The Diverse Face of Japanese IT

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2000

by Jacob Adelman

It's long been said that those who come here to work from the world's poorer countries do the "three Ds": the dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs the Japanese don't mind passing off onto others.

But the recent wave of highly skilled technical professionals who are finding work in Japan's computer and Internet industries might very well warrant the addition of another, more upbeat "D": digital.

Experts from Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere in Asia are lending their expertise to Japan's booming, but still young, IT industry. In return, Japan is giving them a chance to exploit skills that may have gone unused at home or unrecognized in places, like Silicon Valley, that are already saturated with technical talent.

Many IT professionals from developing countries, like those featured in the following profiles, say that the opportunities they've found in Japan beat out those they think would have existed for them elsewhere. While the United States and Western Europe were the first choices of many as they prepared to go abroad, not a single one regrets coming here. Japan gave all of them the chances extended by an industry in its exciting early stages that desperately needs their skills.

However, this opportunity was not always available to them here. Paul Levine, president of Access Technology, says that it's only in recent years that his tech-centered headhunting firm has been able to place workers from the developing world in local companies, although doing so now accounts for roughly 10 percent of his business, which still concentrates on Japanese candidates.

"There was a prejudice against foreigners, especially from developing nations: East Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, Africa. These guys were not wanted," he says. "I would say that it really started changing in 1995 or 1996, when the growth in demand for IT professionals started to outstrip the supply."

This growth hasn't slowed down yet, nor is it expected to, and as it continues to create jobs faster than the country can train people to fill them, foreign professionals have been jumping in to do so.

The number of foreign "IT professionals has been increasing because of an increasing need for these people in companies, research institutions, and other organizations in Japan," wrote a deputy director of the Ministry of Labor's Foreign Workers' Affairs Division in an email.

According to statistics released by the Ministry of Justice, 3,760 foreign nationals entered Japan based on their technical qualifications in 1999, up from 1,758 in 1993 -- a 114 percent increase. Of last years' tech-qualified entries, 1,657, or 44 percent, came from Africa, South America, or elsewhere in Asia, where most developing nations are located.

Meanwhile, while the number of new entries from these three continents increased by only 21 percent between 1993 and last year, the number of those coming from the same countries with technical qualifications increased by 79 percent over the same period.

The deputy director acknowledges this growth: "For example, the number of Asian people who have the residential status of 'Engineer' [which includes IT professionals] is on an upward trend at 10,707 in 1999. This number is expected to increase further."

Levine says he has similar expectations.

"The rate at which Japan organically produces IT professionals compared with the demand for them makes their future prospects very good," he says. "I'll guess there are five times as many foreign IT professionals in Japan than there were five years ago and five years from now the number will probably be five times bigger than today."

Another placement agency, Pasona, is actually turning Japan's need for foreign IT talent into a business strategy. The Japanese firm recently announced a plan to open a liaison office in India to recruit Indian engineers into Japan's IT industry.

"There just aren't enough technical workers in Japan," says Pasona's public relations leader Ippei Abe. "So we're targeting India, where there are a lot of them."

Indeed, Indians are already becoming a formidable presence within Japan's IT industry, as they have long been in the United States'. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, India provided the fourth highest number of new entries into the country with technical qualifications last year. (Besides US Americans, only Chinese and Koreans, who have long been living and working in Japan, were ahead of them. It's only since the end of 1998 that Indians have even been listed as a specific demographic on Tokyo's quarterly census of resident aliens.)

Still, one can't simply show up in Japan and start looking for a job. Many foreigners working in Japan's IT industry first studied at Japanese universities. In fact, a recent Ministry of Justice survey states that the government accepted 97.3 percent of all applications that foreign students filed to change their status to employees.

But those wanting to find work here right off the bat have to prove their qualifications before even coming. Only those with an advanced education in the skills they plan to practice, or ten years' practical experience, can apply for a visa to work here, and even they have to prove that a job is waiting for them.

While Pasona, which has no plans to expand its recruitment efforts beyond India, is securing permission from the Ministry of Justice to recruit job candidates that meet these criteria, it can't secure visas itself.

What it can and does plan to do, however, is inform Indian engineers, who have been going in greater numbers to work in US and European IT firms, about opportunities in Japan.

"The biggest problem is a lack of knowledge," says Abe. "Indians can do the same work in Japan as in America or Europe, but they don't know how to find it."

