Building the Infrastructure That Powers Mercari’s Product and Business—Meet Mercari’s Leaders Vol.2: Mike Koenig (VP of Platform Product)
“One thing I love about my role is that I get to explore new technologies and find innovative ways to use them.”
In the second volume of our series, we spoke with VP of Platform Product Mike Koenig (@Mike). Mike joined Mercari in 2022 after working in tech in the US for about 30 years.
Mike tells us about his passion for technology dating back to his junior high school days, and how he has been leveraging his past experience to help optimize platform systems at Mercari. In our conversation, we dig deeper into how Mike approaches his work and his vision for the product and members as the VP of Platform Product.
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Mike KoenigMike joined Mercari in May 2022. He is currently part of the Platform Team, helping deliver internal services to Mercari’s developers. Prior to joining Mercari, Mike spent 25 years at Microsoft delivering more than 40 products while also teaching software engineering courses at Seattle University. As part of his outside work, he writes mobile and cloud services for caregivers in Africa that help detect jaundice early in newborn babies.
Taking on Mercari’s mission from the small harbor town of Kurashiki
I’m originally from the US; I worked in Seattle for about 30 years before moving to Japan.
My wife and I made the decision to move to her hometown of Kurashiki City, Okayama Prefecture, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Seattle went under severe lockdown measures, which was the source of a great deal of anxiety for my wife. She was worried about her parents back home in Kurashiki as COVID cases were also rising in Japan. I wanted to do what I could to help ease the burden of the pandemic on my wife, so we decided to move to Kurashiki and live together with my in-laws.
Once I got to Japan and settled in, I needed to find something to do. Up until that point in my career, I’d been working in tech and system development, but there weren’t many of those opportunities in Kurashiki. I was reaching out to people and thinking about starting my own company, until one day, I met with a former colleague who was working at Mercari. The company was looking for someone to work on their platform systems, which is exactly the kind of stuff I enjoy doing. It felt like a good match, and so I decided to join Mercari’s Platform Team.
Whenever people ask me what I do, I liken my job to that of a city planner. If we were building a city, for example, the city planner would be in charge of deciding how many water lines need to be built and in which direction. Similarly, in my role at Mercari, I am in charge of optimizing the basic structures that support our developers, and in turn users. One thing I love about my role is that I get to explore new technologies and find innovative ways to use them.
This type of role is usually needed at larger companies, and right around the time that I joined, Mercari was reaching that point. Its internal systems were growing in scale and complexity, and it was time to invest more in the company’s infrastructure. Before I did anything, though, the first step for me was to familiarize myself with Mercari’s internal systems. Mercari’s technologies and approach were completely different from what I was used to, so this was an exciting challenge for me. Once I learned about the systems, I saw that there was still a lot of room for improvement, which was another exciting opportunity to use my past experience and make an impact in this new environment.
In addition to my platform-related work, I also lead the FinOps project (short for “financial operations”). The goal of this project is to create a culture where there is more financial awareness among our engineering teams. Going forward, I hope to work on new features and concepts that will take our engineering infrastructure into the next generation.
Bold challenges and passion toward software that trace back to junior high school
—Would you say you’ve always found excitement in taking on new challenges?
Yes, absolutely. I was working as a developer writing software and building my own systems ever since I was in junior high school. I’ve always enjoyed integrating systems and putting things together, and I saw working on software kind of like playing with Legos, where the fun lies in putting different blocks together to build something entirely new.
I remember back in junior high school, I really wanted a computer. This was the early 1980s, when computers were very rare and most kids did not have a computer at home. However, instead of saying no, my father said that I could get one as long as I earned half of the price of the computer. Challenge accepted! At the time, the only jobs that were available for a junior high schooler like me in my neighborhood were mowing people’s lawns and delivering newspapers, so that’s what I did. Fast forward several years, and I finally had earned enough money to get myself a computer. I would say this was the start of my interest in software.
After graduating from university, I joined Microsoft, where I made 40 different products both big and small. I worked on new technologies and building ideas out of those new capabilities. For me, I enjoy doing things that others might think are difficult or impossible.
