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How Did I Get Here? Becoming the First Female Twitter Engineer in Japan

Whether new to Japan or stuck in a mental rut, there are numerous ways to dust off your experience and pursue the engineering career you always dreamt about.

By 10 min read

Taking risks in life can be horrifying, but the payoff is worth it.

One of two things will happen: either you’ll achieve what you were trying to do, or you’ll fail. If you use that failure as a stepping stone to learn from, you’re all that more close to achieving your goals. Now, I know how cliché this sounds. My professional life, currently, sometimes still feels like a hackneyed phrase. Within under a year of moving to Japan, I found myself in a career that allows me the autonomy to be myself doing what I love — tattoos and all. Never did I think I’d be commuting to Tokyo station daily and working in the heart of central Tokyo with Ginza and Marunouchi right next door. Not to mention the celebrities I’ve had the honor of supporting or the gorgeous all-inclusive office space I’d only ever known to exist in movies.

I wasn’t always an engineer in Japan. In fact, I started my career here as an English teacher in Numazu. Due to finding a job in Japan faster than expected, I had two months to leave my life in America. I came here with two suitcases, my laptop, a camera and a sense of excitement — combined with the nagging notion that I was being a bit crazy. That was a year and a half ago. Through a mixture of luck, craziness and perseverance I now find myself working as an engineer at Twitter Japan.

Back in America, I was working as a Genius for Apple, while also working full-time as an application engineer for a large insurance company. As much as the idea of teaching English excited me, I knew I wanted to make use of my skill set and become an engineer while living in Japan. The idea of breaking the eikaiwa (English conversation school) foreign teacher mold was a challenge I welcomed. So, like many English teachers here, I used teaching as a stepping stone while I explored my options. This brings me to how I started to organize and plan my life — and while it wasn’t a walk in the park by any means, it was efficient and worth all the sacrifice that came with it.

Set goals and focus

I gave myself a year to leave the teaching game. This means I had to bone up on what little I remembered from my Japanese degree while also having to make sure I was savvy with current technology. Improving your Japanese means getting out there and talking to people. Leaving your comfort zone is the name of the game and since moving here it’s been my life 80 percent of the time. There are a multitude of resources to help reinforce your Japanese, but for the sake of this article — let’s stick to technology and engineering resources.

Coursera offers courses that start and end on a certain day, and follow a weekly syllabus. Certificates of completion are offered by accredited universities such as Stanford, MIT and more. While this may bring back some unpleasant test anxiety from your university days, you can always opt out of receiving the certificate and audit the course. I found that having an end date pushed me to focus more on the material and take things seriously. Additional sites that offer a variety of classes are edX, Udemy, Lynda, and Stacksocial.

Never stop learning

This means utilizing your time wisely. You know that long commute you have to take twice a day? What do you find yourself doing during that time? As much as I wanted to scroll endlessly through Instagram, looking at images brought up by #avacadotoast, I decided to make a list of resources I could cycle through. Thus preventing boredom and burning out before I even began.

Books

Read. Be it via iBooks, Kindle, or an actual physical book. So long as it’s something you are genuinely interested in learning, that motivation will start to spill into other parts of your life. While reading may not always directly relate to my field, or even contribute to my time in Japan, it allows me to keep my mind busy and in a perpetual learning mode. Not saying that I don’t browse sub-Reddits like r/castiron (for the serious cast iron cookware fans out there) or r/natureismetal (when mother nature reminds us that we are nothing) more often than not, as we all should rest our minds occasionally with something we enjoy that can also be easily digested. Pro Tip: if your brain is distracted and you find yourself having to reread the same sentence over and over, read it outloud to yourself.

