Software developers are at the top of the pecking order in most tech organizations, in no small part because very few people know how to code well. It's something you either spend years mastering or discover you have a freakish gift for doing. And the better you get at it the exponentially more productive you and your apps become.
Either way, it's not an exaggeration to say the world is your oyster when it comes to the job market. You have available some of the choicest job opportunities, and figuring out which is best usually isn't too complicated. But you also want an opportunity in the best geographical location, where you can be part of the best scene. Defining "best" in those terms is a little more complicated.
How would engineers decide on the best city to work if it was their jobs they were deciding on?
To address the question of what the best and worst cities for software developers are, we first need a precise definition of "best." Here's where we can draw on some of our STEM training to solve a real-world problem. To wit, "best" is all about maximizing utility, or the satisfaction we experience as a result of our economic decisions. "Bad," on the other hand, involves leaving a lot on the table, and the regret that goes along with it.
Of course, satisfaction can mean different things for different people, depending on what your scene is. Taking another cue from our STEM backgrounds, we know that in science, validity always requires multiple evidences. Therefore, we reviewed multiple studies and looked for a convergence of findings, where the results from one study reinforced those of others.
What we found was very clear: software developers want to maximize on one of four different things when selecting the best location to work:
1. Take-home pay
2. Opportunities for professional development and growth
One of those is going to stand out as most important, and that's the key to saying which location is truly best. Put another way, the way you determine the best house music is by comparing it to other house music you really like, not to rock music that you just sort of like but everyone says is great.
And that's what we did. We culled the results from several studies, and analyzed them further to determine clear winners. Below you will find our top cities for software developers, ranked best for take home pay, professional opportunities, happiness, and cachet. We also found the worst cities for software developers and listed them at the end.
Best Cities for Maximizing Take-Home Pay
For the most pragmatically minded software developers, the top criterion is keeping as much of what you earn as possible. Here are the four top locations where your paycheck goes the furthest:
1. San Antonio, TX
- Median annual salary range: $89,621 - $94,935
- Median monthly rent: $954
Ranked number one by IEEE Spectrum for software developer take home pay, San Antonio maintains its longstanding reputation where paychecks go a long way. It also matches its Texas Triangle counterparts Houston and Dallas in terms of median salaries and ratio of jobs to job seekers, but edges both out in affordability.
2. Pittsburgh, PA
- Median annual salary range: $79,385 - $81,492
- Median monthly rent: $766
A real success story of a place that has reinvented itself, there's a hearty spirit of resilience that characterizes the Pittsburgh scene. Ranked the number three best city for STEM jobs by WalletHub, Pittsburgh software developers take home above average salaries in a city that still has a lot of spare economic capacity, and plenty of jobs for software developers.
3. Phoenix, AZ
- Median annual salary range: $80,213 - $88,056
- Median monthly rent: $1,040
The Valley of the Sun always seems to overbuild during construction booms. But that's one of the reasons it also remains affordable, and high-paying software developer jobs keep coming to the region. And with a 188 percent annual growth rate in tech jobs, that's all set to continue well into the future.
4. Baltimore, MD
- Median annual salary range: $77,322 - $97,005
- Median monthly rent: $1,226
For over a decade Baltimore has been pitching itself as the affordable area of the Baltimore-Washington Corridor. An old metropolis with a lot of character, Charm City is now succeeding at attracting a lot more tech characters both to start up new ventures and work in established ones. Business Insider reports a 109 percent annual growth rate in tech jobs.
Best Cities for Maximizing Professional Opportunities
For some software developers, being pragmatic means having a lot of different opportunities available. You may want to move to a new industry, pursue a unique role, or acquire specialized skills -- perhaps sooner rather than later. Here are the four locations with the greatest diversity of industries, employment options, and growth opportunities:
1. Washington, DC metro area
(including adjacent counties in VA and MD)
- Median annual salary range: $96,289 - $106,917
- Median monthly rent: $1,570
Hundreds of thousands of professionals of all walks have started their careers in the DC area. Ranked number one by WalletHub for professional opportunities, "DMV" remains one of the best locations in the world for doing so. Even in bad economic times, the region still experiences economic growth. Professional contacts developed there last a lifetime.
2. Raleigh/Durham, NC
- Median annual salary range: $80,800 - $94,966
- Median monthly rent: $987
Raleigh and Durham are located at roughly the opposite and adjacent angles of the renowned Research Triangle. Its combination of research universities fuels a stunningly diverse economy of tech, finance, life sciences, and business services, among others. That accounts for WalletHub ranking Raleigh/Durham number four for professional opportunities. The region also ranks very high on affordability, and could just as easily fit on our previous list of maximizing take home income.
3. Atlanta, GA
- Median annual salary range: $74,086 - $94,731
- Median monthly rent: $1,068
Though somewhat less affordable, Atlanta edges out Raleigh/Durham as the capital of the New South. The success of the recent namesake TV series continues to raise the city's profile admirably. Cosmopolitan and strikingly diverse, "The A" has built a major global presence in several major industries, and is headquarters to seven Fortune 100 companies. No surprise then that WalletHub ranks Atlanta number five for professional opportunities.
