The Stack Overflow Podcast

Want to work as a developer in Japan?

Episode Summary

If you’re a developer, your skills are transferable across borders. If you’ve ever thought about relocating to Japan from outside of the country, you’ll find that there are some awesome job opportunities out there.Finding a great opportunity, however, can be a needle in a haystack. It’s this pain point that led Eric Turner to create Japan Dev, a job board that curates handpicked tech jobs in Japan. Eric, himself, is American—a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. When he relocated to Japan, he needed to find a job, apartment, and all of the other things that come with moving to a new country. In today’s podcast, he talks to Matt about the experiences that led him to co-founding Japan Dev.

Episode Notes

Eric explains that great jobs are available for developers in Japan, but it can be tough to find these opportunities.

We talk about interesting startups that are gaining traction in the Japanese tech sector (like Visual Alpha, Treasure Data, and Exawizards, to name a few examples of companies on the Japan Dev platform).

Matt is impressed to learn Japan Dev generates an average of $60,000/month in revenue.

Eric reflects on starting Japan Dev as a side project while he was employed full-time as an engineer.

Eric elaborates on why he doesn’t think venture capital is a good fit for Japan Dev.

Night owls unite! Eric says that his most productive hours are between midnight to 4AM.

Follow Matt and Eric.

Episode Transcription

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Matt Kiernander Hello, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of the Stack Overflow Podcast. I'm your host, Matt Kiernander. I'm a Developer Advocate here at Stack Overflow. And today we're joined by quite a special guest, Eric Turner, coming in all the way from Japan. Hello, Eric. 

Eric Turner Hey! How's it going? 

MK Yeah, very good. I've been excited to chat to you for a little while now because I've been following your journey of Japan Dev for quite some time. Would you be able to tell our viewers what Japan Dev is, what you've been doing in Japan, and all the stuff from there?

ET Yeah, absolutely. So I am originally a software developer. I was born in the US, grew up there. I went to college in Pennsylvania, which is where I'm from originally. But then when I graduated from school I was a little bit unsure of what I wanted to do as I guess a lot of people probably are, and I took a little bit of an interesting path after that point where I basically decided to move to Japan. I had found this opportunity to actually work as an English teacher here and that is how I was able to move over and I essentially started my career here. I did a year basically of the English teaching and then switched to being a software developer at just a tiny Japanese startup here. I got to kind of experience that, but then eventually I went on and decided to start my own business, which as you mentioned, is called Japan Dev, and that is a job board basically for people like me who want to work here in the tech industry in Japan but maybe avoid some of the pitfalls that maybe if you've looked into working in Japan you may have heard a little bit about, and really focus more on the modern kind of Silicon Valley type tech companies. And yeah, so the idea is really curated jobs only from the kinds of companies that I personally would want to work for. So that is what Japan Dev is. If you want to just go on and find a job, I've done a lot of the work in actually curating the companies that I think are going to be a lot more palatable for the more Western or English speaking audience, and I'm trying to showcase those and in doing so, I guess just also prove that Japan can be a good place to work. I've had a great experience here and I'm hoping that more and more people will discover it as a potential kind of tech hub as well going forward. So that's what I'm trying to do. 

MK That's awesome. I'm actually going to Japan later on this year for Christmas which I'm very much looking forward to. But for those of us who are working in the software development industry, you mentioned pitfalls of working as a software developer in Japan, and if you can kind of share what are some of those pitfalls and how do the companies that you represent through your job board differentiate themselves from them?

ET So I think the most common thing that I hear from people who are interested in working here is that they're really looking forward to living in Japan. They love the idea of getting to experience the culture and everything because it's so unique, so different from perhaps where they grew up. But the one kind of caveat is that they're a little bit afraid of the work culture because I think it has gotten a little bit of a bad rap over the years. I would argue in a lot of cases no, it's not, because there are companies, like I said, where you can work and they will actually have a very great work environment, honestly, similar to what you would find in places like Silicon Valley, but it's really hard to find those companies sometimes. So that was the initial kind of motivation behind Japan Dev. I've been working here now almost a decade, and I learned a lot about the environments at the various companies and how to pick the ones that are a bit more modern that are nicer to work for. I want to share that knowledge with people and I think that as long as you are really careful and you do your research, there is basically this pocket of the industry where it's a really great situation if you can get it actually, because there are more and more modern startups coming up that are using modern coding languages and tools and everything, and they are based really on the Silicon Valley way of doing things. So as long as you are able to find one of those and get into a company like that then I think you can get the best of both worlds and experience the culture and learn the language. You get all that kind of by default, but then you can get a similar work environment to what you would have in the US or some other western country as well. So yeah, kind of what I tell people is don't just join any random company that gives you an offer. It's likely that you might have some issues with overwork, potentially long hours, overtime, and that can be a little bit of an adjustment for people, especially at the older school more traditional legacy IT companies. So yeah, it's something to absolutely watch out for and be aware of. But in my opinion, if you're careful, it's definitely not a deal breaker for Japan. 

