Robert Speller on being one of SmartNews’ first overseas hires
When Robert joined SmartNews as a software engineer, most of his colleagues were Japanese. Since then, it’s grown into an international organization where English is predominantly used.
Recently graduated with an undergraduate degree in physics, Robert wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Travelling seemed like a good way to do some soul searching, but he didn’t have much in the way of funding. So when he came across the JET Programme, that would allow him to teach English at a school in Japan, he went for it.
Ending up at a high school near Akashi, a city neighboring Kobe, he spent a year teaching. During his stay, he picked up some Japanese, and found though he did enjoy teaching English, it wasn’t a passion for him, and so when his contract expired, he returned to the UK.
Thinking back on his undergraduate education, the part he enjoyed most was the little bit of programming in Python that he did. So he decided to do a master’s degree in computer science. He said, “I absolutely loved it. For the first time I really enjoyed studying, I really enjoyed everything.”
Armed with his master’s degree, he landed a job at ThoughtWorks, a software consultancy. After five years of working there though, he decided he wanted to return to Japan, this time as a software developer. He said, “My Japanese had improved, but still I wouldn’t say that it was business level. So I started looking around, trying to find a startupy type job, something not too traditionally Japanese. I came across SmartNews thanks to a recruiter. When I read the spec for the job, I thought it sounded very good.”
Communication has become predominantly English, even in the Tokyo office.
SmartNews had global ambitions from the beginning, launching in the US just two years after their initial launch in Japan. As their international user base grew, their engineering team in Japan began to become more international along with it. Robert was one of their early hires from abroad. He said, “We were a lot smaller when I joined. We had roughly a hundred people. At that point, the company was Japanese, in terms of communication and documentation. Since then, we’ve grown to more than three hundred globally. In that transition, communication has become predominantly English, even in the Tokyo office. For me, communication has got easier and easier.”
Not only has the language changed since him joining, but also the organization. He said, “Three years ago we were a lot more disorganized than we are now. The structure of teams, and how things are done, has matured a lot. At that time it was, there wasn’t really a product team, the engineers were driving everything. That has pros and cons. Someone who’s an engineer would come up with an idea and just do it, which is great from a freedom perspective, but it causes chaos. Since then, we now have cross functional teams, with different types of engineers and a product person all on the same team. A whole team now owns the development of something as opposed to an individual engineer, which I think makes things a lot better.”
Product ideas are not top down. You can suggest a new idea, realize those changes, and sometimes in as short as a week, have those changes be put in front of millions of users.
That said, despite having a better defined development process, individual engineers still can influence the direction of the product. He said, “Product ideas are not top down. You can suggest a new idea, realize those changes, and sometimes in as short as a week, have those changes be put in front of millions of users.”
One thing that allows them to quickly try out ideas is extensive use of A/B testing. He said, “We can try a lot of things out, and if they fail, throw them away, learn from it, and try something else. That means that we can try different ideas, and not spend too long building something that could be a waste of time.”
Perhaps owing to its engineer driven origins, SmartNews doesn’t have “crunch time”. He said, “We have quarterly objectives and key results. We do what’s highest priority first, and break things down so that we’re delivering the value fastest at the beginning.”
Robert recommends working at SmartNews for its international and diverse environment. He said, “Software engineering is quite international already, but there are still niches in different places of the world. At SmartNews, we have lots of international offices, so you have this opportunity to pick up on these different international niches of tech.”
We are encouraged to try out the latest technologies. If someone wants to try a new technology, we can.
He also appreciates being able to try out new technologies. He said, “We are encouraged to try out the latest technologies. If someone wants to try a new technology, we can. That kind of tech freedom is great.”
Life in Tokyo itself also turned better than he anticipated. He said, “I had this image that everything is going to be so expensive that I have to live really far out and get on a train packed in like sardines. But actually, I was really pleasantly surprised. I was able to find a very nice apartment, with company’s support, just a ten minute cycle to Shibuya. I don’t even need to get on the train, which is great. If and when coronavirus is over, the office is great too. It’s a startup-style office, as opposed to traditional cubicle office space. We have great lunch and excellent coffee.”