How I started to build my career in Japan

POSTED BY DANNY CHOO On Thu 2011/10/06 23:05 JST in Japan

In the How Discovering Japan Changed My Life article, you read of how I made it to Japan but I didn't manage to cover the nitty gritty of what happened after I got here. Today we take a gander of what my life was like between 1999 and 2001 and how I started to build my career here.

First photo taken with wifey outside our station during our first Winter in Japan.

This photo of our first apartment was taken in the Summer of 1999 when we first arrived in Japan.
We first stayed at my wife's brothers place for a while as we were hunting for a place to live. We settled for a small place far out in West Tokyo. The further out you go from central Tokyo, the cheaper rent becomes. Commute was 2 hours per day to and from Ichigaya.

Photo taken on the same day near the station. Yes I started to wear all black even before I came to Japan ^^;

Shinjuku 1999. Having just arrived in Japan after living my entire life in London, I would constantly have dreams of me walking about in London - the occurring dream was of me walking across a zebra crossing - can anybody tell me what it meant? ^^;
Have always wanted to live and work in Japan and didn't miss London so don't think the dreams meant that I wanted to be back there.
Do you have any reoccurring dreams that you want to share? ^^

The first camera we got when we arrived was this Fujifilm - had a load of noise which put me off from buying any of their later models. Even though I had this camera, I didn't take as many photos as I do now which I really really regret. Blogging has helped me document my life for the past few years but I wish I did it before the blog too.

As a result, I dont have that many photos to document my early years in Japan which is really regrettable ToT

Our first phone. Came with a removable scanner which we never used. We got most of our household electronics (refrigerator, TV, rice cooker etc) from Akihabara. I think it was from Sato Musen. If you buy a load of stuff in one go, you get a discount - and when the shop attendant says "OK, I can do this price for you", they never say the price verbally and show you the calculator instead.

This is when you are prompted to say "Mou Chotto!" and put your hands together like you are saying a prayer. You should get a further discount. If you have no shame then you can keep doing this until the attendant gives you a get-out-of-my-face-before-I-slap-you look.

We arrived during a time when cassette tapes were still in use ^^;
This was a wireless Walkman with remote.

My first job in Tokyo was with the scientific journal called Nature. This was my first desk - small n cramped in an open space office with no partitions.
Was great though as I could hear all the office Japanese that I was not taught in university. For example, when cutting the phone, you would rarely say "sayonara" but something like "Hai" which is usually extended as "Haaaai"

I first started out in the typical Salaryman cosplay. My work was to sell as many subscriptions of Nature through the Internet and conventional means.
When I first started out at Nature, the only skill I had was Microsoft Frontpage ^^; Not sure if its still around but it was a WYSIWYG editor for making webpages.

Over time at Nature, I started to learn how to use Dreamweaver which I ended up using for many years until I switched from using tables for layout to CSS. I then started to teach myself PHP and MYSQL outside of work time. These skills were used to make forms, landing pages and manually coded content pages.

The "conventional means" which I mentioned above referred to direct mail and magazine subscription postcards which I used to design. I learned how to use Illustrator and worked closely with the printing company where I gained much experience in print buying.
I also looked after subscriptions in Korea so I processed those orders and answered customer queries too.

The girls at Nature were really cute and carried guns.

That mac was a horrible experience and made me wonder how mac users got anything done. I loved my Windows machines at the time.

While my interest in anime and games got me to Japan, when I got here, I started off as a PC otaku where I would go back n forth to Akihabara to buy computer parts - and take them back because of a resource clash.

For a while I didn't have a case as it took up too much space in our small apartment ^^;
Gotta love those thick IDE cables. No USB at the time either!

But then I decided to get a computer case to keep everything tidy - I remember carrying that case from Akiba - was darn heavy ^^;
It was the constant incompatibility between devices, clashes of resources, driver hell etc etc and the amount of time needed just to maintain a desktop that made me decide never to get one ever again.

Do you build your own computer or buy one from the shelf?

This Poll is now expired

Even though I was mainly a PC otaku, I have always liked 2D girlies and went to the Comiket back in 1999 - not much change - queues still went on forever back then!

Its the year 2000 March the 4th and the PS2 goes on sale - completely sold out everywhere. I remember going around to Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Akihabara looking for one.
What was you doing in the year 2000?

Xmas 2000 in Shinjuku. The store with the red n yellow neons at the top of the building is Sakuraya who went bust a few years ago.

On the way back home from work. Our hub at the time was Shinjuku where we would change for the Seibu Shinjuku line to head back to Higashi-fushimi.

This is the only screenshot that I have of my first domain at ( which I don't own anymore ). Cringe when I think about the domain name that I chose ^^;
It was built manually from HTML in Dreamweaver and was a place where I could start to experiment with web technologies. I started to improve my graphic and coding skills through wanting to improve the site - then got the domain in the year 2000.

