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Doing All the Things with the Internet of Things at MODE

James Balcombe, Software Engineer at MODE, shares how he went from teaching computer science in Japan to working on the backend of an IoT company.

Photo of James Balcombe
James Balcombe

What James Balcombe loves about MODE is that, since it’s an Internet of Things (IoT) company, there’s always something new to learn. “It’s one of those true full-stack jobs,” he said.

“There are a lot of things going on, a lot of moving parts, and I’ve gotten to touch quite a lot of it and done some infrastructure work as well. . . . Not just writing APIs, but also drivers for our gateway, working on AWS infrastructure, Dockerizing things. All sorts of different stuff.”

James is a Software Engineer at MODE, whose primary product is an enterprise IoT application integrating Generative AI technology.

The basic idea is that our platform, which we call BizStack, is industry agnostic, so it can be used as an IoT platform in almost any industry.

BizStack allows companies to collect data from their physical locations—such as a factory, or from vehicles, or a construction site. They currently support a wide range of data-collecting sensors, and can add support for new sensors as required. Customers can then use the platform to visualize and interpret the data, enabling them to make more informed decisions.

“We have quite a big code base,” James explained. “It’s quite complicated. . . . I checked actually earlier today: our main platform repo, which is a MonoRepo [with] lots of microservices in it, has more than half a million lines.”

Though he now works on many different aspects of BizStack, that wasn’t how James’s job began. “I started out like most people, I guess, just small bug fixes and stuff like that, and mainly on frontend things.”

But I was quite keen from the beginning. I wanted to do more backend work, that’s what I prefer. So I was funneled into that kind of work.

James is keen in general, as becomes clear when he describes his unconventional route to MODE. He was a qualified computer science teacher in the UK, where he taught for four years before relocating to China. After four years in China, he moved to Japan, where he worked at The British School in Tokyo. Then, a major life change loomed, causing him to rethink his career path.

“Well, we knew that we were pregnant and everything,” James said. “I was kind of getting to the end of my tether with working there for a lot of reasons, but basically the lack of career growth and the lack of challenges and things like that.”

I knew about the paternity [leave] system in Japan, which is very generous. I knew I could take a year off and get, you know, not completely paid, but paid pretty well, and still have a reasonable income. So I used that to do a coding bootcamp.

As a computer science teacher, James already had a head start in his chosen field. Still, he knew changing jobs would be a challenge, particularly with a young family, so he planned carefully. “It was like, this is the one chance I’m going to have to do it whilst I’m getting paid. And I’m not going to have to worry, [because] if I do the bootcamp and I don’t like it, I still have a job to go back to.”

The bootcamp proved successful for James, but didn’t translate into immediate job offers. James considers himself lucky to have spotted the opening at MODE. “I was applying to everything, but that one said ‘entry level.’ So I applied to MODE and they got back to me very quickly and made things move very fast, which I thought was a really good sign.”

It was the people at MODE that pulled James in, more than the products. “I wouldn’t say I had any particular interest in IoT or anything like that at the time. It was something I knew a little bit about, but not a huge amount. It just sounded interesting. And I liked everyone I spoke to throughout the interview process.”

The hiring itself was lightning quick: “I think I went through the whole process in less than a week, or maybe just over a week from initial contact with the recruiter. They move really fast.”

Not long after James joined, he shared his experience at MODE with the world. “I wrote a blog post and I said, ‘There are no arseholes,’ and I still maintain that.”

I generally feel there’s nobody in the company that I can’t talk to or have a laugh with. Nobody causes trouble. There are no big egos or anything. It’s just a really quite relaxed place to work.

Beyond the general atmosphere, James appreciates MODE’s work policies. The flexible hours are especially important to him as a family man arranging his schedule around school. “I’ll start work at 7:30,” he explained, “and I’m done by 4:30 to 5pm. Then I can do all the after-school stuff. But I have other colleagues who don’t start work until 10, or even later, and then they just work later.”

James also prefers the earlier hours because they allow him to connect with his American teammates. “I like to have a little bit more overlap with US colleagues that are on the West Coast. They tend to work later in their day, to have more overlap with us, so I work a bit early to have more overlap with them as well.” He considers this important partially because MODE is essentially American in nature.

I don’t think there are many [companies in Japan] that are actually an American company with most of its customers and most of its engineers in Japan. So it’s got a more West Coast US kind of mindset.

This is reflected in the salaries, according to James, which exceed those at comparable Japanese companies. It also influences the language.

“English is the first language of the company,” James said, “so there’s a big push to help the Japanese engineers improve their English. Not so much from the other side”—that is, for English speakers like him to learn Japanese—”but they’re very open to that as well. And there’s a language exchange in Slack, and people do various things to try and work with other people to improve their language, whether it’s English or Japanese.”

MODE currently has about 25 engineers. Since it’s a small company without much hierarchy, the CTO is still writing code, as well as conducting regular one-on-ones with employees. But the team structure is evolving, James told us.

“So the big shift at the moment is to completely separate out the product from the delivery team,” he said. He described just what that entails: “[The delivery team] tends to work with the customers, and they’re getting requirements from customers, or installing the equipment in their spaces, or helping them get the most out of the system. So they’re the delivery team, delivering the product. And then the product team are the people who actually write the microservices or maintain the microservices that make that possible.”

James is on the product team. “I’m on the data side, so I work on all the database platforms that we have. Then there is another team that focuses on integrating Generative AI into our IoT solutions, as it’s an area MODE is investing heavily in. There are other people that work on the frontend side of things.”

That doesn’t mean that MODE doesn’t offer flexibility within this system. “I can move around within the teams if I really want to,” James said.

It helps that the company uses Go for almost everything. “Our whole backend is in Go. So everything’s in Go,” said James.

In Javascript, when you want to do something, there are a whole bunch of ways you can do it. Not in Go. In Go, there’s the Go way to do something.

“So it makes things very consistent. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t different ways to solve the problem. There are lots of ways to solve a problem. But the way that you write the code to solve the problem . . . basically, any Go engineer will end up writing more or less the same code.”

What sort of developers do well at MODE? James thinks that the company’s a great place for almost anyone: after all, “There are no arseholes.” But in particular, the company is looking for intermediate to senior engineers who are eager to work on not only the product, but also themselves. Good communication skills are especially in demand.

“The number one thing is, you need to communicate. You need to be able to communicate in English . . . and make people understand what it is you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.”

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