MK Okay. So you're saying that you would be able to find something that you'd do your standard 9 to 5, 40 hours a week, good career progression, able to be autonomous, all that kind of thing. You have those jobs existing on your job board. 

ET Exactly. I guess in the US the average quality of a software development job is going to be pretty good because software and especially internet enabled tech companies are booming in the US. It's a huge part of the economy. It's proven very clearly that this is a major industry and they have top computer science programs and everything like that, all those infrastructure to kind of support that. But Japan does have a history of hardware and manufacturing, so some people might even have this I guess tech-focused image of Japan, but it really is more from the hardware side of things and it doesn't have that history of software and especially internet as much as you would find in the US. And the good news is that's starting to happen now. Really within the past 10 years or so there are more and more startups, as I said. The startup funding is increasing quickly and it's becoming more and more clear I think that you do really need to embrace software going forward to kind of get to the next level in terms of the tech industry. So I actually think it's a really exciting time to be here because it is still kind of small but there is a growing community and to me that means there's opportunity because it's not already huge like Silicon Valley, but we can kind of get to be here and see the growth of the software industry here. So I think that's really cool. 

MK So we've spoken about the pitfalls of working in Japan. What do you think are some of the best things about working in Japan as a software developer? What are some of the things that would really encourage people to think twice about moving over? 

ET I value the ability to just live here pretty highly, and that is a question I think that everyone is going to have. Is my salary going to decrease? Potentially it will if you are in the US, especially Silicon Valley, places like that. So I think what you kind of have to ask yourself is how much do you value just the experience. For me, that was really important and I did really want to focus on learning the language and things like that as well. So I think just getting the ability to have that experience and learn the language, again, just kind of by default just by being here, I think that is really valuable, at least it was for me. And like I mentioned also, I do think the IT industry here is in an interesting place. It's growing. Again, I find that exciting because if things do continue to grow, then it is potentially going to be very cool to watch how that progresses and be here. I saw the first unicorn here, maybe I'll see the first decacorn next and the next centacorn or whatever it is. So that would be really cool to kind of be here on the ground for that and potentially in some small way maybe contribute to it as well. That's something I think about. 

MK I heard it was quite difficult as, for example, a foreigner coming over to Japan and working with a non-Japanese company. So say for example you move to Japan and you are still working with a US Company, you maybe have US clients or clients from the UK or whoever that might be, finding an apartment. Say if you wanted to settle down in Tokyo or Hokkaido or wherever that was, because you like snowboarding. Finding an apartment and getting a guarantor is something that was very challenging for a lot of people. So what are some of the other kind of gotchas that may come up for somebody who's moving over to Japan? 

ET Yeah, it's unfortunate that one of the first things you have to do when you arrive is find an apartment and that can definitely be a pitfall for some people, especially if you don't have an existing contract with a company, ideally a full-time contract. As long as we have that it's usually okay. In terms of Japanese society, they do like to see stability so if you are working for a well known kind of older Japanese company that's kind of the ideal. 

MK Toyota. 

ET Yeah. If you do have Toyota on that you're good. They're not looking as much at how much you're even earning, things like that. It's surprising. You might think, “Oh, look at my salary. It's so high,” or whatever, but they are just thinking more in terms of stability, things like that. So it can definitely be a stumbling block for people. That said, I was always able to find something. There are a large number of apartments here, so if you are able to be a little bit flexible. I wish that people didn't have to kind of start off with this potentially negative experience when searching, but yeah, that's the main one. And then getting a bank account, sometimes there's this catch 22 that people run into where they don't have a phone number yet but they need a bank account. But in order to get that, they need a phone number. I've heard of people running into that, but usually you can get at least Japan Post Bank. I think pretty much anyone can get an account there so you can kind of get one somewhere and parlay that into maybe a more useful account later, that kind of thing. But yeah, I mean, there's nothing too bad. 

MK You've spoken about how there are some fantastic Japanese companies to work for. So your decision then to go and start your own business, which is Japan Dev, which is a way to help foreigners find good work with good companies in Japan. Why did you go and set out and do your own thing? How has that journey been for you? I know that you are very transparent with your financials and everything around the journey and the process of being not quite a solopreneur because you also have your wife helping out with the business as well. But I would love to hear about your experience building a business in Japan and your motivations for doing that.