Learning skills outside your job or schooling is essential to building a career - these skills that I picked up through self study helped me during every step of my career.

Unlike central Tokyo, we got quite a bit of snow every year where we lived - one of the good things about being in the sticks.

And when it snows we always have snowball fights ^^;

Wifey about to pellet me with snowballs ^^;

Due to the lack of space, I used the cupboard as my workspace. The air circulation in there is pretty bad and I would often get sick sitting there after working for long hours.

Looking at these photos, it looks like I had smaller eyes back then?!

Was a hardcore Sony fanboi at the time and didn't mind the zillions of compatibility issues that came with the hardware.
How are Sony laptops these days? I'm guessing the same? ^^;
By this time I started to do stuff to make income on the side - mainly design work.

Did I mention I was a Sony fanboi? ^^; Even though our apartment was kind of small, the place served us well and helped me build my career in Japan.

Furniture in Japan costed a bomb before Ikea came along. We got much of our stuff from discount stores or made furniture ourselves. Here I've just done shopping at Tokyu Hands for material to make a DIY stand for our TV.

Taken with wifey at Yokohama Landmark Tower.
For many years I wore those metal frame glasses. Up until this day, my terrible hair style has been the bain of my life!

More evidence of my Sony fanboi past - the Sony PDA Clie which ran on the Palm software. Looked cool at the time but had too many software restrictions.

2001 was the year that I saw Pearl Harbor and AI on the same day - had a headache after for being in the dark staring at a large screen for so long ^^;
Many thought that AI was terrible but I thought it was good.
I also loved the action in Pearl Harbor. Given the nature of the film, you may think that Pearl harbor would not have done so well in Japan - which is why they marketed it as a love story as you can see from the poster.

The Nature offices moved around the corner and I was doing the milk rounds looking for another job. After speaking to many recruiters, I realized what my market value was given my experience and skill set.

Its always important to understand what your skill set is and how much they are valued at. Keep your options open all the time and speak to folks in the industry who can advise you on job opportunities and your market value.
You know whether a carton of milk is expensive or not because you know the market value - do you know your market value? If not you must find out today - not tomorrow.

Speaking to recruiters will open your mind and grow your network over night. You can easily find recruiters though Google Sensei. It costs nothing to speak to a recruiter - but can cost your career if you dont speak to one. When you speak to a recruiter, you will either say after the meeting "OK, I'm ready for the next step and have all the skills that I need" or "crap, I'm kinda useless".

I had a ton of job interviews, spoke to a load of recruiters and always remember the day when I was running for an interview in a suit during a hot n muggy Summers day in the rain without a brolley.
The more interviews you go for - the better you will become at handling them through experience.

I remember having an interview with Microsoft who asked me what a web deployment process should look like. At the time all I knew was that a website was uploaded by FTP - it was only after I joined Amazon later that I learned that a web deployment process involved production and development servers, QA, builds, catalog reconciliation and more. After that interview I thought to myself "crap, I'm kinda useless" ^^;

But it was easily to learn more - I had the Internets to help me.

You always have to ask yourself, are you a knife...


are you a knife.

On the balcony of our apartment with our new mobile phones. I think my boobies are a cup bigger now from eating good Japanese food.

During my milk rounds, I found a Japanese recruitment site called Job Dragon where I chose what type of job I was looking for and submitted my resume. Got a call from the CEO of Job Dragon (Mark) who requested a meeting with me. Turned up for the meeting and was surprised to see print outs of my website that Mark had with him.
"Did you really do this?" Mark says referring to the designs. The above screenshot was what he had printed out. I was really embarrassed! The screenshot says "2003" but it was probably some bug in my programming ^^;

The blue objects were all made and rendered in 3D Max and the rest made using layers in Dreamweaver. It was this experience where I learned how important it was to have an online profile. To this day, my online profile is the one tool that I have used constantly to build my career and I recommend everybody to seriously consider making their own profile - even if its just a Linkedin account.

People are not going to guess your abilities if you don't tell them. Being quiet about your abilities is a bit like waiting for somebody to knock on your door and say "Hey! You are the person who has all the skills we are looking for - you are hired!" - Its just not going to happen.

The CTO (Nick) then came in to have a chat and then discussed the possibility of me working for them. Amongst the conversation, I suggested how a mobile site would be beneficial for Job Dragon to help increase usage of their service.

From 1999 through to 2001, wifey and I decided to save money and not get a mobile phone but then thought it was time to invest in a pair as I wanted to make a mobile site for Job Dragon - to prove to them that I could do the job. Don't have a screenshot of the Job Dragon site that I made but this was the mobile version which I whipped up at the same time.

