Our time in Japan coincided with the FIFA World Cup in Russia. A related joke that we heard by a local comedian goes like this; “why is Japan not hosting the World Cup? Because every game would go into overtime.” Working long hours has become so embedded in Japanese culture that people make fun of it. We heard that some contracts of employment include the written presumption of overtime, often as much as 40 hours every month. In some places there is a culture of not going home until the boss leaves. In other cases people feel they stay because their peers are doing so, there is a sense of guilt leaving on time when others in the team are staying late. The more we dig, the more complicated the reasons become – it is too simple to pin in it on one thing like management pressure.
However, things are changing. The Agile and Lean movements with principles of sustainable pace and eliminating waste are changing things. An ageing population in Japan is also having its effects. The younger generation sees things differently than their elders, they want more of a work/life balance. People from overseas are joining Japanese companies, people that are less inclined to stay in the office to impress the boss or worry about what their colleagues think if they leave on time.
Fundbook is a new startup based in the heart of Tokyo, with a web engineering team made up of a number of different nationalities and a Japanese CTO, Shinji, who is only 27 years old. They are an example of the changes that are happening. They are a business thriving on the changing demographics. Fundbook is a next-generation mergers and acquisitions matching service aiming to revolutionise the current market. They help investors to find the best deals and company owners find successors with a matching corporate philosophy, a growingly important service given the ageing and declining population in Japan. Given that they have been able to move into a beautiful office in the plush Toranomon Hills Tower in the heart of Tokyo, and the number of people working at Fundbook has nearly doubled in just five months, business must be good.
The web engineering team has members from Catalonia, Italy, US, Canada and Philippines. The Scrum Master, Donna, is also from the Philippines, and she facilitated our visit. She told us that it was never an intention to have such a multi-national team, instead it was a consequence of the job market. It is hard to find good software engineers, employer and employee in Japan show each other a lot of loyalty and people stay at the same company for a long time. And so, given limited availability at home, the startups often turn to foreign talent instead.
At the time of our visit, Donna had been at the company for five months, having been at a large global company previously, so she already had some experience working with teams with members from different nations. Compared to Japanese teams where consensus is reached calmly and methodically, her current team have meetings that can be heated. But Donna sees this as a positive thing; a collision and a challenging of ideas means that the best decisions and designs that the team is capable of emerge. Her skill as a facilitator and coach has been key; while the team members were aware of Scrum, they were still in a forming stage when she arrived. With a Shu-Ha-Ri approach she is taking the team and Shinji, who takes the role of Product Owner, on a journey beyond doing the Scrum events mechanically to a place where the underlying Agile principles and Scrum values are understood and embraced. Her approach has always been a pragmatic one. She had a conversation with Shinji when she first joined the company so that she could understand what the company goals were, and promising “if Scrum doesn’t take us there then we try something else.”
It helps that Shinji is open and chose to adopt Scrum for the right reasons. He wanted true visibility of what was going on and speed to market to get the fledgling business off the ground. He hired Donna instead of a traditional Project Manager to help Fundbook on the Agile journey. He has made enough time for the Product Owner role to do it properly, for example, as well as being available to the team during the current sprint, he spends time working together with the UX expert on prototyping designs and creating wireframes which are discussed with the team in Product Backlog refinement meetings so that there is always at least one or two sprints worth of stories ready to go. The UX expert pairs with the developers during the sprint, working on the detail in collaboration with them at just the right time. As well as pairing, the team have grown to regularly use mob programming, a concept introduced by Donna that the team was unsure of at first, but one that is now firmly part of their toolbox.
One obvious drawback with a multinational team working in Japan are the language barriers. English is the common language for the team, but it does mean that the team are unable to have direct communication with the people using the applications – the marketing agents and the actual end customers – so Shinji as PO plays an even more critical role here. As we saw, the development team are co-located with the agents and Shinji sits with the team. Early feedback has been designed into the process with user groups set up. Before the launch of the main site, they had released a ‘teaser’ site to garner curiosity and to see if the original business idea would generate much interest. These practices, together with a mature level of test automation (there are no testing specialists) ensures the product is going in the right direction and with high levels of technical quality.
Donna told us a story about when a bug was found by a customer. It only affected IE11 but was a problem to the users still using that version of the browser. Shinji chose to abandon the sprint and focus efforts on fixing the problem. In more traditional companies in Japan, this may have led to root cause analysis, scape-goating and problem reporting, a lot of effort which doesn’t actually include rectifying the problem. The team simply fixed the problem and learnt the lesson to do more thorough testing in IE in the future and moved on. It is also a reflection on the desire for perfection in Japan, I suspect many companies in the west would have advised those customers to use a different browser.
The Fundbook team are creating an innovative product that meets a need, evolving the product based on customer feedback with an engaged team who ensure the highest possible quality – all this and they are usually out of the office by 6pm. Its certainly no joke.
Many thank to Donna, Shinji and the web engineering team for seeing us and we wish you all the best on the Fundbook adventure.