ET Yeah, like I said, I worked as a software developer originally and I kind of started at the point where I didn't have any experience. And as I mentioned, I had just taken a year off essentially to teach English. And I had the computer engineering degree which was good, but it was kind of getting a little bit stale then after a year. So I didn't have a ton of options when I first moved out to Tokyo and got my first engineering job. So I had to really hit the pavement and search, and I was interviewing in Japanese. Thankfully I had gotten to the Japanese level where I at least had that. So if I hadn't gotten to that kind of level of Japanese I don't even know if I would have been able to find anything to be honest. But yeah, so I had to search and essentially I was monitoring this list of companies that I had, and I had basically a Trello board where these are the companies I want to work for. And then I'd go to meetups and I'd find out about new companies or I’d kind of stumble upon these companies and I'd add them to the list, and basically these were the companies I myself wanted to work at, so I was kind of maintaining this list. And I switched jobs a couple times to a little bit bigger startups, more established, and then ultimately more foreigner friendly internationally minded startups. And each time I kind of redid that research and added more and more companies to my list and at the end I kind of realized, “Okay, I have this list, maybe 50 to 75 companies or so. I kind of vetted them all. I believe that these are all good places to work and I think there's actually some value in that. So maybe I could share that.” I kind of had this idea just in the back of my head for a long time. I did the usual developer thing where I actually did write some code and made a kind of mock up at one point. Showed it to no one of course. Didn't actually promote it, just built it kind of for my own edification, I guess. There were a few false starts and whatnot, but then in 2019 or so I decided to get back to the project and I kind of built it for real this time with an actual job board and actually launched it. Well, there actually weren't any jobs at first. It was more just literally a company discovery, kind of like a Glassdoor kind of website. The idea was, “Go on here if you're searching for a job. I'll tell you where the good companies are.” Basically just sharing that knowledge that I had amassed over the years and then it became clear very quickly that that wasn't going to be really a viable business model though. There was no really good way to monetize that. And since I did have the concept of reviews, that was kind of an issue for companies as well since they're just very protective of their images of course, and if I wanted to do something where I was charging companies for the business, then that wasn't really going to work because there was this issue of, “We're paying you and then maybe there's someone writing things that we don't like on this page.” So it became pretty clear that wasn't going to work so I kind of pivoted to being a job board and basically just posting jobs and charging companies. Essentially when someone joins the company through the platform they pay a fee, and so it became a real business in that sense and I had the potential to actually make money, which was good. It took a very long time between then and when I actually earned some money, but I learned a lot through that process which was good. And it actually started as a side project, I was still working as a developer. And in the last couple of years I was actually an engineering manager as well, so I was managing a team while then on the side building Japan Dev. So there was a year and a half or so there where that was a bit of a struggle. Actually in some ways the pandemic kind of helped a bit with that because at least I wasn't commuting. And if it hadn't been for that, I don't know if I'd be here right now. But so that helped a lot and eventually some companies finally started to make some hires through the platform. I started to actually get some revenue and it got to the point where it was enough where I felt like it was okay to actually finally quit my job. So I was working at the company I mentioned earlier, Mercari actually at the time. And so about a year and a half ago now I made the decision to quit and go full time. And my wife as well, we work on it together as you mentioned, so now I'm full time on it. And at the time it was a scary decision because due to the business model, it is kind of spiky revenue where one month it'll be high and the next not as high. There's always a little bit of risk there, and I'd had enough months in a row where I was like, “Okay, I think we're onto something here,” but there was always that chance that it could drop to zero later and that I'd be wishing that I'd stayed at my job. So I just remember I was super careful about trying to quit in a way where I didn't burn any bridges and ideally would leave the door open to go back to my company. Because I really liked it. It wasn't like I wanted to leave the company or anything. I just really wanted to give this a shot and I had this idea that I just wanted to try the entrepreneurship thing. I started a little bit late, but I just decided to go for it and thankfully it's worked out well. I wrote a blog post about this story recently and I shared that I was earning around $60,000 or so per month, so nothing crazy, but for a small kind of indie business, it's starting to do pretty well.

MK For a two person team, $60,000 a month is pretty fantastic. 

ET Thank you. It's not always that high. That was a pretty good month. We've had one or two months that are actually even better than that, but I think it's a pretty good average at this point. So we'll see what the future brings of course because it is not the kind of SaaS recurring revenue. 

