Richard Ramsden on becoming CTO of Degica
After graduating from university, Richard came to Japan and found a job as a software developer. Eventually he joined Degica, where he rose to the role of CTO.
Growing up in Canada, Richard was interested in Japanese video games and anime, and so he’d dreamed of moving to Japan. Knowing that a university degree would be necessary to fulfill this goal, he studied computer science.
When he graduated from university, he still had his eyes set on Japan, but rather than making the jump right away, he decided to visit Japan to attend RubyKaigi, a Japanese programming conference. He says, “I saw lots of other foreign developers there. Some that didn’t speak Japanese, but managed to find a job in Japan. So it was looking hopeful for me”. Enthusiastic about his chances, Richard returned to Canada to wrap up his life there.
Richard obtained a working holiday visa, which would allow him to move to Japan and find a job. Being a recent graduate, he had little in the way of savings, so he ended up buying a plane ticket to Japan on his credit card, which he admits “in hindsight was not a really good idea”. Arriving in Tokyo, he moved into a guest house in Asakusa, as it was the most affordable option, and started to search for work.
When he had moved here in 2013, there weren’t many resources available for international developers looking for work in Japan, and so Richard needed to do his own research to find a company that would fit him.
One company he thought had potential was Pixiv, an online illustration community site. After lurking in their IRC channel, he posted a message there saying that he was in Japan and looking for a job. No one from Pixiv replied, but someone from another company did, saying they were looking for a Ruby developer. Three months into his stay here, credit cards maxed out, he took the position.
After working for about a year at that company, he changed jobs, and bounced around to another couple of companies, none of which fit him so well. Looking for another opportunity, he remembers “I was on tokyodev’s mailing list and I got an email about a company called Degica. I reached out to them, and ended up being a perfect fit for the position.”
Richard joined Degica at a pivotal time for the company. Degica had gotten its start helping foreign companies enter the Japanese market by providing digital commerce solutions. Through this experience, they identified a pain point: Japan has many different esoteric online payment options, each with their own often cumbersome API. To make it simpler for companies to accept a wide array of Japan specific payment options, they decided to launch their own payments platform. Richard’s first task was to help build this platform, complete with a developer friendly API. The launch was a success, and their platform has been adopted by businesses like the video game distribution service Steam, and the gaming company Blizzard.
As a developer, his initial focus was building software. He says, “I had a manager who gave me a single task to work on. I could focus one hundred percent of my time on a single problem”. As time went on though, he started to work directly with other people at the company. He says, “Initially, I would wait for tasks. As I grew more comfortable at the company I would be able to go and talk to people and figure out what they would need.” This proactive approach paid off, and he was promoted to CTO.
First as a developer, and now as CTO, he’s helped contribute to the developer culture. He’s proud of the result. He says, “Everyone that works on the engineering team has a passion in some way for technology and programming. That makes for a really great working environment.”
To encourage this culture, Degica holds a monthly open hack day, where developers can work on whatever they want. This could be something like trying out a new programming language or tool, but sometimes developers create totally new tools, which become adopted by the company.
An example of this is Kaiser, a Docker Compose like tool that’s specifically focused on Ruby on Rails applications. When you’re using Docker Compose for running Rails applications, particularly those using microservices, it can get quite complicated, and require you to write a ton of YAML. But Kaiser makes it super simple to run such Rails applications.
With projects like these that get their start at the open hack day, developers will continue to extend them as needed as part of their normal work. Richard says, “It’s not like people are racking up points for improvement, and are then only implementing them on open hack days. When there’s a need, people contribute immediately.”
This culture of improvement extends beyond their products, and to the structure of the company itself. A recent challenge Richard has been facing is scaling the development team. When he joined, there were only a couple of developers, but now it has grown much larger. He says, “We had a single engineering team, where people were working on unconnected tasks, and that wasn’t going to scale. So we’ve split into cross-functional product teams. We don’t know if it will be successful, but we have a culture of continuous improvement and are not afraid to try something new.”
Like the company itself, Richard’s role as CTO is constantly evolving. He says, “As a CTO, you need to wear multiple hats, and as the company grows, your role needs to change. Right now, our biggest need is hiring, so that’s what I’m focused on this quarter. But it will change again as the company scales.”