On the Front Lines of Globalization: Mercari’s Frontend Team #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 second entry is an interview with two members of the Frontend Team, a particularly diverse team within Mercari’s engineering organization. Koki Hashimoto and Paipo Tang are two members who have witnessed Mercari’s rapid globalization from the inside. What actions have they taken to adjust? What issues do they still face? We sat down with them to hear their stories and thoughts.
“I realized I would need to use English in the future.”
—Let’s start from the beginning. Why did you join Mercari?
Hash: I joined Mercari in October 2016. When I joined, Mercari was just starting to get famous in Japan. I went to a lot of meetups and events for engineers, and that’s where I first heard about it. I also used the app. I thought the idea of creating value by selling things you don’t need anymore set Mercari apart from other marketplaces, and decided to join based on that. Not a very unique reason, I guess. (laughs)
Frontend Engineering Manager, Hash
Paipo: I mastered in business, so I’m interested in the second-hand market. From an economics standpoint, the second-hand market should not exist because of information asymmetry, and in the end, this kind of markets will shrink, but in Japan, the second-hand market is doing really well. As a frontend engineer, I think what we can do is fill the gap of information asymmetry. That’s why I thought this was a good market I’d like to try taking on.
—What was Mercari like when you joined?
Hash: I joined as the third frontend engineer at Mercari. At the time, Mercari was mainly made up of members from Japan, and there were no members from overseas in the frontend team. There were members from overseas in the Tokyo office, but they could all speak Japanese. Then, around January 2017, Pramendra Gupta (a frontend engineer from Nepal) joined. I never really had the opportunity to work with him, so I didn’t have to use English at the time, but it made me realize that I would need to use English in the future. The team now known as LET (Language Education Team) was offering one-on-one English lessons, so I decided to take them, but I first started seriously using English in the office when Igor Ovsiannikov (a frontend engineer from Russia) joined. A few months after he joined, we started working on developing the transaction screen together, and that was the first time I had to use mainly English in my work.
Paipo: I joined Mercari last July. At the time, we only had around four or five foreigners, including Igor, but after that, more and more started joining. I’m kind of lucky because in our team, all members, including my manager, can speak English.
Frontend Engineer, Paipo
Hash: When Paipo joined, I was his mentor. My English wasn’t very good, so I panicked a bit.
Paipo: What, really?
Hash: I really couldn’t speak English when you joined! I was very nervous.
Paipo: I couldn’t tell. (laughs)
Hash: I was taking English lessons, and I had been working with Igor, so my spoken English was enough to get by. But giving detailed directions and explanations of tasks was difficult. To be honest, I still struggle with that now.
Paipo: I think we mostly talked about technical terms, so I was able to understand what I should do based on those instructions. Compared to other members, Hash’s English is pretty good, so my communication with him was fine.
Hash: Thank you. (laughs)
Paipo: But I had some difficulties communicating with other Japanese members. I’ve been in Japan for almost three years, and I used to work in another Japanese company, but when I joined Mercari, I couldn’t speak Japanese at all. I’m taking Japanese lessons here, because my projects have a lot of product managers who only speak Japanese, so I have to be able to understand what they’re talking about.
When I first joined the company, communicating during work was fine, but when we did other activities, like team building dinners, people started using Japanese a lot. When that happens, it doesn’t feel very inclusive.
—I imagine it’s frustrating to be left out of the conversation.
Hash: But I feel like in our case, I’m the one that the other members are most considerate of. I can’t understand English perfectly, so when we do one-on-one meetings, I can’t catch everything, but the other team members take the time to make sure I understand. Paipo did a great job of explaining things I didn’t understand.
Paipo: Yeah, I explained a lot. (laughs)
Hash: Do you remember when you joined and I assigned you a task about SMS verification for the web version of Mercari? I couldn’t explain things well enough, and you ran into problems…
Paipo: I remember that! There were warnings on GitHub written in Japanese, and I misunderstood them, so I did something wrong. Then I got some negative feedback from other engineers.
Hash: At the time, Paipo didn’t understand Japanese very well, so what the engineer was really trying to say got lost in translation.
Paipo: They were using Japanese on GitHub, so obviously I wouldn’t be able to understand. I don’t think that’s very global. It’s not what engineers at a global company should do.
Different cultures, different approaches
—After Mercari started proactively hiring overseas, the Frontend Team gained a lot of new members. Did anything happen as a result of members from overseas increasing so suddenly?
Hash: Our team had so many global members already, it wasn’t much of a problem. Actually, a lot of them got assigned to our team because we had so many. But it was really difficult for me, because eventually, I was the only Japanese member on the project of developing the transaction screen.
Paipo: At the moment, all of our team members are from different countries.
—That’s really impressive! What do you think are the advantages and challenges of working in such a multicultural team?
Paipo: I think it’s really cool. Everyone’s from different backgrounds, so even if we’re looking at the same problem, we all use different approaches. We also chat a lot about other countries’ cultures, not just our work.
Hash: We weren’t intentionally trying to gather people from all different countries, it just happened naturally. It’s given me an opportunity to learn about a lot of different cultures.
Paipo: But I think it does also come with a lot of challenges, because different countries have different perspectives, which means we have a lot of different opinions. When we have meetings, we need more time than other teams because we take longer to discuss.
—Has that ever caused conflict?