MK Yes, the subscription system doesn't exist. 

ET Yeah, exactly. It’s little bit spikier in terms of we have good and bad months, but the more months you have where it's above a certain threshold, you feel better and better about it. And I feel like it's going to continue as well. I feel pretty good about the business now. 

MK Great.

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MK Obviously, for a lot of founders and a lot of people starting their own SaaS companies or building their own projects and wanting to take that full time and monetizing and doing that kind of thing, the concept of taking that risk and that plunge and going from the security and stability of a full-time job with a paycheck and benefits and everything else that comes with that to risking it essentially on something that they themselves have built, I can imagine there is a lot of kind of tough conversations and looking at spreadsheets and figuring out how you're going to make this work. So if you are comfortable sharing, what were some of the main things that you wanted to achieve before going full-time? What was there that made you comfortable about making that leap? 

ET Yeah, it's a really hard kind of tipping point to find where you have guaranteed income on the one hand from your day job, and ideally you would at least want to have some income coming in. Because if you at least have some money coming in, that means that you have a business model that at least generally works at a basic level and customers willing to pay for that, so you've kind of validated it in that sense. If you are zero revenue, I would really think about if it's the right thing. I mean, there might still be cases. Also, everyone's different, so this is just my thinking. But I did kind of decide that I wanted it to be doing well enough that it made it so there was not too much risk, obviously there's still going to be some, but at least enough revenue. That doesn't mean you have to be earning as much as you are from your day job. I think that's maybe one kind rule that some people have for themselves, like, “I don't have my income drop.” I don't know if that's necessary. I think it's more just about looking at the business realistically and saying, “Okay, six months ago I earned this. Three months ago I earned this. This month I earned this.” Is it an upward trend? If so, that's a really good sign. You can, like I said, be realistic and you kind of know what you're getting into and there's going to be this point where you're like, “Okay, I think I've seen enough. We're good.” And that's basically what it was for me too. That and just combined with being really, being really careful about how I did quit the job. I mean, they claimed I could go back. You never know if that'll happen in practice or not until you actually ask them. But that is another thing I'd recommend. Do not burn bridges because things happen, so you do want to have that backup. But the combination of that and enough revenue to at least see the path to this replacing that job was good enough for me. 

MK What is the plan for Japan Dev? Obviously you've worked extremely hard to get it to where it is. It's you and your wife working on the platform. What are your kind of goals for the next couple of years with Japan Dev? Are you going to try and expand and scale it, or are you just very happy keeping with the growth and trajectory that you're on and keeping the resources and everything else as they are? 

ET Yeah, I want to basically continue the current trajectory I would say. It is growing not incredibly quickly or anything but kind of slowly and surely, so I want to keep doing that. And yeah, I'm definitely not going to take any investment or anything like that. I just don't think it’s really at a kind of a VC level opportunity, frankly. It would require some major changes, I think, and maybe some new markets and things like that to really be attractive to investors, so that's not something I'm really thinking about. So yeah, just continuing to grow at a steady pace, but also not increase my own time that I'm spending on it. So probably the main thing actually that I think about now is my own day to day, my life, how it's impacting it, and just making sure that I can kind of design my own kind of work/life balance. So I think a lot more about delegating, automating tasks, that kind of thing as well to really improve that side of things. So that's really more my focus now. I mean, it is a lifestyle business at this point. 

MK Yeah. I saw your tweet the other day around your daily routine which would shock some and be very relatable for others. Do you want to run through that real quick?

ET Yeah. I actually think that one really nice thing about having a business that you own is that you can kind of design your own schedule. And for whatever reason I am a night owl and I've kind of fought against this. I've worked jobs where I had to wake up relatively early and it just felt like I was kind of forcing it because my natural kind of tendency whenever I would have long periods off or whatever I would end up back in this schedule where I would basically wake up at around 11 or 11:30 AM I guess and then not really do much deep work during the day, more just lighter work, and then had this period at night between 12 and maybe 4 AM where I was just doing all my kind of deep work. And I don't know why, but that for me just seems to be the default schedule that really just works for me and that's what I'm doing now. So I don't wake up usually until around 11 or 11:30. Today is special. I made an exception for you. 

MK This podcast is at 9 AM. I'm so sorry, Eric. 