Ahmed Shamim
Hector Bastidas
Rahul Deo
Jun Geng
Sadi Guel
Mohammed Huseini
Yuri Kazakov
Devajyoti Sarkar
Fanar Syukri
Guoqiu Tang


Ahmed Shamim, Bangladesh, Network Integrator at Uniadex

Before finding his niche as a network designer and administrator, Ahmed Shamim says that he spent years with "no massive plans."

And so the young Bangladeshi was doing what those without "massive plans" all over the world have done throughout time: he was staying in school. After graduating with an M.A. in international business administration in Niigata in 1996, he intended to stay in Japan as a doctoral student in energy planning. But with some time to kill before the resumption of his studies, he took a job with a manufacturing firm in Niigata, where maintaining the plant's small, primitive network was among his responsibilities. "I was doing administrative work, plus very basic computer stuff, like setting up Windows and maintaining the simple network," he says.

By staying on top of the most recent developments in the field via the Internet, though, Ahmed realized that what he was doing was just the very tip of the IT iceberg and that he wanted to get to its base. "I turned out to be an IT person," he says. "So I quit the idea of going to graduate school."

Instead, he went to work for Tokyo-based Internet service provider interQ, where he learned on the job the technical skills he never formally studied. While Ahmed admits that he had to struggle with the new technologies over the first few months, and often felt "like a fish out of water" among the other workers with technical degrees, he found the work ultimately satisfying when he realized that he could really do it. "Once I entered interQ and passed some time there, I began to feel that this was the right path for me," he says. "When I work, I enjoy setting up and configuring products into networks. I feel confident. I feel like, 'Hey, look what I'm doing!'"

Ahmed doesn't think he would have found this path had he gone to the United States for his graduate studies, which he would have done had scholarship money for American schools been more readily available at the time.

"In Japan, they have the capability to invest, but what they don't have are the human resources to maintain and set things up. Managers picked up people without formal training and gave them the opportunity to learn on the job," he says. "In America, it's much more competitive."

Hector Bastidas, Mexico, Director of Engineering

When Hector Bastidas came to Japan from Mexico in 1989, going to the United States was not a viable option for him. Though he admits that the situation has improved over the last decade, at that time, he says, American attitudes made it hard for IT specialists from Latin America to find work in the United States.

"It was a difficult market for Latin American people," he says. "Americans didn't see us as high-level IT workers."

But Bastidas says the Japanese were willing to give more weight to the value of his skills than to where he came from. "In Japan people think more like, 'Yeah, we have this job and you are able to do it,'" he says.

The downside to this, he says, is that one is welcome here only as long as the need for these skills exist. "They treat you really good, but they don't encourage you to stay."

Bastidas says he has no intention of remaining here forever. Indeed he never even considered leaving Mexico until a Japanese physician who came to speak at the college where Bastidas was serving as headmaster invited him here to help develop medical software.

Since leaving that company after five years on its development team, Bastidas worked through a number of shorter stints as a programmer and network administrator, before entering his current position with all-round IT solutions provider Technovox about seven months ago.

While his primary responsibility there as director of engineering has been to coordinate the efforts of the company's hardware and software development teams, he says this will soon change when he takes the helm of Technovox's new data center. Bastidas says managing the center, which will provide hosting for ASPs, major ISPs, and backup and disaster-recovery facilities, will be the toughest assignment of his career to date.

"It's the biggest challenge I've ever had," Bastidas says.

Although the state-of-the art technology that the data center will utilize is less prevalent here than in the US, he says opportunities for foreigners like himself to take on the challenges brought by technical advances are actually more numerous here. "I think the environment is better here than in the US," he says. "The foreign community is very small and everybody knows each other, so it's very easy to network with people and get new opportunities," he says.

Rahul Deo, India, Group Consultant at NIIT Japan

Studying Japanese was once just a hobby for Rahul Deo, before the language came to shape his career.

"I wanted to learn another foreign language and thought I would go for one that didn't even use the same alphabet as English," says the Indian software engineer. "That's the only reason I joined the Japanese course."

Now, nearly a decade after cracking open his first Japanese textbook in his hometown Pune, Deo is here employing his combined language and technical skills as a consultant for the local branch of NIIT, one of India's largest IT service providers.

His current assignment at NTT Data, developing an online service that matches potential employees with companies that have positions to fill, has him coordinating between the Japanese client and the programmers back in India, who are actually writing the code.

"Since I know the language, in this project my role is that of a coordinator," he says.