4. Austin, TX
- Median annual salary range: $74,587 - $93,039
- Median monthly rent: $1,184
Though not having quite as diverse an economy as the three previous entries, Austin is the home of SXSW, which is representative of its unique tech culture. Austin thereby excels in the diversity of roles available not just to software developers but to anyone working in tech, even those working in enabling functions. Poets wanting to become mobile app developers or codeheads wanting to try out new product design couldn't choose a better location. And that is one reason WalletHub ranked Austin number six for professional opportunities.
Best Cities for Maximizing Happiness
If we're trying to outdo each other on a pragmatic contest, someone will eventually declare, "a big paycheck or a lot of opportunities are worthless if you are not happy doing what you are doing." It's hard to argue with that. Here are the top four cities for software developers whose top requirement is happiness, as defined by quality of life, recreation, social opportunities, and community of like-minded professionals.
1. Boulder, CO
- Median annual salary range: $85,878 - $95,091
- Median monthly rent: $1,348
You know all about Boulder's reputation. National Geographic ranks it as the Happiest City in the United States. Codementor ranks it the number one happiest city for software developers. Boulder indeed has it all: small and large companies, outdoor recreation, natural beauty, health consciousness, robust social life, and a cost of living that is still a bargain for what you get for it.
2. Provo, UT
- Median annual salary range: $77,451 - $83,159
- Median monthly rent: $936
Provo could be described as a less caffeinated version of Boulder, but also with a character all its own. It puts up some good numbers: number three on ZipRecruiter's 2015 up-and-coming tech city rankings, and number six on Codementor's list of happiest cities for software developers. And while winters are for the hardy, Provo gets high marks for outdoor recreation, a solid balance of social opportunities, STEM friendliness of the community, and especially affordability.
3. Columbus, OH
- Median annual salary range: $78,580 - $88,532
- Median monthly rent: $946
Columbus is Ohio's largest city, with many long-established industries that have historically relied on tech to power their fundamental business operations. That is expected to continue, as Business Insider reports an 83 percent annual tech jobs growth rate for the Arch City. Codementor ranks Columbus as the number four happiest city for software developers, noting that it is especially attractive to those seeking a full fare big city/university town experience, but at a discounted price.
4. Chicago, IL
- Median annual salary range: $69,542 - $92,391
- Median monthly rent: $1,400
One of Samuel Johnson's most famous quotes is: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." The same could be said of Chicago, which Codementor ranks as the number seven happiest city for software developers. It is truly a global city, and one of the more affordable ones, offering a vibrant urban life that has something for everyone, especially outside of work. And while winters are legendarily harsh, they are moderated by extensive social opportunities and neighborhood cohesiveness.
Best Cities for Maximizing Cachet
And now, here are the no-brainers that would make us look stupid if we didn't include them on our list. These are the scenes you want to be in if you are at the 99th percentile in whatever you do, live by the motto of "work hard, play harder," worry about FOMO, or aspire to be a star of the flat screen.
1. San Francisco/Silicon Valley, CA
- Median annual salary range: $115,477 - $121,064, and up
- Median monthly rent: $2,500 - $3,200, and up (way up)
San Francisco and Santa Clara County are two very different cultures. But together they form the Land of Milk and Honey of the entire tech universe. San Francisco is rated as a Global Elite city by A.T. Kearney, and ranked number one in its future potential to "retain global capital, people, and ideas." Every aspiring tech hub in the world calls itself by some derivative of "Silicon Valley." Anybody who is somebody in tech will at least make a stop through the Bay Area at some point in their career.
2. Boston, MA
- Median annual salary range: $101,770 - $112,520
- Median monthly rent: $2,300 - $3,000
Boston is also one of A.T. Kearney's Global Elite, ranking number eight in its future outlook as a global economic powerhouse. What the Bay Area is to computing and digital technology, Boston is to medicine and life sciences. Software developers wanting to make a splash in medical devices, biotech, or medical information technology are bound to spend plenty of time in Boston during their careers.
3. Seattle, WA
- Median annual salary range: $103,320 - $117,000
- Median monthly rent: $2,100 - $2,700
Few would argue that Amazon wields the most potential for disrupting entire categories of technology along with entire industries. Microsoft did just that a generation ago, and is due for a second wind. Though not yet the global city that San Francisco and Boston are, Seattle is regularly cited as a top three hotspot for tech jobs. The future is indeed very bright (and very green) for The Emerald City.
And the Five Worst Cities for Software Developers
They are not bad places in themselves. But they all lack a scene for software developers, and in a big way. What they have in common is a lethal combination of minimal professional opportunities, STEM unfriendly environment, low quality of life in areas that software developers value, and pay that is out of line with the rest of the market. Most rank in the bottom 10 percent in more than one of these criteria. There is little for software developers to maximize in the following five locations, but a lot to minimize.
1. Las Vegas, NV
- Median annual salary: $82,536
- Median monthly rent: $1,031
2. Memphis, TN
- Median annual salary: $77,090
- Median monthly rent: $872
3. Inland Empire/San Joaquin Valley, CA
includes Riverside, Bakersfield, Fresno, and Stockton
- Median annual salary: $85,000
- Median monthly rent: $900 - $1,250
4. Miami, FL
- Median annual salary: $81,344
- Median monthly rent: $1,249
5. New Orleans, LA
- Median annual salary: $72,973 (
- Median monthly rent: $931
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Payscale / RentCafe / RentJungle / NerdWallet / WalletHub / CurbedSF / Codementor / TechInsurance / IEEE Spectrum / TechBeacon / Business Insider / The Balance / A.T. Kearney