What’s it like to be part of a globalizing company? Merpay’s iOS engineers share their experiences #TowardAGlobalMercari

Mercari’s mission is to create new value in a global marketplace, and we have welcomed talent both domestically and from abroad in order to fulfill that mission. The Tokyo Office now has members from over 40 different countries, and the ratio of global members in the engineering organization has grown from 15% to 40%. In other words, Mercari transformed from a small startup into a multicultural company in a very short span of time. What happened behind the scenes during that transition?

In the #TowardAGlobalMercari series on Mercan, members of various roles and backgrounds will share their perspectives on the changes that happened in the company during the globalization phase.

Our first entry features two members from Merpay, one of the companies within the Mercari Group. Establishing a payment service in Japan requires specific knowledge of the country, and as a result of that fact, Merpay has far fewer global members than Mercari does. What are things like for the daring members who dove headfirst into Merpay? We spoke to iOS engineers Sonny Rodriguez and Matsumae to hear about their experiences.

“It was the perfect opportunity because I felt that the cashless payment services in Japan had a lot of potential to improve.”

Sonny Rodriguez (Merpay iOS Engineer)

—Could you start by telling us about yourselves?

Matsumae:I joined Merpay last June. Before that, I was working on developing manga apps and iOS apps. Merpay hadn’t yet been released at the time, and I got interested in it because it was a chance to work on a brand new service. I wanted to have my own impact, learn about new technology, and work in a team of global engineers, so Merpay was perfect for me. Being able to use English was also a big draw, because when it comes to iOS, English is really important as it’s the standard language for engineering conferences and other such events. I also just like speaking English because it’s fun.

Sonny:I’m originally from San Diego, and I worked in the US as an iOS and Android engineer for several years. I got interested in the possibility of working abroad so I did some searching and got a job in Fukuoka. I worked there for 2 years before moving to Tokyo. I found out about Merpay through a recruiter, and I thought it was the perfect opportunity because I felt that the cashless payment services in Japan had a lot of potential to improve, and I wanted to be part of that change. It’s been almost a year since I joined, and I’ve been enjoying both the job and life in Tokyo. I like that it’s an international city, and I could honestly live here forever.

“Everyone has different English and Japanese levels, but we manage to make things work.”

Kentaro Matsumae (Merpay iOS Engineer)

—What has your experience been like working in such diverse teams?

Sonny:I like how things work in Merpay because Japanese members and global members always try to meet in the middle. We generally use English when communicating through text, and when communicating verbally we just use whichever language works best for the members involved. In many cases, foreign members are expected to speak Japanese and completely adjust to the Japanese work mindset, but Merpay is much more flexible than that.

Matsumae:This is my first time working at such an international company. I was part of an iOS team with 4 global members including Sonny, and all of them came from different countries. We were lucky to have a great manager who understood that the team was made of members from completely different backgrounds, and he helped us work together in a way that was flexible but also felt natural.
All of our documentation is in English, and like Sonny said, we handle verbal communication using whichever language works best. Everyone has different English and Japanese levels, but we manage to make things work.

“Having a diverse team brings the benefit of being able to see things from new perspectives.”

—What are some challenges that the company is facing from the culture and language differences?

Sonny:The company management now consists of both Japanese and global members. That means major decisions are being made by a team of people with extremely different mindsets and opinions. It’s hard for them to decide on what’s right, and there’s no manual out there explaining what to do in these kinds of situations.

Matsumae:True. This has been a challenge for the engineering teams as well. We regularly hold KPT meetings to discuss team-related problems and how to address them, and sometimes these meetings take a very long time because there are so many members with completely different opinions. Having a diverse team brings the benefit of being able to see things from new perspectives, but it also brings the challenge of having frequent disagreements.

Sonny:That’s definitely something I’ve noticed too. I also feel that it’s important for members moving to Japan to have an open mindset, and willingness to change. Afterall you are moving to a completely different country.
Another issue is the way information is shared throughout the company. We use Slack as our main communication tool, but most members post in the language that they’re most comfortable using, meaning that Slack becomes a mix of hundreds of posts in English and Japanese. For those who aren’t comfortable in both languages, it’s extremely easy to miss out on important information, and it leads to gaps in knowledge between Japanese and non-Japanese members. Translating is always an option, but many people may not have the time or mental energy to translate all of their posts.

Matsumae:This is definitely an issue throughout the company. My current team generally posts in English, but I’ve heard some members mention that they tend to ignore Japanese messages when they pop up.

Sonny:It’s understandable, but it’s a particularly big problem because of how quickly things change in this company. This is inevitable as we still function very much like a startup, but we don’t know who’s responsible for gathering new or changed information and sharing it with the relevant members. Not having that information can cause certain members to fall behind or otherwise run into blockers. We engineers just want to focus on our work, but sometimes things happen outside of our control that prevent us from getting that work done.