Deo got his start working for Japanese companies soon after graduating in 1992, when he went to work in India for Fujitsu's local subsidiary. There, his still-limited Japanese ability got him placed on a team of programmers who were developing software for Japanese clients.

Deo's first 15-day stay in Japan for Fujitsu in 1996 was followed by a number of short trips here, but his first long-term engagement didn't come until two and a half years ago, when he joined NIIT.

"I'd been coming and going," he says. "I came for 15 days, then for a month, then for three months. I wanted to stop this and come with my family for the long term."

Since relocating here, Deo's Japanese proficiency has allowed him to work closely as a consultant with a number of local clients in their own language and seeing the Japanese at work from such an intimate vantage has yielded in Deo an immense interest and respect for their work ethic.

"I want to know what drives these people to work so hard. I find, for them, their company is like their first home. Why don't they want to go home to their families?" he says. "I don't like it, but I know if I can get 50 percent of this life from them, it will keep me going for another 20 or 25 years."

Jun Geng, China, Web Development Group Leader at Digital Garage

Before long, Jun Geng predicts that technological development in his native China will meet -- or even exceed -- that in Japan.

For now, though, China's technology only matches Japan's in his country's universities. And this disparity has resulted in an abundance of highly educated Chinese who can't find jobs at home to match their qualifications.

Geng belongs to this group, which is why, after concluding his studies, he wanted to leave China for somewhere that offered more sophisticated outlets for his technical skills. "In China a lot of people graduate from university, but only half can get a job that suits them," he says. "But it's easier in other countries: there is more work to do for people with a college education."

Geng found a position at a small software company soon after coming here in 1990 and, over the years, worked his way through a number of Japanese software firms. While these positions did give him the opportunities to apply his skills, as well as develop new ones, that he may not have had at home, the stiff hierarchies at the firms where he worked often frustrated him. "In a traditional Japanese company, you have to do exactly what people tell you," he says. "My boss says, 'Do this,' and that's what I have to do."

This is why Geng is pleased with his current position, which he found through headhunting firm Access Technology, at Digital Garage. He says Digital Garage's less conventional structure gives him more flexibility. "This is a venture company. I like that," he says. "In this company, I can think for myself about how to satisfy our customers and use my own knowledge to help find solutions."

During the two months Geng has been Web developer at Digital Garage, which designs and maintains ecommerce sites, he has worked on the programming and design of the company's own shopping site, WebNation. Geng says he enjoys this and wants to continue working on similar projects for the foreseeable future.

But when China does catch up with Japan in technical fields, which he says is only a matter of time, he'll be ready to go home. "A lot of people already have good ideas for software in China, and it's getting more and more foreign investment," he says. "The differences between China and Japan keep getting smaller."

Sadi Guel, Turkey, Systems Engineer at Tivoli Systems Japan

While Sadi Guel is enthusiastic about his job at Tivoli Systems' Tokyo office, he also has an eye on the value of working in Japan to his future. With the high volume of technological exchange between Asia and the West, the Turkish systems engineer says that learning to relate with Asians on a professional level now will make him more valuable to the high-tech firms in Europe he hopes to work for years down the line.

"Knowing about Japan and working in a Japanese company is very good experience," he says.

It's experience that comes at a price to Guel. While Tivoli is an American firm, he says it operates in Japan like a native one with all the inherent frustrations: the late nights, the indirect way of approaching problems, the vertically oriented organization that hampers communication.

But putting up with all this -- and learning from it -- is worth it for Guel. "I want to understand how the Japanese work: that's why I'm here. That's why I'm willing to work until late at night," he says. "I want to do what they do and learn why they are so successful."

Guel says that he has additional advantages that help him understand how the Japanese live and work, such as his Turkish cultural background, the Asian element of which he says gives him some insight into the Japanese mind.

"In Turkey, Asian and European cultures are mixed," he says. "That's why I can understand the Japanese people from the perspective of my own life and my own culture. It helps me work with them and maintain good relationships."

In addition to the cultural experience, Guel says his job promises him tremendous professional satisfaction. He joined Tivoli in late February and says he is working toward an expertise in customizing, configuring, and managing the company's networking products, as well as supporting the customers who use them.

"It's never boring. There's always something new to do," he says. "There's a lot to learn."

