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Mobilus- Multicultural Team Inside Japan
We spoke to CEO Tomohiro Ishii, who came prepared with data and a friendly, open demeanor about the experience of building, working with, andmaintaining an anomalously multicultural team for Japan.
Of 49 total employees, 23 of those working for Mobilus carry foreign passports. While the majority is Vietnamese, the current roster includes engineers from Sri Lanka, Armenia, Russia, Poland and the U.S. One of their most popular products is Mobi Agent, a chat system enabling customer support via web or SNS channels such as Facebook and LINE. Utilization of AI or an FAQ system in conjuntion Mobi Agent enables the realization of an array chatbot services as well.
—Does Mobilus actively recruit overseas or are do you seek foreign nationals already in Japan?
Most of them have been in Japan, except in the case of Vietnam. We have had more than one situation in which we went over there to interview but they didn’t quite have enough Japanese ability and so we asked them to study Japanese language in Vietnam for three months first, but those people are few. Basically, we hire in Japan.
—Do you have any official policies or quotas with regard to the balance of Japanese to non-Japanese in the office?
No. We just hire good people when we find them. Mobilus is a developer, so 40 of the 49 employees here are engineers. These days, Japanese engineers are in such demand that they are almost impossible to hire. It’s especially true when it comes to the kind of Android and IOs mobile applications that we develop. If we weren’t a(n international) company like this, there would have been no way for us to keep up with the speed of the industry, no way for us to succeed.
I think it’s a comfortable working environment here, and perhaps doesn’t seem very Japanese company-like. Most of our project managers and leads have international experience, and all of them have, at the very least, a strong command of English. Even half of our board members are from other countries. One American, a Vietnamese, three Japanese.
The engineers are coming to Japan to get technical skills. Someday they want to go back and establish their own company. They’re very entrepreneurial. Mobilus is kind of famous in this area, where were are in contact with the latest in mobile technology. So engineers, they can expect to learn a lot. So I think that is one way we are attract talent.
People might leave when they reach certain level, but that’s ok. So far they stayed.
—What level of language proficiency do your employees have?
Most of them are between JLPT* N2 and N3. In general, it would be pretty difficult to work for a Japanese company if you didn’t have N2, and N3 would be even more so. As long as we can understand each other–we can resort to English if we have to. Our founder is also Vietnamese, as well as one of our project managers, and our CTO.
There are only maybe two people who either can’t speak Japanese at all, or can use only English. There is actually one person who can speak neither Japanese nor English, only Vietnamese. But that person is very, very skilled technically. The whole situation comes with some limitations, but yes, there are people who don’t yet have strong Japanese skills on our team.
*Japanese Language Proficiency Test
—When you are thinking about expanding the developer team, do you think about onboarding people who speak Japanese, or people who speak English?
Well, no matter what, we can’t get around the fact that we are in Japan, so yes, we will give preference to those you can speak Japanese. But for the core technical team, if there were someone unbelievably talented who couldn’t speak Japanese? We’d probably take them.
—How do you evaluate the cultural fit of people who haven’t worked for a Japanese company before or with people who haven’t been in Japan for so long (though Mobilus isn’t typical)?
We don’t really take that into consideration. With engineers, we value technical skills above everything else. And we also think about their coding ‘manners’. For example, do they test exhaustively after coding? Do they write really clean, orderly code or are they messy about it? Are they meticulous with explanation tags? Those, of course are things we have to teach. We have found that Vietnamese engineers like to create, but don’t enjoy the aftercare so much. We teach that as they work.
—So what I am hearing you say is that ‘cultural fit” for Mobilus is the ability to learn how to write code cleanly, and how to develop these aftercare manners. If they don’t have that ability, then it is not a cultural fit.
We have a Japanese staff who are more of outliers culturally, more surprising culturally than foreigners! But they are so highly skilled!
—What is the advantage of having a multinational team? Is there anything they can do that a wholly domestic team wouldn’t be able to do? Could you give examples good or bad?
Well, an advantage would be that, especially in the startup space where speed is everything, once you get investment you need to act quickly on it and bring on more engineers. Because we are already an international team, we can find engineers and move quickly (Japanese engineers are hard to find). That has got to be the greatest advantage.
On the management level, our American co-founder really has his antennae up about technological trends in the Silicon Valley. He keeps up with the latest information, and that information is shared within the organization. Most of that information is only available in English as it happens.
If we talk about disadvantages, well, communication. There are times when we can’t communicate 100% effectively. When we delegate tasks, if we don’t break everything down into fine detail, we run some pretty big risks. And occasionally we run into some pretty big surprises.
If I have to look for anything else it might be something like Chinese New Year, when the Vietnamese staff really wants to go back home. And that is regular business season in Japan, so have to keep the projects on track.
—Do you have any advice for Japanese companies who might be looking to hire non-Japanese to expand their team? Especially those ones which might not have any idea how to start?
Well, more often than not, people can’t adequately convey what they want to say in Japanese during the interview. But once they actually start, especially with engineers, it works itself out. They start talking in code lingo and so on. You’ll find that is easier to get along without great Japanese than you thought. So I would recommend not getting so hung up on the language ability, but really focus on the person’s skill set and ability to do the job.
And then to help facilitate communication within the team, it is pretty important for the management to have experience dealing with this kind of situation. It should be someone who is really patient and accepting of others. It is going to be a lot more challenging without someone like that.
—There are probably some companies that think that they probably should hire non-Japanese but perhaps fear hiring foreigners might be a kind of hassle in terms of getting a visa and so on. Are there any hurdles? How much trouble is it, really?
Actually, getting a visa is really easy. In fact, Japan is one of the easiest countries in the world for an engineer to get a working visa. So that’s not an issue. I think just try it once and you’ll learn what it’s like. If it is too much risk to take someone on full-time at the beginning, start with temporary staff. And once you see in the organization with the foreign engineers integrated, it might work better than you imagine, actually.
A lot of companies pre-set the hurdles high for foreign engineers, with interviews and Japanese language ability, and they are very hesitant to hire. But once you get one or two in, then they open up so it’s just a matter of getting use to it.
Also, it probably a good idea to get a few people in from the same country. It can be helpful in terms of teamwork, in terms of education. It’s going to be easier for them to help each other out.
I think we are the type of international company that welcomes engineers who want to try using this kind of technology or to enjoy creating a certain kind of AI and mobile projects. We really are a company of engineers, who, regardless of nationality, are making great things together.
IT startup founded by an American and a Vietnamese, which aims to bring a new communication tool sthrough Mobile and AI technology. With its chat technology expertise, Mobilus develops an auto/manual chat support systems designed for contact center operations as well as relevant OEM products