A Career in IT in Japan – Part One, The Benefits
I frequently get e-mail from people who are graduating from university or coming off a JET course, who are wondering what to do next. While you may have romantic notions of careers in international finance, design, or research, by and large these approaches require both an appropriate education and an ordained entry into an industry-related company. My guess is that those people contacting me about such career changes do not have such keys to the doors of power, and still in state of change.
In my opinion, one of the most portable (conducive to job hopping, traveling, and changing countries of abode) and stable means of earning an income can be found from IT, or Information Technology. Most people start as a Help Desk Analyst, software tester/developer, or technician/engineer, then progress up the technical ladder for 10-15 years, topping out as a systems architect, software/networking/security specialist, or engineering resources manager.
After peaking in their late 30's or early 40's, IT people often progress on to people or operations management positions in their companies. Particularly, I see senior people move on to HR and Finance. Why is this? Well if you think about it, there wouldn't be many people who know a company's systems and processes as intimately as the IT staff. I have seen technology managers finish implementing 3-year IT infrastructure projects and literally be the only person in the company who really knows how it works. This isn't necessarily a good thing for the company in terms of IT continuity, but certainly is a great booster for the IT person's career prospects with the company.
You find IT people at all levels of all companies, and usually they are treated pretty well - both in Japanese and foreign firms (just the salary is usually lower in Japanese firms). In the best instance, the IT staff are appreciated for their ability to make a direct contribution to the company's bottom line, by virtue of the leverage the company gets through advanced, competitive systems. You can tell if a company values its IT in this way by checking whether or not there is a CIO on the board. Or does the IT Manager report to the Finance Director? If the latter, then the IT team is probably considered to be a cost center rather than an active contributor. In the worst case, the IT team is regarded as company plumbers and electricians - people you wish you didn't have to pay, but when your toilet is backed up, you're glad you have them! Even this level of appreciation is not a bad thing.
One of the best things about being IT person is that you're almost recession proof. In the bad old days for technology, during 2001-2003, many foreign companies, and particularly banks, laid off large numbers of banking and back office staff, and yet almost without exception the last to go were the IT staff. Certainly when the economy in Japan picked up again, they were the first to be hired back on. I think this is a function of the fact that there is a perpetual shortage of bilingual engineers in Japan, and that multinationals would rather ride out a difficult patch than go to all the time and cost of re-staffing their teams again.
IT people are particularly valuable for foreign companies in Japan. Not having the connections and relationships of a domestic company, often advanced IT systems are the sole source of competitiveness. Good examples of this are to be seen in the banking, insurance, and logistics industries, where foreign companies have made major inroads against their Japanese competitors on the basis of their ability to systematize the operations with IT. 24-hour ATMs, online banking, automated billing and policy production, package tracking, and online ordering are but a few indispensable services that didn't exist 5 years ago before foreign companies created the systems necessary to offer them.
Lastly, I will say that I am very happy to review resumes for anyone considering an IT career but unsure of what to do next. The only requirement I ask is that you MUST have bilingual skills and at least advanced PC user experience. You can send resumes and questions to email@example.com. Yes, I answer EVERY e-mail personally.