Mohammed Huseini, Ghana, Director at First Ghana Communications

In 1997, Mohammed Huseini was just another guy with a Web site. "It was about Ghanaians in Japan," says Huseini, who had until then been working as a civil engineer. "Activities that will interest Ghanaians back in Ghana: pen-pals, food, restaurants, those kinds of things."

As it turned out, though, some very important Ghanaians back in Ghana were viewing his site that year, the year in which his country's president made a visit to Japan. "The embassy called me and asked me to prepare myself to join the president's entourage during its stay in Japan," he says.

This encouraged Huseini to give up civil engineering for the IT business, the first steps into which he had taken years earlier by teaching himself Web design while working in Singapore. Web design, his reasoning went, was a non-capital-intensive trade he could practice in his own cash-poor country when he returned.

But he never did return. Instead, he married the Japanese woman with whom he had maintained a four-year pen-pal correspondence and moved here to be with her in 1995. And it was here that he launched the Web site that launched his own IT career.

Huseini followed up on the success of his site by designing others for clients, and maintaining them on third-party servers. Then network administration entered his repertoire when the Ghanaian embassy's staff, whom he met during the presidential visit, asked him to configure a LAN for them. "Then I didn't have any idea about networks, how they work or what they are," he says. "But I was ashamed to tell them I can't do it, so I told them I could. Then before the contract was signed, I had to get a book on networks, read it, and construct a network in my office to see what it actually was."

Huseini now offers a wide range of IT services, both as the sole full-time employee of First Ghana Communications, and on a contract basis as a consultant for other, larger firms.

He says that Japan's respect for talent and hard work allowed him to build his IT career here, despite being a foreigner without a formal high-tech education.

"Here you make what you make out of what you do. If you are successful, you get a good response for it," he says.

Yuri Kazakov, Russia, Systems Integrator at Wintermute Technologies (Panache Corporation)

For Yuri Kazakov, living and working in Japan offers a mix of professional opportunity and personal security he doesn't believe he'd find elsewhere.

"I have an interesting job; I make good money for my family and myself; plus I know my children are safe," says the Russian computer engineer. "It's very comfortable."

In exchange, Kazakov brings to Japan the expertise he gained studying computer science in Russia during the Soviet era, when technical teaching and research received considerable state funding. It's an expertise Kazakov says he wouldn't be able to use at home: With the breakup of the Soviet Union, public spending on high-tech research-and-development projects almost completely disappeared, leaving Kazakov and others like him without the challenges their sophisticated educations had readied them for. "Mostly it was money for military and aerospace projects, but they were interesting," says Kazakov. "But now there's almost nothing. To find a good job -- an interesting job -- using the most advanced technology is almost impossible in Russia."

Kazakov says he came to Japan because it offered him opportunities that just weren't available at home to exploit his skills. He initially came with his wife and two daughters five years ago on a one-year postdoctoral fellowship to work on a network systems project a number of corporations were cooperating on. "After one year, my family and I decided this is a good country," Kazakov says. "For children it is a very safe country. There are no guns or drugs."

He spent the four years following the conclusion of his fellowship as a programmer and software developer with Advanced Solutions, before assuming his current position at Panache's new Web-projects division, Wintermute Technologies. Kazakov now designs and implements server-side technologies for the projects the firm executes for clients.

As Kazakov gains experience working on commercial Web projects to complement his preexisting expertise in software design and network systems, he hopes to broaden the role he plays beyond mere implementation to encompass planning and design. He says he looks forward to applying his talents toward Wintermute's growth, while he and his family enjoy the comfort and safety of life in Japan.

"I think my future is in this country," he says. "I don't want to go back to Russia. I just want to stay here."

Devajyoti Sarkar, India, Co-chairman and CTO at Q Corporation

Where Japan's ongoing financial reforms and its recent Internet boom intersect, Devajyoti Sarkar sees opportunity. It's the confluence at which the Indian entrepreneur is building Q Corporation, the Web-content provider for online financial institutions that he cofounded in February.

Q Corporation is also the result of Sarkar's own personal orientation toward Japan, which dates back to the university internship he served in India at a collaborative manufacturing effort between Suzuki and a domestic company. "Indian cars at that time used old technology, and Suzuki represented an infusion of new Japanese technology into the field," Sarkar says.

