Why Octopus Energy is an award winning workplace
Polly Sutcliffe came to Japan on the JET programme. After working as a translator, she pivoted her career through a coding bootcamp. Now she's a frontend developer at Octopus Energy, where she works on their consumer-facing portal.
After graduating from university with a Japanese major, Polly joined the JET programme, where she was sent to Kyoto to work at a local city hall, promoting cross-cultural communication.. Four years later, she was ready for something new, and got a job translating games, first in Kyoto, then in Tokyo.
At her job in Tokyo, she worked closely with the developers to localize their games. She said, “We’d discuss how we can make the UI accept longer languages like French or German, or how plurals work. As I had conversations with the developers, I started to think what they’re doing is kind of cool.”
Through Tokyo’s international community, she met some people who had done a coding bootcamp. She said, “I found it quite inspiring that they quit their jobs to do something completely different. I was getting a bit tired of the translation world. It was quite stressful. Localization is usually the last thing that companies think about. So it was a little disheartening to be honest. I decided it’s time for a change, and I started to get into coding.”
Searching for a job, she quickly found one at a small startup. She said, “I had a job offer in about two weeks. I was the fastest of my cohort. That’s probably not the typical experience. I think most of my cohort took two to three months to find a job. There were some people who did take longer. I think the longest was a year.”
They won the most desirable workplace award. I’d never heard of a company that’s won an award like that, and so it seemed like it’d be a pretty cool place to work.
The startup was targeting foreign residents of Japan, but with COVID, no new residents were entering the country, and it folded about half a year later. Once more on the job market, she heard that Octopus Energy was hiring developers in Japan. She said, “I looked at their job listing and it was a very similar stack to what I had been using at the startup. It seemed doable for me. Also what I found most intriguing is it said they won the most desirable workplace award. I’d never heard of a company that’s won an award like that, and so it seemed like it’d be a pretty cool place to work.”
Polly joined Octopus as a frontend developer, and is building a consumer portal for their soon to be launched Japan business. She said, “One of the things that I love about frontend is that you get to create what the user is going to see. I think that Octopus is great for people like that, because it’s not just that you receive a design, and are told to make it pixel perfect. We work with the designers very closely. We can give them our opinions. If we’re not really sold on what something looks like, we can make a prototype of something else, and be like ‘What do you think of this?’ It’s very much a back and forth thing. It’s not here you go, implement it. That’s one of the things that I love. It is very creative.”
Though her focus is on the frontend, she’ll also touch backend code. She said, “We write Python code as well. For example, we’re making this journey where a user can get a quote for how much they would pay if they were on Octopus Energy. We wrote the Python API that creates that quote, and then passes it back to the frontend. If it’s something that’s just for the frontend we probably will write it ourselves.”
Most of the other developers Polly works with are based in Japan, and the few team members back in the UK are considerate enough to be available during Japanese business hours. As Octopus offers flextime, Polly starts her workday at 8:30am or so, and wraps up by 5:30pm.
On a typical day, Polly will spend the morning reviewing emails and Slack, before diving into tickets. In her afternoons, she’ll have team meetings and catch ups, and also often pair program with other developers.
Pair programming is something that Octopus does on an opt-in basis. Polly said, “Our team, we’re fairly proactive. We want to do more pair programming than perhaps other people. If someone finishes their ticket, then they ask the team ‘Does anyone want to work with me on a specific ticket?’ If other people have a space in their schedule, they’ll say ‘Yeah me’, then work it through together.”
People don’t micromanage you. You’re entrusted to be doing the best work that you can at all times, and people don’t second guess you on that.
Working for Octopus has been a breath of fresh air compared to the more traditionally managed Japanese companies she’s worked for. She said, “People don’t micromanage you. You’re entrusted to be doing the best work that you can at all times, and people don’t second guess you on that.”
In fact, life at Octopus has been such a shift from her previous employers that she finds herself surprised. She said, “I’ve spent so many years where there’s always a process. Always follow these steps to get the job done. Japanese companies often do things that way. At Octopus, sometimes I find myself thinking ‘Is it okay? You don’t want to have any standard steps here?’ But that’s just how they are. They expect things to break and that’s okay. They’re not going to get on your case because you’ve accidentally broken something. Everyone’s going to work with you to help you fix it. That’s just the way they expect it, and that’s fine. So I really enjoy that. The fact that they trust their employees.”
Polly also appreciates Octopus’ generous vacation policy. Only three months after joining, she took a week off to visit family, whereas at a typical Japanese company, she wouldn’t be allowed to take time off until the six month mark. Furthermore, she appreciates that she sees the team leaders taking a week off at a time, and has never felt any pressure not to take a vacation.
I love speaking Japanese, it’s a part of me now after so many years here. But it’s much easier to have a back and forth discussion when it’s in your native language.
Switching to working in English has also been a plus. She said, “The working language is English, so it is really easy to speak to everyone. I love speaking Japanese, it’s a part of me now after so many years here. But it’s much easier to have a back and forth discussion when it’s in your native language.”
Polly also appreciates how they encourage engineers learning. She said, “If you want to pair with someone from a completely different team, that’s totally fine. You get to see what they’re up to. So I could pair with a backend engineer, or a frontend engineer from the team in the UK. It’s not related to what I’m working on at all, but that’s totally fine. People are happy to do it just to teach engineers, share knowledge, show what they’re working on, stuff like that.”
Not only has her experience been great so far, she also sees Octopus striving to make it even better. She said, “They care about their employees. That’s the sense that I get. They give out office vibe surveys, so you get to give back anonymous feedback about how you are feeling, how you are interacting with your manager, if you think that things could be improved. I think that they’re always looking for how to make things better.”