One thing I realized from my past experience is that software is always changing, and any software you build will eventually get outdated. So, rather than focusing on the software itself, I became more interested in how we go about building it—assessing whether we are making the right decisions and whether we are learning and growing from those decisions as a group. Once I experienced this shift in mindset, I began paying more attention to the entire journey as an opportunity for improving ourselves. I am always looking for value that I can take away in everything that I do so I can apply it to my next goal or project.
I’m the type of person that doesn’t mind making mistakes. What I care more about is how we respond to these mistakes—identifying what went wrong and making improvements so it doesn’t happen again.
Stay bold, stay flexible: Mike’s vision for the product as Mercari VP
—What is the mission for the area and teams that you are currently overseeing?
Right now, as VP of Platform Product, I am overseeing our effort to build a platform as a service (PaaS). Our current mission is to build a trustworthy PaaS that the rest of the company can rely on. In the long term, I want our PaaS to be designed so well that product teams don’t have to think about it. Just like how you don’t have to think about your lights being on or your water running, I want Mercari’s infrastructure to be so solid that it does not even cross your mind. Our product teams should be able to focus on developing features without worrying about the environment or platforms that they are building on.
In an ideal situation, I’d like everyone on the Platform Team to have a vision for the future so that we can build out infrastructure before the product teams ask for it. If our platform work and the product work are done at the same time, it just slows everything down—it’s ideal to have the necessary features ready to go whenever the product teams want to do something. That’s why I believe it is important for our team to be looking three years, five years ahead into the future and understanding the direction that the company wants to go.
—What is your philosophy toward work as a VP at Mercari?
I have a few, actually. One is that I try to avoid being top-down. I don’t like micromanaging or telling people what to do. Instead, I prefer to share the overall objective of where we want to be in five years, and then I leave it up to the teams to tell me how we can get there. They are closer to the technology, and I trust that all of the smart and talented members on each team know better than me about who to reach out to and what actions to take. My role is to check in with them and align whether we are on track to achieve our long-term objective. That way, each team can take ownership over their own work while heading in the same direction.
Another thing I emphasize is being flexible. I’m a very flexible person, and I have no problem with changing a decision or direction based on our needs at that time. I think this is a very important mindset to have in modern software development. At Mercari, we have a bold vision, and I am always mindful of being open to change and adapting in order to achieve our ultimate goal.
The third and final piece that I’ll share is that I set high standards both for myself and others. I want everyone on the team to be committed to delivering high-quality work for our users, and for them to care about the product and the business like I do. I strive to make the right choices that will benefit our users, and I hope to lead other members to do the same.
—Lastly, what kind of expectations do you have for any future colleagues who might be reading—the next generation of Mercari members?
First, I encourage them to think on their own. There is great value in the ability to come up with your own initiatives, propose them, and then get people on board with your idea. I think that this kind of strong conviction makes for more interesting and spirited conversations.
And second, Mercari is a company that develops products and services for our users, so we look for members who can view things from the user’s perspective. It sounds simple, but this is actually quite difficult to do while working on your day-to-day tasks. It’s important for our members to constantly be thinking about what our users want and need.
Bonus content: How I use Mercari!
I use Mercari in both the US and Japan, and I mainly use it to sell things, rather than buying. When I moved from the US to Japan, there were many things that I wasn’t using anymore, like old toys that I used to collect, so I listed them on Mercari Japan. Last time I was in the US, I also found some game consoles at my home in Seattle, so I sold those on the US version.
I will say, one fun part about using Mercari is how unpredictable it is what other people like or do not like. There have been times where I thought people would love an item but it didn’t get much attention, and then something I listed out of curiosity was bought immediately. It’s neat to see firsthand how different people like and appreciate different things. If I can pass on items that I no longer need to someone else who will appreciate them, I think that’s a great thing for society as a whole.
As a lister, the features that I find most helpful are the automatic price adjustment feature and how the app shows me the price of similar items when I’m listing something. I also find great joy in random moments of the selling process, like when an item that I listed gets liked. And, whenever someone buys an item, I also enjoy taking a walk to the nearby convenience store and shipping the item to them. It’s nice to experience how our service can provide joy to our users in a lot of different ways.
Ending with a behind-the-scenes shot (too good not to include in the article!)