market rate for tech compensation rises faster than what you can get from promotions and raises inside of a company.
My rule of thumb is that if you don’t get a promotion every two years you should leave.
3. Know what to expect from your job offer. I looked at Blind and a site called levels.fyi. These sites show you what to expect for different job titles like software engineer and data scientist at different companies. This will help you figure out if the offer you got is competitive. It can also show you the highest paying companies. It helped my wife and I figure out what we were actually worth.
4. Invest and save.We moved to Canada while I was still at Netflix. We kept our cost of living relatively low; we don’t live a particularly lavish lifestyle. Excluding the value of our home, we have approximately $2 million worth of assets in real estate, stocks, and crypto.
We basically follow the 4% rule: we can take out 4% of our investments every year to live on because on average, our investments will grow roughly 5% a year. This gives us a margin of safety. So at $2 million, we’re able to take out and live on $80,000 per year. The assumption is that our investments will grow more quickly than we can spend.
We’re somewhat loose with our budget because $80,000 a year is plenty for our family of four in terms of food, entertainment, and bills.
Spending early retirement parenting, making TikTok advice videos
Though I’m grateful that I’m retired, I’m still tired. Anyone with kids knows that parenting is extremely hard work. However, the joy I get from being with my kids is unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
These days I make videos on Tiktok where I give advice on working in tech and making money. My account started off as a competition between me and my wife; she challenged me to get more followers than her. Now I have over 897,000 followers on the platform. I don’t make any money from my account right now. I’ve turned down partnership and advertisement opportunities because I didn’t believe in the product or companies, and I don’t need the money right now. I also have a podcast called Frankly Speaking where I talk about my experiences on life, tech, finance, and everything else.
Your profession and the company you work for dictate earning potential more than anything else. Technology, and specifically software engineering, is one of the best paying careers right now. If you invest and save wisely, you can retire early like I did.
This story was originally published in June, 2022.
If you have advice about retiring early, contact Jenna Gyimesi at firstname.lastname@example.org.