Anna Shur-Wilson, Career Navigation Program Specialist at Women Who Code, interviews Mercari Senior Software Engineer and Women Who Code Tokyo Director Ann Kilzer. They talk about working on an international team, the importance of language and open communication, the work culture she has experienced in Japan, and her experiences with WWCode Tokyo.Share an intro to your career journey. What motivated you to start looking for opportunities in Japan? How did your journey in tech intertwine with this decision?My first computer programming experiences were in middle school in Logo and BASIC. I took a computer programming class in Pascal in high school but didn't really consider it as a career until college, where I switched majors a lot. I ended up triple-majoring in Mathematics, Computer Science, and Visual Art (with a minor in German) because I loved learning things.I earned my Master's in Computer Science from UT Austin after dropping out of the Ph.D. program, where I was doing research on information privacy. The research was really cool, but things weren't working out with my advisor. And graduate school gave me very little time to do art.I started working in the industry in 2012 and have been at mid-sized companies and startups. While working at Indeed, I helped transfer a product to the Tokyo office for a month. This got me thinking that tech skills could take me anywhere in the world.I liked the possibility of working in a foreign culture but having some time to transition and learn the language. There were many quality-of-life benefits in Tokyo, like excellent public transportation, opportunities to study traditional arts, and walkability. Once I realized it was possible, I knew I would regret it if I didn't try it.It wasn't an easy move and requires a certain amount of detachment. You'll be further away from family and friends, but there are opportunities for exploration and growth beyond what your past life could allow.The internal transfer wasn't happening on the timeline I wanted, I was dealing with a personal health issue, and was fortunate to have saved some money from working in tech for 5 years. So I quit the comfortable Indeed job and took a sabbatical, exploring some textile art workshops around Asia. Then I got back to interviewing for a job in Tokyo.Things weren't working out interviewing from afar, so I decided to buy a ticket to Japan and stay on a tourist visa so interviewers would see I was committed to moving here. I lived in a sharehouse in a red-light district with a bunch of other foreigners. I had to wear earplugs at night because of the nightclubs. We even had a rat, but the community was good. Within 6 weeks, I had 5 job offers at various companies, including a few high-paying fintech roles. I ended up choosing a small startup, even though the pay was lower, it was the more interesting challenge.I got rid of 80% of my belongings. It kind of felt like I was scrapping my past life for parts, letting go of what was holding me back, but trying to stay true to myself too. I'd done brief stints in Germany and New Zealand and always felt happy living with less, and living around international culture. No surprise Marie Kondo's book was helpful, and I got to re-evaluate my relationship with "stuff" as I moved from a 2000-sq foot Texas house to a 400 sq ft. Tokyo apartment.Now I have been here 4 years and work at a larger tech company. I feel pretty happy with where I ended up.Thinking about your first position in Japan. What are the unforeseen challenges? What did you wish you knew?My first official job was at a startup as the first engineer. It was a great learning experience, and an exciting challenge to be so early at a company, but I didn't set the best boundaries between work and life, and had little social network outside of my job. I cried a lot because I was in a foreign city without many friends. It took me a lot of effort to connect with people outside the office, but I am grateful to have a better support system now. Women Who Code and my art hobbies have been good ways of building community.Tell us a little about your current position. How do you apply the intercultural skills you have picked up along the way? I'm grateful for my experiences at Mercari because it's more of a balance between Japanese and International culture. Indeed Tokyo was a fun office, but the culture was largely set by the headquarters in Austin. The startup I worked at was run by Canadians. So Mercari is the first company where the leadership is largely Japanese. I don't want to make generalizations that all Japanese companies are a certain "way," but I do see tendencies towards more consensus-based decision making vs. the American rule "It's better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission." I can see strengths in both approaches and make efforts to solicit buy-in from members of my team and make sure everyone feels heard.This job has given me a lot more perspective and empathy for non-native English speakers. Though I study Japanese daily, it's a tough language to learn, and I know what it's like to just get confused or lost, but feel shy about asking for a translation or saying "I don't understand." I know what it's like to use the wrong word in a sentence and feel embarrassed. There is a huge tech privilege to native English speakers, as most of the documentation online is English first. There's also an unfortunate bias against folks who don't speak confidently, but I've learned that most people can speak confidently in their native language -- their hesitation is not a reflection of their tech skill, they are just less experienced in English. (And boy, English has some unpredictable pronunciation and unusual slang!)Mercari does a cool training called "Yasashii English / Yasashii Nihongo (Japanese)" where やさしい yasashi means "easy" but also "kind." The important part of this training is to overcome the language barrier by using simpler words and grammar, speaking slowly, and avoiding slang or cultural references. Even amongst English speakers, there are many different types of slang, from the American country-isms