Working in Spain as a Software Developer

Spain is a great place to live in general, anybody would agree on that to a large extent. Of course things would be better if instead a 16% unemployment rate we had something closer to our nothern European neighbours, and that's why employment stability is one of the biggest concerns among Spaniards. But, hey, you can't beat Spain at sunshine and lively atmosphere.

The Spain I left in 2008 in the middle of its worst economic crisis ever, was very different to the Spain I found when I returned ten years later. I was 24 years old when I decided that I needed to live some adventures abroad, improve my level of English (which was close to nil) and develop my professional career.

The truth is that by then I was not even sure I wanted to continue developing software. I used to like it, but I had  already been some years preparing myself for a not so comfortable future. Spain had been a place where students were "wasting" their time attending University instead of working as soon as legally possible, where construction builders could make twice or thrice as much as a software engineer and probably work less hours. A Java or .NET programmer would be lucky if his or her salary reached 1.000 EUR a month after taxes, and accessing a house could mean getting indebted for 6 or 7 times the annual household income which, in banking terms, was considered subprime.

That's what software developers were back then, subprime.

Our generation had reached adulthood thinking that the future would hold for us a sweet reward to our digital learning efforts. We wanted to be like the programmers of the 80's and 90's, not so much regarding their geeky appearance but with a similar financial wellbeing. But we found a very competitive profession where investments were in the hands of waterfall-minded fancy people not afraid of suggesting workers to work longer hours so that they could buy a fancier car next year (I mean the bosses, of course). So I was not going to miss the profession much, I thought. I would continue coding for fun, but I was open to a change of profession for my pocket and happiness' sake. Heck, I actually considered becoming a Spanish language teacher for foreigners..

Some months later, in Ireland, I was a technical support guy (one of the nice buddies that anwers the phone and resets your password or asks you to turn off and on again your PC at random requests) making 5 times my last salary as a junior Java developer in Spain. My English was getting better and I could drink more beers without feeling guilty about spending my savings on not so necessary things.

A few years later I moved to New Zealand and my software development career really took off. I discovered agile practices, Scrum methodologies (yes, the plural is intentional), unit and integration tests, SOLID principles, clean architectures,... And more importantly, I discovered that we, software developers, were actually respected and needed people. They even made me a permanent resident in New Zealand on the skilled demanded workers basis! It was easy to change jobs, to grow as a professional, to feel that companies value developers. Ok, ok, I kind of recovered my passion for commercial software development.

Sometimes I talked to people in Spain and I heard them still talking about "informaticos", a term valid for both a software architect and the guy that knows how to replace a graphic card on a PC. I used to think that one day I would return. I really wanted to, but I needed to prepare myself mentally and economically for my return. It's not easy to have a comfortable life with a successful career and think that coming home would change that too much.

Eventually I started to apply for jobs in a few coastal places in Spain. I didn't want to live in a big city like Madrid or Barcelona, where on the other hand most of the good opportunities are. I wanted to live in a mid size coastal city where my foreign partner could adapt better surrounded by tourists and were English speaking workers would be more valued.

After a few job offers that were below my lowest salary expectations I finally got a good opportunity to work for a British company in Malaga.

I don't work now for the same company although I remain working for a foreign company where English is the official language. So these are the not always written rules of the Spanish software development world I have been discovering since my return:

  • English is mandatory. There are good developers in Spain, but not so many with a good command of English language, so having a level good enough to negotiate, understand and share complex ideas is a must in a global digital world. In fact, in most of the foreign companies you don't even need to speak Spanish because team members are foreigners and English is the official working language. Also, if you want to keep up to date with the latest trends, or properly grasp the important ideas and insights from the most respected people in the industry, you need English. You can't expect to get good and complete documentation or software literature in other language.
  • Spanish companies don't pay as well as foreign companies. The difference can be quite substantial. Speaking about gross salary (before taxes) Spanish companies usually offer something in the range of between 12.000 EUR to 18.000 EUR for juniors, 18.000 EUR to 24.000 EUR for middle and up to 30.000 EUR for senior developers, while foreign companies working with international projects in international markets usually offer between 15.000 EUR to 24.000 for juniors (although they often don't want junior developers), 24.000 EUR to 35.000 EUR for middle and up to 55.000 EUR for senior developers. If you are lucky (and very good) and work for a good international company you can still be a developer and have a salary of up to 70.000 EUR.
  • Salary differences are high and depend on cities and technologies. While in Madrid, Barcelona, Malaga, Valencia or Bilbao you can find good salaries similar to the ranges I talked about, salaries in other cities don't reach that level and see how the good developers don't stay for long. The same happens with technologies. Generally a .NET, Java, Scala, Javascript or Python developer will get a higher salary than a PHP, Cobol, Visual Basic or Delphi. It's also about offer and demand, this is something that happens everywhere.
  • Spanish companies are generally lagging behind. There are very honorable exceptions, don't get me wrong. There are very good Spanish companies over here and most of them will work in international markets. In fact one day if I have my own company, I am pretty sure it will be awesome and I am completly sure it will be Spanish. But generally I still see the typical and traditional software consultancies where developers are encouraged to stop coding and start managing people in order to increase their salary. Can you believe that? I swear it's true. There are companies where the most experienced developers, assuming they have been too scared or conformist to abandon the company, are told to become some kind of project managers and leave the important stuff (yes, the real work, the real business value) for the not so experienced guys. Speaking about lack of vision, it's like having a good football player in his best and most successful moment and tell him to become the coach. It's obviously a terrible way of doing business, but that's why managers make big bucks and the good developers don't last long there.
I must admit I am very positively surprised with the opportunities we, software developers, have nowadays in Spain, they are much better than before. I have been myself involved with the task of interviewing many candidates to join the companies I have worked for and it's not easy to find good and complete profiles. The industry needs more developers. The more developers the more investment, the more investment the more interesting projects and the more collaborative knowledge to achieve great things in the digital world.

I encourage Spaniards to study software development. You don't need to go to University, in fact there are more and more IT companies that consider that University studies are not really needed anymore. I also encourage foreign software developers to apply to offers in Spain, even if they can't speak Spanish.