Nick seemed to like what I did but wasn't convinced until I did further tests online - he sent me a link to a site where I was required to take tests in HTML and Dreamweaver. Passed both tests and soon after I was offered a full time position working for Job Dragon as a Contents Producer.

This photo taken at Job Dragon where I was doing design and some ASP which I just didn't understand ^^;

About 3 months after I joined Job Dragon, they hit a spot of financial bother and had to let me and a few others go. It was my first experience of being laid off. The CEO Mark lead 3 of us to a room to give us the bad news. Mark cried and I was pretty much in shock - I left a stable job at Nature only to be laid off a few months afterwards at Job Dragon.

But everything in life happens for a reason and every event is a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that one collects during their journey in life.
As Job Dragon was a recruitment agency, they also had many contacts in the industry and they weren't going to leave us strung high n dry.

My resume was sent to tech companies such as eBay Japan and Amazon Japan. Had a load of interviews and got 4 simultaneous offers ^^; Had a few interviews with Amazon at their offices in Shibuya and over the phone with various Program Managers at HQ in Seattle. At the end of the interview loop, my boss Anne flew over to Japan to make sure that I was the one to fit the role.

So here is a question I was asked when interviewing for the position - how would you answer. There is a correct and incorrect way of answering and you do not have to be technical to get it right. Just because you are in an interview, don't answer in a way that you think others want you to answer. How would you answer?
You are currently working on rolling out a site feature and your staff is all occupied with the rollout.
A business owner (lets say it was Marketing) tells you that they need a website feature built urgently and that they can expect thousands of incremental users leading to millions of dollars in sales. What do you do?I ended up using that same question on everybody I interviewed at Amazon from then on ^^;
Anyway, after Ebay and Amazon offered me a position, my recruiters got them both in a bidding war - the more they paid, the more the recruiter gets which is about 30% of my annual salary. eBay ended up offering *much* more but I chose Amazon. I felt I was more familiar with e-commerce rather than auctions.
Job Dragon hired me, fired me and placed me - and the 30% that they made from introducing me to Amazon more than paid for the salary during my time at Job Dragon.

Amazon was the correct choice - one reason was because Ebay Japan folded and exited Japan. I kept in contact with the HR manager at eBay who ended up asking me to hire her staff - I took two on board.

I got the job and before I knew it was on a plane to Seattle and the UK for training.
It was my first time in the US. I remember not being able to beleive my eyes when I was in the hotel watching TV - September 11th 2001.

Akihabara back then. No moe, no maids, some eroge but no figures.

This corner at Akiba is completely different today.

This photo taken with some of my web development team at Amazon Japan shortly after I joined.

When my headhunter Rusty at Job Dragon said "I'm sending your resume to Amazon for the position of Website Manager", I blinked several times and stared at him. I then replied "yeah right."

Within months of leaving Nature, I found myself on the management team at Amazon working with the General Manager Jasper Cheung to run the company. I was managing all aspects of website deployment and had a fantastic team of about 30 heads to help me.

A few months ago I was in a Comfort Zone and then all of a sudden I found myself earning triple my Nature salary with a load of AMZN stock options running one of the biggest websites in the world.

I joined Amazon as the youngest member of the management team as Website Manager. The new environment was a huge challenge. The Amazonian technology was incredible which felt completely alien. I learned that I was a people manager and started to learn new Japanese terms as I was working with many departments including Vendor Management, Buying, Merchandising, Finance, Legal, Retail, Marketing, Web Services, Public Relations, Human Resources, Supply Chain / Operations and IT. A list of all the shenanigans that I got up to in Amazon in the Working at Amazon and Microsoft post.

I did work in an international environment at Nature but not on the scale of Amazon where every quarter I would travel to either the UK, France, Germany or the US to meet the other Website Managers for our website planning process. I also got to experience corporate company politics too. Being the youngest management team member, some of the other members would question my people management skills. A few of the other management members even got HR to interview my staff to see whether I was capable as a manager.

But it did turn out that I was a people manager and I continued to work hard to schedule projects so that my staff could go home at 6pm - while some of the other management members kept their staff back until the early hours of the morning. The turnover rate for the Web Production was the lowest in the organization with high morale too. We launched all projects that we committed to on-time and to-spec.

The views from my office at Amazon we great - would spend much time gazing outside thinking about the next step in my career and what I wanted to do in life. I remember watching Roppongi Hills being built from scratch from here.

Another shot taken from the Amazon offices. Will write up Tokyo 2002 - 2005 soon ^^

Anyway, hope you are doing the following things to build your career.

  • Self study to gain new knowledge and skills.
  • Speaking to recruiters.
  • Going for interviews.
  • Constantly thinking about the next step.
  • Build an online profile to list your skills.