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Autonomy and Freedom at SpeakBUDDY

Patrick Tyler started his career as a software engineer in Europe, before taking a sabbatical to explore Japan and teach English. Seven years later he’s still here, and now works as a backend software developer at SpeakBUDDY.

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Patrick Tyler

Patrick is a backend software developer at SpeakBUDDY, a Japan-based service that helps users acquire English language abilities. He said, “It’s been four-ish years with SpeakBUDDY as a software developer. I do backend engineering for SpeakBUDDY, which isn’t just programming but a bit of everything. It’s a startup, so I switch hats to whatever’s needed at the time.”

Originally from the UK, Patrick graduated university with a degree in Computer Science and spent a few years as a developer. He made the decision to move to Japan to teach English while working at an international company in Amsterdam. He explained, “there were people from all over, mostly Europe, working at the company. I enjoyed having discussions about English and I thought teaching English abroad could be quite interesting. And I was interested in Japan. I thought that teaching would be the best way to enjoy my time in the country, with people and so on.”

I didn’t speak Japanese back then, and I only thought I was gonna do it for a year or so. It was just, take a break from engineering and think about, is that really what I wanna do?

After a few years of English teaching, he decided to come back to engineering - and that was when he found SpeakBUDDY. Patrick said, “It’s software engineering, it’s a startup, it’s gonna be a variety of things I can get into, and it also has to do with English learning and English teaching. This is mixing my software engineering skills and my teaching experience. I remember sending off the SpeakBUDDY cover letter and being like, oh my God, this would be so amazing if I actually got this job.”

SpeakBUDDY’s main product is a mobile application designed to give users English speaking practice opportunities, along with relevant assessment, guidance and motivation. When Patrick first started, it featured a more listen-and-repeat style of exercises, but has expanded considerably since. He said, “A new feature we’re bringing in is called Buddy Chat, using OpenAI or ChatGPT style systems to provide more freedom for users to want to practise in different situations.”

SpeakBUDDY is aiming to provide a way for Japanese people to practise and gain confidence in English, regardless of where they are or their financial means, regardless of how extroverted or how confident they are.

To create an environment that encourages users to practise speaking English regardless of skill level, most of the interaction is done via speech input and SpeakBUDDY has built their own internal speech recognition system. Patrick explained, “Most speech recognition systems try to produce 100% exactly what you said, but we train the system in such a way that we try to be more lenient with people. So if it could be this word or that word, we try to make the system lean towards the word which would be correct for our exercises.”

Patrick’s role as a backend engineer meant he was working mainly on the server side, looking at the integration between the application and the API. However, he’s recently taken an interest in infrastructure and SpeakBUDDY has been happy to provide him opportunities where he can focus on improving the deployment process and make things easier for other developers.

I’d say a lot of us are quite free to basically say, okay, I think I wanna do this, I wanna implement this feature.

Developers are given a lot of trust and freedom to choose how they implement solutions, with the flexibility to choose the best suited technology. Patrick talked about how he worked on a project with the web team a couple of years ago, “As the sole backend developer, I had complete freedom on what to do. So rather than doing things the way we usually do it, I ended up using ECS instead of EC2, jOOQ instead of Hibernate for the database side of things, and a continuous delivery approach rather than just continuous integration, etc.”

Patrick considers this high level of autonomy to be both a highlight and a challenge. He said, “For me, the biggest challenge was the freedom, almost the expectation, to come up with your own ideas, and do things by yourself, and set things by yourself. My previous two jobs were much more, here are all the tasks we need to do, please get on with it. Whereas as a startup, SpeakBUDDY has a lot less formal planning going on in the engineering department.”

SpeakBUDDY is committed to investing in their developers’ growth and facilitating their learning, providing required resources such as training sessions, books or equipment. Patrick said, “It goes back to autonomy. It’s up to you to grow yourself, and the company will provide the resources if you request them. Within reason, you’re allowed to take time to get up to speed on new technology.”

Every six months we have an assessment, so pay, level, goals and so on. You have the chance every six months to say, okay, actually I want to do this, or I wanna focus on this, or I’ve done this so I should get a raise.”

SpeakBUDDY offers developers full remote work, with office space for people who want to go in. While most employees are based in Tokyo, SpeakBUDDY is willing to hire developers from abroad who are looking to move to Japan, or temporarily make allowances for overseas remote work. Regarding his own team, Patrick said, “There’s a Dutch guy in the Netherlands, an American guy living in Thailand at the moment, and I’m the British guy in the UK. [At the time of the interview Patrick was temporarily residing in the UK.] I would say most people are in Japan, but it’s fine to work abroad as long as the timezone works.”

Patrick recommends SpeakBUDDY to developers who enjoy taking initiative and want variety in their work. He said, “If you know what you wanna do, but you are also interested in trying other things, I would say that’s a good reason to join. If you wanted to work with infrastructure, but also a bit of Android, a bit of iOS, a bit of QA, you could probably do all that. People are happy to listen and try new things, and go along with your solution as long as you can explain why it’s a good solution. The company culture is really, really good. That’s why I enjoy working here.”

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