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Comparing tech cultures: Japan and Silicon Valley through the eyes of an entrepreneur

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My co-founder and I were raised in Japan and educated there, and we both spent the early part of our business careers there. But six years ago, we started a company that sits at the intersection of cloud computing, Hadoop and big data, and we chose to do that in Silicon Valley. Why not in Japan? Because, obviously, there are lots of advantages to starting a cutting-edge tech company in the capital of high-tech. But there are some disadvantages, too, and we found out about those along the way.  

Being at the Epicenter of Tech  

It was clear to us that being located in Silicon Valley was a must if we were going to be on the cutting edge of technology. With the formal communication channels here—publications, websites, blogs, conferences—and the informal ones—meetups, networking opportunities, random conversations—you get news here that doesn’t reach Japan for three or four months—and that’s only, for example, if an article gets enough page views to merit being translated into Japanese. Working with technologies evolving as rapidly as Hadoop, big data, and cloud computing, you can’t afford to be four months behind the curve.  

We also wanted to be here because if you win your market in Silicon Valley, you win it in the U.S. And if you win it in the U.S., you win it in the world. We couldn’t win it from Japan.    

Dealing with Differences in Tech Cultures 

 Japanese software engineers are hard-working, very precise, loyal to the company that hires them—and much less expensive than Americans with similar skills. Because our management is Japanese, we can bridge the language gap between Japanese technical hires and the English-speaking work environment here. We can hire them to work here or in Japan and get excellent value—obviously a benefit for any start-up trying to operate as frugally as possible.   

Of course, we also hire talented American engineers, but the lesson for foreign entrepreneurs is that if you can find the technical people you need in your home country, and you can be the language go-between when necessary, they can make a critical contribution to developing superior products while helping projects and the company as a whole stay within budget.  

Coming from Japan, we weren’t ready for some of the differences between American and Japanese work cultures. For instance, we were taken aback by seeing engineers in Silicon Valley join a company, stay maybe a year or a year and a half, and hop to the next job. Lifetime employment isn’t the norm in Japan like it used to be, but if you don’t stay with an employer for several years, it looks bad on your resume. Here’s another example: the standard practice here of giving an employer two-weeks’ notice that you’re leaving was a shock to us. In Japan, it’s three to six months, and that time is spent transferring your knowledge to your replacement. Here, there’s no time for that.    

And one last difference that stands out: People get fired in Silicon Valley, but in Japan, it’s illegal to fire someone for poor performance. The employer is required to educate and coach the employee until he or she is a productive member of the team.   

Starting with No Selling Agenda  

My personal journey took me from founder of the world’s largest Hadoop user group in Japan in 2009 to the U.S. and my current position as co-founder and CTO of a tech company. I was a researcher in the area of high-performance computing and handling big data when I founded the Hadoop user group, which put me in constant communication with CTOs and data managers from all over. Over several years, I heard in great detail about their problems building and maintaining big-data management systems.   

It turns out that learning about their problems was essentially market research that proved invaluable—first, in sparking the initial idea for our company; and second, in designing a solution that could meet a clear market need for solving issues related to managing and deriving value from big data. The lesson I took away was that no matter where you plan to start your company, if you can find a way to listen and learn—with no immediate selling agenda—about a widely shared pain point, you’re going to avoid creating a solution in search of a problem.    

Overselling Just Isn’t a Good Idea  

Humility as a personal quality is highly valued in Japan; in America, not so much. The kind of self-promoting behavior that in the U.S. is expected of businesspeople trying to raise the profile of their company—a legitimate goal—is considered unseemly in Japan. Frankly, we know we’re at a disadvantage when competing against American entrepreneurs who are more comfortable promoting their companies and themselves. But there’s an upside to being humble. If you listen attentively to customers, focus on providing solutions that meet their needs, and scrupulously avoid overselling your products and capabilities, you gain credibility and earn the trust of journalists, investors, potential employees, customers and others who come in contact with your company. Thank goodness for that upside, because my co-founder and I would find it very hard to change our culturally ingrained preference for humility.

Betting on Something Is Essential  

To found an innovative company that’s out in front of the tech wave, you have to make some bets, and they can’t all be sure things or someone else would have already capitalized on them. In founding our company, we bet on the future success of cloud computing (far from assured at the time), the continuing explosive growth of data volumes (likely, but not a slam dunk), and the potential of open source software like Hadoop (opinions differ).   

 My rationale for our bet on cloud computing is that we saw it in the context of 15- or 20-year cycles of centralization and decentralization of the IT function. The industry moved from centralizing with IBM zSeries mainframes to decentralizing with client/server and a distributed architecture like the internet, and now back to centralizing with cloud-based infrastructures. Next will probably be another decentralized paradigm with IoT devices. But we saw the movement toward centralized cloud computing years ago and felt confident enough to place our bets on it. If you’re going to play, you have to pick a horse—and that’s a fact of life no matter where you decide to start your business.  

Kazuki Ohta, Co-Founder and CTO, Treasure Data (opens in new tab) 

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Kaz Ohta is co-founder and CTO of Treasure Data. Previously, Kaz worked on the Argonne National Laboratory’s Supercomputer and founded and led the largest Japanese Hadoop User Group, growing the community from three to 3,000+ users in three years. . Kaz is an expert on distributed and parallel computing, and combines his knowledge of these technologies and Hadoop with the conviction that the service model is the only way to bring big data analytics to the mass market.