Wanting to get closer to the source of this technology, Sarkar accepted a traineeship with IBM in Japan after graduating in 1989. His interest in banking software was piqued one year later, when he joined Hitachi's information systems' division and helped design software and server technologies for the financial industry. "I was quite fascinated, because here was one industry that was almost completely information oriented," he says. This fascination led him through a number of technical positions with financial institutions and finally to ING Barings, where he served as CIO for the North Asia division. From this vantage, Sarkar saw the niche he would create Q Corporation to target. "In Barings, I had the opportunity to get exposed to the fundamental changes taking place in finance in Japan," he says.

Like the deregulation of the US financial sector in the 1970s, Sarkar says, these changes, the so-called Big Bang financial reforms, will spawn new banking and brokerage services. Japan's positive attitude toward new technologies makes the Web the obvious place for these services to go, and he says Q Corporation is poised to put them there.

When it makes business sense to do so, Sarkar says he and his American partner plan to expand the company abroad; Silicon Valley is one target they have in mind. "That's where our competition is; that's where the technology is being created; that's where most of the momentum is," he says. But he has no plans to move to the Valley himself, nor was he ever tempted to do so during his 11 years in Japan, despite the rapid advances being made there in his field. "I was just learning so much here," he says. "It always made so much more sense to stay."

Fanar Syukri, Indonesia, Researcher at NEC Networks

Japan was not Agus Fanar Syukri's first choice. When he applied for one of the study-abroad fellowships that his country's government was offering to recent graduates of Indonesian high schools, he wanted to go to the US. "But my English was too poor," he explains.

Still, he says, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. While he still believes that the world's most advanced technologies are being developed in the United States, he says it is Japan that finds their most innovative applications.

"Now I'm glad I came to Japan," he says. "For studying basic technologies, America is best. But Japan knows how to implement them."

Agus owes the experience implementing technologies he's gained at NEC to another twist of fate. When he came to Japan in 1989 as a student, he never intended to work here. He merely wanted to study -- which is what he did, first as an undergraduate, then in a master's program. But in 1998, unsure whether his fellowship would be renewed, he decided it was time to put what he had learned to work in the private sector.

"I wanted to keep studying, but I worried about the fellowship and whether I'd find part-time work," he says. "So I talked to my professor, who had some friends in the industry, and he introduced me to someone at NEC."

On a research and development team at NEC Networks, Agus develops technologies that allow cell phones, personal computers, and other wireless products to communicate with one another. This experience has given him a practical look at the technologies he approached as mere theory in school.

"I'm learning how NEC manages production," he says. "I don't just study theories, like I did in university. I now know the process that goes into making a product. This is very important to me."

Working at NEC has also given him first-hand experience with another of Japan's assets that he says he did not encounter in school and wouldn't have found in such quantity in the United States: teamwork.

"People work so well together here," he says. "When I go back to Indonesia, I'll practice the same Japanese-style teamwork."

Guoqiu Tang, China, OEM Support Engineer at Phone.com

Ask Guoqiu Tang where she grew up, and she'll tell you "near Shanghai," although the metropolis is actually a 10-hour train ride from her rural hometown.

"In China, that's near," she says.

It's no wonder, then, that growing up surrounded by China's vastness, Tang chose a career developing something that can make these distances a little more manageable: wireless-communication technology.

It's also easy to imagine that she would pursue this career in Japan, where 10 hours on the train gets you clear across the country. In fact, it's Japan's compact size and its well-developed communication infrastructure that she likes best about the country. Combined, they offer an ease of mobility that she couldn't find at home. "In Japan, I can do what I like," she says. "In China, getting from one city to another is difficult and information is not so widely spread."

When, after nearly eight years of living tucked away in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, first as a student, then as a software developer for Panasonic, Tang decided she wanted a taste of big-city life, Tokyo, where she saw her current position listed on the Web, was just an hour away. "I could change my job freely," she says. "In China, that's difficult."

Since last year, Tang has worked at the local branch of American firm Phone.com, which develops Web browser software for cellular devices. She is responsible for "porting" the software onto mobile phones and supporting the vendors that use Phone.com's technology.

After living another few years in Japan -- and later hopefully spending time in the United States studying business -- Tang says she wants to return to China, where she intends to help foster the boom she foresees there in wireless-communication and Internet technologies. "In the future, digital communication and the Internet will be more popular in China than in Japan," she says. "With China's entry into the WTO, many foreign countries will go to China and form companies specializing in information technology. There are already many Chinese companies doing it."

Tang says this will form whole new channels of communication over the formidable distances between Chinese towns and cities. "I think Chinese information technology will grow to be much be bigger than it is now," she says. "You know, China is a very big country."

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