Current reads are:

  • Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell
  • Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking
  • Jo Robinson’s Eating on the Wild Side
  • Joe Topjian’s Unix for the Beginning Mage

YouTube

YouTube is more than makeup tutorials and gaming reviews. Granted, I love both of these things. Make playlists that relate to what you want to study, so you can review at your leisure. YouTube is packed with educational tutorials and series, and if you get stuck on a certain subject compare tutorials to gain insight from different perspectives and methodologies. Some of my playlists include:

Podcasts

Whereas they may not be as visually helpful, listening to podcasts on your way home from work is a good way to decompress from the day and get your mind in gear on a topic you may have been curious about. Much to my surprise there were a handful of podcasts on machine learning, so give searching a try. I’m currently listening to:

  • StarTalk Radio
  • This Week in Machine Learning & AI Podcast
  • Foodstuff
  • Sword and Scale
  • Shrugged Collective

Sharing and Networking

Remember what I said about comfort zones? Comfort leads to stagnation, and this is not how we reach our goals. Once you start getting comfortable in your study at home, it’s time to share your passion with the real world. Regardless of whether you still view yourself as a novice, it’s time to get out there. Fortunately, Tokyo has a plethora of places you can go to. It also doesn’t hurt to have a few current business cards on hand, or a digital copy of your resume ready to send out before venturing out to any of the below.

  • Meetup
    Utilize Meetup, a website and application that is designed to help you find like minded people in your current field of study. I’m currently involved with a group that follows a programming course in real time. When we meet up it’s the perfect time to discuss new ideas and hangups I wouldn’t have been able to solve on my own.
  • Lightning talks
    Give a lightning talk about something you’re passionate about. Talks can range anywhere from under a minute and up to five, so decide which you would be most comfortable to start with. We’re all nervous at the beginning, but by the end you’ll feel much more confident in yourself and your community.
  • Networking events
    The AFCEA of Tokyo, or the Armed Forces Communication and Electronics Association, is an amazing place to network. Be sure to show up with a ridiculous amount of business cards and be ready to talk. Events are organized monthly from themes covering cyber security to artificial intelligence.

Be open minded

Before moving to Japan I studied what manners were expected of me, and thought by knowing those and the language it would be enough to convey respect and communicate efficiently. I was wrong. At the time I had no idea that the two mindsets I believed to be universal, were the key to understanding communication in Japan.

Time

Much like the typical American I think linearly, as in I always know what I have ahead of me. Regardless if it’s an assignment due or what I want to make for dinner, there is an exact sequence to follow in order to bring that task to fruition with the utmost speed and efficiency. From this standpoint the only thing I have in common with the Japan’s respect of time is my almost obsessive need to be on time, if not early, to events.

The Japanese way of viewing time focuses on unwrapping details meticulously, and compartmentalizing them. It can almost come across as ruminated, or even cyclic, which can make one sometimes wonder how any decisions are finalized at all.  Similarly, as a lot of verbal communication here is indirect, so is the desire or method to finish the task at hand. It’s more about doing the right thing at the right time, regardless of how long it may take to do it correctly. Not saying deadlines aren’t a thing here, but it encourages me to be a little more patient than I normally would be when expecting an answer or result.

Being Direct

If you have an opinion on something, you generally voice it. That’s how I was raised, but it may not translate properly if I apply that here. In Japan there is the “art of the stomach”, or haragei. The equivalent of us using our gut, or intuition, to understand what is expected of us after a conversation takes place. Body language is heavily utilized here and there is the assumption that a lot of reading between the lines is as commonplace as it is expected.

In order to find common ground and circumvent the “to hear one is to understand ten” concept, or ichi ieba zyuu o shiru, I will try to do the following:

  1. Acknowledge that you are listening by interjecting via aizuchi (place filler noises such as un or hai dependent on your social ranking with the speaker).
  2. Align with the speaker at the end of the conversation by reiterating their concerns or requests, and don’t be afraid to ask open ended questions that begin by asking permission or inquiring how they would feel if you took certain initiatives.
  3. Assure them you will do all that you can, and let them know that if you have any questions you will contact them further. This subtly admits your lack of experience in the Japanese skill of haragei, and now they won’t be as surprised if you end up asking for more details later.

Be yourself

Throughout this whole process don’t lose sight of who you are, and take time to have some fun. I’ve certainly had my share of lazy days so I can reset as a human being, and get back to the grind fueled. It’s important not to burn out, or you may start to resent your efforts and fall back into that comfort zone made out of complacency. While it’s not going to be the easiest thing you’ve ever done, it’s going to be the most rewarding thing you can do for yourself. No one else is going to do it for you either, so give yourself some love and start doing what is necessary to get you to where you want to be.

Check out the below for some of my favorite local lightning talks, networking opportunities, and study meetups:

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