Web Development and On-The-Job-Training in Japan
What is work as a web developer in Japan like? We talked to Kanno-san, who learned how to code on the job and is now managing a team of engineers – including multiple non-Japanese fresh university graduates.
Read on to learn about:
✔ Frequenly used programming languages
✔ Working in IT with little Japanese skills
✔ Japanese on-the-job training
✔ The right mindset for getting into coding
University major: Geography
Company: Zenken Corporation
Time at current company: 7 years
Becoming a Web Developer
Florian (F): You’re now working as a web developer and manager. When and where did you learn how to code?
Kanno-san (K): I learned how to program and develop while working. I didn’t do any coding in university; my major was geography. It all started when a project I was involved in at work needed more engineers … they asked me if I wanted to give it a try. That marked the start of my engineering journey.
F: How long had you been at the company at that point?
K: For about six months, I think.
F: Starting from there, how long did it take until you were confident in your abilities?
K: It took me about one year until I was able to make proper applications that were good enough to be used by actual people all by myself. Some of them are still around and when I look at them right now, I think they’re terrible… (laughs) But I’m grateful that I got the opportunity to have the things that I made be implemented in the “real world.”
F: … and after that initial starting phase, you continued down that path and did more and more programming and development work.
K: Yes, but there were a few steps along the way. At one point, I switched departments and spent some time at R&D, where I learned more about programming but also other development-related tasks that come before the actual programming stage – application design, requirement definition, and so on.
F: What kind of projects were you involved with in the past, and what are you doing right now?
K: At first, I did a lot of internal work. The corporate homepage, the recruitment site, websites for my company’s services … however, in recent years, I’ve also been doing more and more work for clients. I’m mostly programming both the front- and backend for websites, including all the functions the client asks for.
Frequently Used Languages & Frameworks
F: What languages and frameworks are you using at work?
K: I mostly work with PHP because it’s used for many of our company-internal websites and the sites of our clients. When talking about PHP, many people immediately think of WordPress, and a lot of my tasks do involve it in some way. However, WordPress has its limitations … so for projects that require more, I use frameworks like Cake PHP and Bootstrap.
F: Do you feel that there’s a lot of PHP-related work in Japan?
K: Yes. PHP has a long tradition in Japan, and I feel most engineers here are aware of the huge amount of work connected to it. More recently, Python has been becoming quite popular as well.
“I think if you know either PHP or Python, you’ll be able to find work without any major problems.”
Aside from those two, there’s also Ruby, specifically the framework Ruby on Rails. A lot of Japanese sites use it, so that’s another option if you’re searching for a high-demand language.
F: Why Ruby? Is it because it was developed in Japan?
K: Yes, I think that’s a big factor. But I think it was also because Rails just happened to be popular back in the day. Back then, people were saying that Cake PHP and Rails were best for building enterprise-level applications, and as a result, a development environment favoring these two emerged.
F: Until now, you were mostly talking about the backend. What about frontend?
Working as a Developer Without Speaking Japanese
F: Do you think it’s possible for foreign engineers to work in Japan without knowing much Japanese?
K: I think about it this way: If you’re strictly doing back-end work, it’s possible to work with a minimal amount of Japanese. As long as you have a proper design, you just have to follow along, and communication with coworkers will work out somehow. Usually, there’s also a lot of documentation for the design, and if it’s necessary, you can reference it using machine translation.
On the other hand, doing front-end work without Japanese is pretty tricky because you’re coding things that are closer to the Japanese end-user. The code itself may not be in Japanese, but you’re required to work closely with editors and designers and that requires a higher Japanese ability.
F: By the way, have you worked with or trained people who started without any Japanese experience?
“There can be a few problems regarding communication, but once you get used to each other, you reach a level where you don’t run into any serious problems anymore.”
Even if they can’t speak Japanese at first, most people gradually pick up on the Japanese terms.
F: So working as an engineer with little Japanese is possible, but you shouldn’t expect to not have to learn anything at all.
K: That’s true, but I don’t think I’ve met a single person who was like “I’m never learning Japanese!” (laughs) Most people come here do so because they like the country and the culture, so picking up the language is something they do voluntarily, to be able to engage with Japan on a deeper level.
Starting out with zero Coding Experience
F: How about the other way round? What do you think about people who high Japanese skills without any previous tech experience? Is it possible for them to become engineers – just by training on the job, like yourself?
K: Well … yes, but it depends on the person’s disposition. What I mean by that is: Do they enjoy engineering?
“If you decide to get into coding because it pays well or see it as a purely strategic decision based on the current state of the job market, you’re likely to fail.”
You have to be curious and interested in how things work, or how you can solve problems – even when you’re not on the clock.
In terms of on-the-job training, there are companies who do it and companies who don’t. At the latter, chances are you’ll face a lot of stress if you can’t complete certain tasks, so it’s important to clear up what type of company you’re dealing with before you join.
F: How do you tell?
K: Well, the easiest way is looking at the job requirements.
“Companies with on-the-job training usually have things like ‘no experience neccessary’ (未経験OK、未経験歓迎) in there.”
Some companies also have blogs on where they talk about their projects or training process, so you can also use that as a point of reference.
F: And ultimately, the existence of on-the-job training doesn’t mean that you don’t have to put in any additional effort.
K: Actually, I think there are quite a few cases where you can make do with only the things you learn on the job. But if you don’t expand beyond that, you lose out on a lot of flexibility and limit the scope of your future work. It will also affect how others see you, influencing things such as pay raises and promotions.
On-the-Job-Training at Japanese Companies
F: At the moment, you’re managing two non-Japanese fresh university graduates. How does on-the-job training look at Zenken?
K: Both of them have an educational background in IT; they learned the basics at university in their home country. However, their knowledge is very broad and general. We’re now training them for more specific areas of expertise.
F: What about newcomers without relevant degrees and little experience?
K: After they join the company, we test out their abilities. Everyone gets a mentor who they can always ask about anything.
“We start with letting newcomers do something we consider to be relatively easy, see how they perform, and measure their skills that way.”
Ideally, we’d already know their exact skill level when they arrive here, but you can’t always tell. Anyway, for the first few tasks we look at how they work, how fast they are, things like that … and based on that, we assign them other projects that are a good fit for their skill level. For people who have never coded before, we start with things that don’t require any real programming.
A Look into the Future
F: How do you think the Japanese development landscape is going to change in the future?
K: Currently, it’s often said that in order to keep up with the times, Japans has to go through a digital transformation until 2024. What’s causing problems right now are not so much the programming languages themselves but the legacy systems that still remain in a lot of places.
To be honest, I don’t think there’s a big need to learn the newest languages – as soon as you get familiar with and master the two that I mentioned earlier, it will be fine. Both PHP and Ruby are still widely used and will continue to change and adapt to new demands.
F: Finally, what advice would you give to foreigners who are thinking of working as an engineer in Japan?
K: I would tell them to not only learn how to code, but also to learn to enjoy engineering and programming. If you do something that you’re not able to enjoy deep down, stress builds up faster and you start having a bad time.
“Sculpting an environment for yourself that makes work enjoyable is key, in my opinion.”
In the same vein, I would tell them to be curious about Japan’s culture and all the country’s other aspects.
F: What matters most is passion, both towards programming and Japan. I see! Thank you for the interview!
Interested in working in Japan?
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