I grew up with, to British, Aussie, NZ, Indian... lots of people are Native English speakers yet might not understand regionalisms. I was the first non-Japanese speaker on my team at Mercari JP, and I really feared people would resent me for making them accommodate me. Yet my team reacted the opposite way -- they were excited to have the chance to practice English. I was really honored by their support and curiosity. We set up special tools like a Google spreadsheet with auto-translation for recording special vocabulary. Sometimes I would try to do brief introductions in Japanese. Members would step in and translate for one another. It was a really supportive group, and it makes me want to create that kind of welcoming environment for non-native English speakers I work with in the future.How did the WWCode Tokyo community help with your transition?WWCode Tokyo was such a big help for me because it was a space where I could feel like myself. I didn't have to worry about being one of the few women in the room, I just got to focus on code and tech and I felt like I belonged. I'd gone to a couple of events with WWCode in Austin, TX, but it was always a challenge due to rush hour traffic. But the public transit in Tokyo makes it easy to just zip over to where you need to be and listen to a podcast, audiobook, etc. I met a lot of people who would eventually become friends, and in early 2020, volunteered to keep events running because I wanted a study group during the chaos of the pandemic.I remember one online social event in April 2020 where we were trading baking recipes because everyone was staying at home and afraid. One of the members said ... "I have the feeling this pandemic might last for more than a few weeks..." It was the first time I considered that we wouldn't be going back to "normal."The socials turned to study groups, and the community kept me level through a challenging job switch in the summer of 2020. I was fortunate to get a job at Mercari, and also get promoted to Director of the Tokyo network.Now I'm using WWCode Tokyo as a way to practice mentorship, explore and learn through my Creative Coding workshops, and create positive change towards empowering diversity in tech. My goals for 2022 are to build more bridges with the Japanese-speaking community, and I am partnering with Director Ania Nakayama to host a Japanese-language Lightning talk event.Share any tips or small changes in behavior that people can take to encourage cross-cultural collaboration on teams (ex. the game you described that you played with your team Mercari)English language content can have an unintentional dominating effect due to its global power. There's a saying that if a meeting has 9 Japanese speakers with limited English and 1 English speaker with little / no Japanese, the meeting will be run in English! Our WWCode network noticed when hosting "mixed-language" lightning talk events, that the Japanese speakers felt pressure to switch to English. So we are experimenting with Japanese-first events alongside our English events, to make sure we are empowering women who are confident speaking Japanese.It's definitely possible to live in Japan and never speak Japanese, and many people do it, but I think we are better stewards to our community when we make an effort to learn about the local language and culture rather than expecting the world to adapt to us. People appreciate it a lot if you make an effort to learn about them.As an American, I notice a tendency in other Americans to have lower awareness of the rest of the world. Our media is often domestic-focused. Our nation exports a lot of media and culture, and most people are monolingual. Living abroad gave me a chance to de-center myself and see things from a new perspective. Be friendly about Time Zones and consider that your teammates may live across the globe. Timezone math is tricky, so I recommend using tools like web calendars, SavvyTime, or Calendly to communicate smoothlyBe mindful of slang and cultural references. People might have no clue about your memes from The Office. Similarly, you might get confused when your coworkers share memes about Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen or use the grass kanji 草 instead of "lol"Don't be afraid to ask questions when you are confused, and be kind to people who ask questions to you. So many people feel like they are disrupting by asking for clarification, but it's better for the group. Reward and praise question-askers for ensuring clarity on the team.Ask "why" a lot and keep an open mind. I noticed my Japanese teammates were not writing many friendly things on my code reviews, only negative things, and asked people why their reviews were so harsh. It turns out I really misjudged the intention. They weren't confident in English so they focused on the most urgent message, which was communicating improvement areas. We realized it wasn't any ill-intention, rather, spontaneous conversation was a lot of extra effort. Next, we worked on a shared document of "Friendly code review phrases" to mix in, like "Nice refactor!" or "Thanks for adding new tests." This helped us build trust and goodwill during a lot of remote work.My previous team played a version of the game Ito (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/327778/ito) during our team building exercises. The game is basically:1) everyone draws a random number between 1-100 (use random.org) and keeps it a secret.2) There is a topic, like "Biggest city in the world" or "Biggest animal" and everyone chooses an item from that topic based on the magnitude of their random number. So 1 is an amoeba, 100 is a blue whale, maybe your number is 37 and so you think an Akita dog represents that size.3) Everyone shares their "item", and you together try to order them into a sequence.4) You reveal your numbers and see if you got the sequence right. Everyone wins or nobody wins.It's a great game for teams because it's collaborative, a little unpredictable, and you don't need much materials. If you buy the card deck, it gives you some creative topics, or you can come up with your own.