Paipo: Sometimes. But in our team we communicate well, so if I feel hurt or angry, I’ll talk to that person directly telling them they hurt my feelings. We do have conflicts, but we’re very open with each other, and we’re more like friends, so it’s fine. I think right now we have much fewer conflicts in terms of globalization, because people can use a common language, whether that’s English or Japanese. Global members in our team are learning Japanese, so whether we’re at a dinner or a meeting, we can understand each other better.
—Which language would you say is used more?
Hash: Our GitHub is entirely English now. When Paipo joined, some people were still using Japanese, but now it’s all in English.
Paipo: Slack too. I think we’re the only team in Frontend that does that.
Hash: Some members are taking Japanese lessons, but we mainly use English with each other. That said, one issue we have now is that it takes a long time to learn English. If we were to get a new member who couldn’t speak English well, we might have to use Japanese more. Communication with them would have to go through me, or other English-speaking members. I don’t think we’d be able to have direct communication between everyone.
—Do you get new members often?
Hash: We used to, but recently the teams became more stable. Until about a year ago, Mercari would shuffle team members around regularly, so every quarter you would be working with different people. In terms of communication and team building, there wasn’t much growth as a team, because at the end of the quarter, everyone would be moved around again. But now that members don’t change teams as much, it’s a lot easier to work together, and communication is a lot easier too. This was a problem for everyone, I think, not necessarily a language barrier problem, but it certainly didn’t help.
Meeting in the middle
—As the team and the company grows, I’m sure we’ll have more and more members joining Mercari, both from Japan and overseas. Are there any issues you think should be solved to make that process smoother in the future?
Hash: Hmm…I think one thing that’s still a problem is team assignments. Even now, members coming from overseas tend to get assigned to teams that have many English-speaking members. If a team doesn’t have English-speaking members already, they don’t get assigned new English speakers because it’s a potential communication issue. But that means that the English speakers all get assigned to the same teams, and some teams never get English speakers, so I want to break that cycle. I think we need to create an environment where all teams are able to accept English-speaking members, and English-speaking members can succeed in any team.
—What about you, Paipo?
Paipo: I personally think if we want to become a global company, we should make English skills a requirement when hiring. Language is one of the most important things in globalization. Without language we can’t even talk, and if we can’t talk, how do we get to know each other? How do we work with each other? I think for our team we’re gradually including that as a requirement. For example, right now, we have a skill test where candidates must use English to write a description. It’s not like we have to decide “okay, from now on we’re only hiring people who can speak English,” but we should gradually target this goal.
Hash: You don’t have to speak English perfectly, but in the job description for frontend engineers, we do require the candidate to be able to communicate in English in reading and writing. It can even be through machine translation, but you have to be willing to try. As for speaking, learning to speak English takes time, so I think it’s okay for someone to learn after they join. I became more comfortable with English because I was in a situation where I had to use it here, after all. And we do have English language learning support here, so you don’t have to be able to speak it perfectly on day one. But I think at the very least you need to have the motivation to learn English.
Paipo: We can’t force people to learn a language against their will. You have to be motivated. Some members don’t join classes even if we have the resources to provide them. I don’t think we should set it as a policy or a rule in our company. It’s all about motivation. We can’t force people if they don’t have that.
—What was it like at your previous company?
Paipo: My last company required employees to reach certain scores in TOEIC, an English language proficiency test, but they didn’t help foreigners learn Japanese. It was only one way. What I think Mercari does well is offering language support both ways—English for Japanese members and Japanese for members coming from overseas. I really like the idea of both sides meeting in the middle, and I hope that continues.
“There was definitely a change over time.”
Paipo: Now we all speak English when we go to dinner. Do you feel like that’s not inclusive?
Hash: I can’t catch 100% of what’s being said. I know it’s a good thing for the company that I use English for communication, but it is a little frustrating to not be able to keep up with the conversations all the time. What do you think? Do you feel frustrated?
Paipo: I think I did in the past. Now, our team all speaks English, so I don’t have to worry. Also, my Japanese is getting better, and sometimes I can use my Japanese to talk with others, so I think things are getting much better now.
Hash: Recently, I assigned you to a project that was working on adding features to car-related categories on the app. That project mainly used Japanese for communication. Did you have any problems?
Paipo: Most members of the project were Japanese speakers, so we had problems communicating product requirements and details. GOT (Global Operations Team, Mercari’s inhouse translation and interpretation team) members helped us a lot, and Hash helped us communicate too. But it didn’t feel that inclusive compared to working in my team.
Hash: At first, there were a lot of communication issues. But I think by the end, the project team was better about considering communication methods for English speakers. They were requesting GOT support and preparing documents in English. There was definitely a change over time. But it helped that Paipo was studying Japanese, so maybe it was more that Paipo adapted to the rest of the team, not the other way around.
Paipo: Yeah, I started using Japanese to talk about specs.
Hash: Do you need GOT support in our team meetings?
Paipo: I don’t think we need it anymore.
Hash: Maybe I do. (laughs) At first, we used to have GOT in all of our meetings, but we haven’t used GOT for the last four months or so. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but it’s certainly a good challenge for us.
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After working as an Android engineer and a frontend engineer at IIJ from 2013, Hashimoto joined Mercari in October 2016. In Mercari, he has worked on a wide range of projects in the frontend domain, including the management screen used by Mercari’s customer support, the web version of Mercari, and the application’s transaction screen. He became an Engineering Manager in April 2019.
Paipo Tang is currently a frontend engineer in Mercari. He’s interested in functional programming languages, compilers and browsers. Now he’s working on the re-architecture of the item transaction page in Mercari.