ET It’s okay. I normally wake up usually at 11 or 11:30 and then just work for a little bit. I will check some emails and whatnot, go to lunch, come back again, some more kind of light work, just get stuff out of the way so that I can really focus on the deeper side of things like coding or writing, things like that during that period maybe between 11 PM to maybe 3 or 4 AM. So it works really well for me. I know that there are some people who prefer to wake up early and there is this image of the entrepreneur that's wakes up at 5 AM and goes to the gym, all this kind of stuff. But I did want to show people that you don't have to do that. Everyone is kind of different. And I think there's more and more evidence lately that night owls are a thing, and I've kind of just embraced that and I actually think that overall it makes me more productive and it's nice not to have to kind of force this schedule on myself anymore.

MK Yeah, I'm sure David Goggins and Gary V are absolutely rolling in their respective beds at the moment. But yeah, I agree. The more I've kind of learned around neurodiversity and accessibility, not everyone operates the same. Their brains are all wired differently and people need to accommodate different styles of working. And I guess one of the benefits of being an entrepreneur and running your own thing is that if you are one of those individuals who don't kind of conform to the standardized 9 to 5, you have the power and autonomy to do your own thing, which is absolutely fantastic. One thing I did want to also follow up on is that you've spoken about your journey with creating Japan Dev and so far, apart from the switch from the Glassdoor kind of experience to the jobs board now, it all seems like a very smooth, easy, very consistent over a long period of time, but from what we've gathered so far, without too many challenges. Are there any things that you would like to mention around if there were any times that you potentially thought, “What am I doing? Should I quit? Should I go back?” Were there any kinds of other challenges or is this just a really good use case of somebody who's committed to doing consistent work over a long period of time and utilized patience and then reaped the rewards of that?

ET No, there were definitely some periods where I wasn't sure we were going to make it. I alluded to this earlier, but there was this period of time between when we made our first contract with a company and when we actually got our first placement and actually earned some money. And that was really tough. It was basically a 12 month period actually where technically the business was ready to start accepting money. We had companies posting jobs, giving us contracts where if people join the company through the platform we will get paid this fee. So everything was in place and we expected the money to kind of start rolling in, but that did not happen and it was really a grind for literally about a year before that actually started to kind of pay off and we really started to see people join companies through the platform. We were getting applicants coming in already, but it just took a really long time. And during that time we really had to focus on distribution. So it was a good learning experience because we learned a lot about SEO, we did some paid ads and things like that as well, just building an email list. All these things that are really important if you want to have a content focused site. I wrote a lot of blog posts and things like that and really just grinding for about a year, and that was while working full time as well. So I would finish my day job and there'd be the second to-do list now from Japan Dev with all the things I had to do because we had clients. And clients would have requests for us, like, “Oh, can you update this job?” And so it was a full business, we just weren't earning any actual money yet. So that was the hardest part and we got through it. 

MK So was the issue here that all the infrastructure was there and ready to go, but there just weren't applicants coming through and successfully navigating the interview process? Or was there just delays with payment? 

ET No, it was the first one. It's a two-sided marketplace and those are always kind of tough. We had kind of gotten to the point where we had enough companies posting jobs. That was the first step because you need jobs to actually attract some applicants. But then the second side of actually attracting more and more traffic to the site and just getting more and more people applying was a lot more difficult actually. You have to do both. It's tough to really get going, but once you have both sides then it does work really well. But yeah, there's this thing called the cold start problem or whatever you call the chicken and egg problem where you need jobs to attract applicants and you need applicants to attract companies to post jobs. So yeah, there's various ways to get past that but it takes time. And especially things like SEO which ended up being one of our main channels for distribution. They just take time to really kind of compound.

MK And so what was the straw that broke the camel's back in the sense that what was the thing that actually ended up working for you over that period? 

ET Well we learned a lot about just how to kind of promote and distribute what we were doing. Obviously I'm a software developer, so that didn't come super naturally to me. I really had to focus on it. And I said, “I'm not going to be focusing on coding, in fact.” I was like, “Okay, the product is fine. I do really need to focus more on marketing and just putting all that time into that.” At first I didn't really know what I was doing so I didn't have that much of an impact, but like I said, it really started to compound especially with SEO. I optimized the site a lot so that I was capturing emails, making it a lot easier for people to find the jobs they wanted and figure out how to apply, whether it was applicable to them, that kind of thing. And I really just optimized that a lot. And it took a long time there. It was very delayed I would say, but eventually it just all kind of came together. 

MK Great.

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MK And that'll be a wrap for today's podcast. I have been Matt Kiernander. I'm a Developer Advocate here at Stack Overflow. Today I was joined by Eric Turner. Eric, thank you so much for coming on and shifting your schedule around to accommodate a 9 AM podcast. We very much appreciate it. 

ET Of course. Thank you so much for adding me. 

MK All right, and we will see you all in the next one. Bye!

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