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Realising Dreams of AI and Japan at Recursive

Xyza talks about working for Recursive, a Japan-based AI company with an exciting mission related to sustainability. She shares her journey, how they’ve supported her, and the company’s working culture.

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Xyza Rivera

Xyza has been working for Recursive as a software engineer for more than a year now. Originally a developer in Manila, the pandemic made her question what she wanted out of life. Driven by the desire to grow, explore the world, and live out her teenage dreams, she began searching for a job in Japan. She said, “I wasn’t really looking for a new job, because I already had a good, stable job in the Philippines. But at the same time I thought, maybe I can do more.”

She began networking and applying for jobs, even enrolling in Code Chrysalis’s online course to get a foot into the Japanese IT industry. Finally, after a year of on-and-off searching, a friend referred her to Recursive. Xyza was really taken by Recursive’s mission of building sustainable solutions with AI. She said, “I want to build products that deliver value to users, and I was looking for an AI company to join. I was going to pursue AI as my graduate studies but had to start working. Besides that, the CEO came from Google, and the director of engineering came from Apple. I was like, wow, this is so good. I can be mentored by these two people. I really want this company and this role.”

My first interview was with the CEO, Tiago, and I was so nervous because I’d looked into his credentials. He’s from Google. He has this startup in Tokyo. This is like the ultimate dream.

Xyza started off working remotely from Manila, but with support from Recursive, relocated to Japan six months later. She said, “I heard from my other friends that their first month in Japan was very hectic, but for me it was quite easy. In the first month, Recursive got me a temporary apartment, and they have guidelines I can follow to get set up. I had a small issue with getting my permanent address registered in my Ward Office, but HR reassured me and helped me out to overcome this issue.” Recursive’s assistance didn’t end after relocating either, with their HR team taking Xyza through Japan’s tax system, workplace rights, and laws.

At Recursive, their engineering team is split into two divisions — software engineers, and machine learning (ML) engineers. Typically the ML engineers assess the viability of client projects, work together with a software engineer to make a proof of concept, and then a team of software engineers will turn that into an actual product. Xyza explained, “Usually the machine learning engineers will make an API, and then the software engineers add security, make it deployable, and add interfaces that match how our clients want to use the service.”

The ML engineers focus on the models, AI, the stuff that does the hard work for everyone, and the software engineers support them to deliver these models to our clients.

Regarding how engineers are assigned to projects, Xyza said, “Our engineering managers and project managers handle the resource management, which is done really well here. The maximum I worked on is two projects at once.” When asked if this results in context switching, she said, “It’s not hard compared to my previous work, where sometimes in the morning I had to work on project A and then project B in the afternoon. Here we have a good process with a good balance of expectations.”

As a young and growing startup, Recursive is still building out their processes and making changes to find out what works best for them. Currently they are following scrum methodology. Xyza feels it’s really helped communication in the team, allowing them to see how they are tracking and highlight what they’re working on next. She said, “It’s a learning process, as a growing team, processes are there to keep us on track. I can see the value now, so this is how it’s used properly. It’s so good.”

When engineers are not working on client projects, they work on Recursive’s internal products such as FindFlow. Xyza said, “It’s basically an application that uses large learning models (LLMs), like ChatGPT, to help Japanese companies securely search through their internal documents. FindFlow is able to parse through their data, documents, and properly summarise it in either English or Japanese.”

On that project, Xyza worked as a front end engineer and migrated the UI from an old library to a newer one that was more suited to the business needs. She said, “Three of us worked together to get this major change through, and there was lots of discussion of how to do things better. I’m able to share what we learnt with the team, via documentation so our members outside of Tokyo can understand too. It’s important that everyone can understand why we did it like this, why we chose this.”

Looking back, it’s something to be proud of that I was able to do a project this big right now. It’s a personal achievement for me.

Xyza has been impressed with Recursive’s commitment to diversity. She said, “We have 43 full-time employees from 18 different countries, 53% are engineers and women make up 38% of the total workforce. Misunderstandings are unavoidable, but we’re able to resolve that by directly talking to each other. I’ve never felt any sexism here, everyone is very respectful of each other’s backgrounds and everyone is heard.”

As a remote-first company, Recursive has employees outside of Tokyo and even outside of Japan. To facilitate communication and team building across the wider team, Recursive organises events such as weekly office days, monthly dinners, and an annual company retreat. Xyza said, “We’ll be having our yearly company retreat in the first quarter of next year. The company will be bringing our members who are outside of Japan, and have a three-day retreat for us to finally meet each other. It’s nice to meet people outside work and not just talk about work things.”

Recursive believe their engineers can achieve the best results when they have the flexibility to work and grow in a way that suits them. Xyza said, “If you have to spend more time on something, you can flex-time, work more on Monday and a bit less on Tuesday. If there is overtime, say there is a bug or the project requires it, it has to be approved by the manager and HR. And of course, you’ll be paid for it. And if someone wants to try a different career path, we try to make it work for them. Like in the migration project, one of the front end engineers wants to also do design, so now she’s in charge of tweaking the design when we want a new feature.”

Xyza has really been enjoying her time in Japan so far, and looks forward to the future. She said, “I know there will be existential dread as an adult, but I have this joy as a kid inside that makes me feel alive. And I think Japan keeps my hopes up with the small things that matter to me. And of course, the work is fulfilling, especially with the company goal. I’m enjoying my stay — in the company, in Japan — and I’m very grateful for this opportunity.”

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