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Becoming a Tech Lead at KOMOJU

Nicole joined KOMOJU in 2020, and worked her way up to be technical lead of the merchant management team. She shares her journey, how KOMOJU supported her career growth and how the company is adapting to its growing needs.

Photo of Nicole Wong
Nicole Wong

Nicole moved to Japan from Canada in 2015 after graduating university. Beginning her Japan career as an English teacher, she transitioned to software engineering via a coding bootcamp in 2020. She said, “I just wanted a really concentrated study environment where it’s intense and quick. We were actually the first fully remote bootcamp at the Tokyo location. It was all over Zoom, maybe it was good training for remote work later on.”

After graduating from the bootcamp, Nicole joined KOMOJU, a Japan-based payment processor that is growing quickly both domestically and abroad. Nicole said, “KOMOJU has the ability to support foreign businesses coming to Japan. Our strength is that we’re here, and we have people with a very good understanding of the payment space in Japan. It’s different from other countries. It’s very varied, with unique points like Konbini payment. ”

I specifically remember reading the job posting for KOMOJU on TokyoDev, and thinking I would really love to work for this place. I was actually the first junior that was ever hired. It was a learning process, for me, but also for the company.

Since Nicole joined, the engineering team has about doubled in size and late last year split into three teams. Nicole said, “When I joined, it was a small team, everyone just worked on everything. People would develop expertise in certain areas, and be tasked with that thing more often. But as we grew, it got to the point where you lose track of who knows what. We introduced teams last year. It’s working really well. I think we’re hoping to have eight to nine engineers per team, but right now I’d say the average size is five to six.”

We’re growing very quickly. It’s a good problem to have business wise because it means we’re doing well, and it’s an interesting problem as an engineer. Like, how do we scale? How do we make our processes better?

As the company has grown, the process for developing new features has become more formalized, but engineers still have a lot of say in how and what they work on. Nicole said, “When it comes to implementing new features, somebody who’s worked in that area before will break down the tasks, and we’ll split the tasks based on preference. It’s not the case where the tech leads are like, ‘you do this, you do that’.”

Each team incorporates different development practices that work for them. For example, while some teams have daily standups, Nicole’s team holds their standup once a week with other updates happening asynchronously via Slack.

The split into teams provided Nicole the opportunity to become a tech lead. She said, “Each team has a tech lead. You’re responsible for having a good technical overview, feasibility and timeline estimates, and just discussing technical solutions with product and the rest of the team. The project I was working on was originally just me, but we added another engineer, and we were like, ‘oh, this is a team’. They asked me if I would be interested in leading the project, and I said yes. I’m also still programming, which is great.”

On top of tech leads that manage the team’s technical decisions, KOMOJU also has engineering managers who can provide advice on career progression, seniority level requirements and guidance on how to grow. Nicole feels one of KOMOJU’s key strengths is their strong and transparent communication, which allows engineers to be open about their desired career path. She said, “My old teammate was really interested in DevOps, he talked to his manager and now he’s on the SRE team. They’re good about listening to how you want your career to progress.”

Managers and engineers are two different roles, they are parallel ladders. It’s not the case that the ladder is engineer and then manager.

As a fintech company, KOMOJU takes a lot of care to reduce the risk of bugs going out, with an inbuilt culture of testing and peer review. Nicole said, “We have a bot on slack, we give it the pull request URL and it will randomly assign somebody from your team. The idea is that you write your PRs in a way that someone who didn’t work on it can understand and offer good feedback. You also get a label on your PR if it doesn’t update any tests, you get a no-tests badge of shame.”

In the instance where an issue that needs to be addressed promptly does occur, KOMOJU has clear processes in place to handle this and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Nicole said, “Every time an incident starts, we have a slack channel and it helps give us a timeline of the incident as we’re solving it. We appoint an incident commander to take charge and delegate tasks. We’ll pull in people who we think could help. After, we’ll have a postmortem, where we review the incident and how we make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

One thing is that it’s never a culture of blame. It’s just us against the problem. How do we solve this now?

Nicole really appreciates how much respect KOMOJU has for their engineers, and their time. She said, “The work-life balance here is really good. The engineering team is 100% remote, which helps, because you’re not wasting time in a commute. We have core hours from 10 to 3, and as long as you fulfill a certain number of hours wrapped around that, you’re good to go. You work, and then you do your own thing at home. ”

KOMOJU in their team’s development, providing a learning budget, which can be used to buy textbooks or attend events, such as RubyKaigi, and also offering language lessons that can be taken on the clock.

It’s this supportive environment that helped Nicole gain the skills and confidence to become a technical lead. She said, “One quality we really prize at KOMOJU is where you take the initiative to challenge yourself. I’m very fortunate they gave me more and more chances to grow and improve. Coming in as a junior, one thing I worried about was asking stupid questions. But everybody was really great. I’ve had the great fortune of working with some really talented but humble engineers, who are role models for me.”

When it comes to hiring engineers, KOMOJU welcomes experienced applicants from across the globe and from different tech stacks. Nicole said, “We just try to judge based on engineering skill. We’ve had seasoned engineers who’ve joined us, who did not know Ruby, Vue, or Rails. It’s a bonus. If you know one, you can learn them all. We also have engineers in other countries and they can continue to live there. But if they want to relocate, we will support that, we had somebody move from Brazil with his wife and child.”

Nicole really values the culture and people at KOMOJU, and has found joy in being a software engineer. She said, “I find it addictive to see real people use the software you’re working on. One of my very first tasks was to integrate PayPay. I’ll never forget, once we turned it on, my manager called me over and showed me the live payments coming in. He was excited for me. That’s the culture here, we celebrate everybody’s achievement.”

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