Matsumae:This is also something that varies by team. Some teams are great at communicating information in a way that’s fair to speakers of either language. Meanwhile, there are teams that require all members to speak Japanese.

“The content was difficult even for native speakers to understand.”

—Being a financial tech company, Merpay involves a lot of specialized content as well as communication with banks and other financial institutions. Did this add a lot of challenges to your work?

Matsumae:Definitely. In my last team, the tech leads were all Japanese and regularly had meetings with external companies. All documents were in Japanese, but the content was difficult even for native speakers to understand.

Sonny:Yeah, a lot of it involved financial and legal content. Even the Japanese members needed to refer to glossaries explaining some of the terms. Getting those documents translated was another challenge on top of that. This a common problem in fintech — a lot of engineers don’t have much knowledge about finance.

“There are a lot of problems out there that we don’t even notice until they’re brought up.”

—I see. How have things changed since the number of global members increased?

Sonny:When there are issues in the company, I feel that global members tend to be the most vocal. During company-wide meetings, we’re usually the ones who ask difficult questions or bring up the things we aren’t satisfied with. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not (laughs). But I think this is one example of a cultural difference. The Japanese members tend to be less vocal when they aren’t satisfied..

Matsumae:Very true (laughs). It’s definitely a good thing though, because there are a lot of problems out there that we don’t even notice until they’re brought up. For example, up until a couple months ago, we didn’t have a sick leave policy in addition to paid leave. This is quite normal in Japan, but many of the global members considered it a big issue, as it’s a standard policy in most other global companies. Because so many people were vocal about it, the company established a sick leave policy.

Sonny:Yep. Having a diverse team can also bring new perspectives when thinking about the product. For example, credit card payments can be done with a variety of methods, such as paying in increments or paying the full balance at once. The payment method considered standard in one country is often different from the standard in another country. Because of this, having members from different countries can bring new perspectives, and help us consider the pros and cons of each method.

“It’s extremely important that we hire people who really care about the product.”

—Do you have any advice to give to the company?

Sonny:Merpay is a young company building a long-term product. I think it’s extremely important that we hire people who really care about the product, and who are willing to put in hard work to build something for the future. Foreigners living in Japan inevitably run into problems with daily life, when setting up bank accounts, and in various other situations. Because of that, those people have things that they want to change, and would be happy to work in a team or company that can address the problems that they’ve actually faced in the past.

Matsumae:Definitely true. Adding to that, the company is currently taking efforts to provide English language training for Japanese members. We’re also promoting the use of English in online messaging and discussions. Right now the training is only provided to a target group of members, but I think it would help if more members were given the same opportunity.

Sonny:Right! And I think the opposite is true as well. I would love to see the company provide Japanese language training for those who need it. Sure, we can use English at work, but what about when we leave the office? Mercari employees aren’t available to support us 24/7. If we need to go to the ward office, take exams to get a driver’s license, talk to the police… we can’t just expect everyone to speak English to us. Even if Japanese isn’t a must at work, it’s definitely necessary outside of the office.

“There are countless company events and even club activities that members can join to meet new people.”

—Lastly, do you have any advice for people considering working in Japan?

Sonny:Living in a foreign country will always come with its challenges like culture shock. Before I came here, I tried to get ready by reading about the experiences of other foreigners who have lived here. I made sure to read about both the good and bad experiences in order to get an unbiased point of view. Reading other people’s stories only teaches you so much, but it definitely helped me prepare for life here.

Matsumae:It’s also good to utilize the support provided by the company. Moving to a foreign country alone is stressful, but people like Sonny provide opportunities to mingle with other employees, destress, and have fun. Every month he organizes a “closing Friday” event where members are encouraged to get away from their desks and enjoy food, drinks, and games. There are also countless other company events and even club activities that members can join to meet new people. They’re not mandatory by any means, but they really do boost morale and help eliminate feelings of loneliness that come with being alone in a foreign country.

Mercari has come a long way since its beginnings as a domestic startup. What began as a small team of Japanese members has since grown into a major company with employees hailing from all over the world. This transition was certainly not without its challenges, but it has paved the way for Mercari’s exciting future. We’re looking for people to join us on this journey!

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Kentaro Matsumae

Kentaro Matsumae is currently a software engineer for Merpay’s iOS Team. He has been in the field for over sixteen years, working on the development of web and mobile apps. He joined Merpay in June, 2018.

Sonny Rodriguez

Sonny Rodriguez is currently a software engineer for Merpay’s iOS Team. Originally from San Diego, he worked in the US as a mobile engineer for several years before moving to Japan. After two years in Fukuoka, he moved to Tokyo to join Merpay in November 2018.

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