I’m often contacted by bootcamp grads in Japan who are looking for help finding an entry-level software engineering role here. Although I’m not usually in a position to help directly (hiring companies generally don’t use recruiting agents for junior hires because of the fees) I’m always happy to connect with job hunters and see if I can help. I thought it might be useful to share my thoughts and experience on this topic and help a wider audience.
Who is this advice for?
This article targets English speakers already in Japan who have graduated from a program like Le Wagon or Code Chrysalis and are looking for their first job as a software engineer.
Perhaps you are a foreigner working in an area such as teaching, sales & marketing, or recruitment and looking to pivot your career to tech, or maybe you are an English-speaking Japanese national looking for an opportunity to use your new tech skills in a modern, English-speaking working environment.
Many of the tactics I outline will also work:
- If you’re applying from outside Japan (although it is very difficult to land an entry-level engineering job in Japan from overseas)
- If you’re a recent university computer science graduate (who usually has advantages over bootcamp grads due to depth & breadth of study)
- If you’re looking for a non-developer role such as in tech support, product management, UI/UX design, or data science
- Or even if you are an experienced engineer who wants to take a more active role in shaping their career
So feel free to read on – you might learn something useful.
Note: This article is focusing on finding a role in English-speaking or bilingual English/Japanese environments. If you have business-level (or better) Japanese language skills and want to work somewhere like Hitachi or Fujitsu or a similar domestic Japanese company, I’m sure you can find out how to apply to those kinds of companies online.
The tech job market in Japan
First things first, a look at the job market. Why are there jobs for English-speaking tech people in Japan in the first place? Isn’t Japan a ‘high-tech’ country?
Well, yes and no. Japan is not yet a ‘software’ country. While Japan retains a ‘high tech’ image abroad, this is primarily in consumer goods, automotive, and other ‘hardware’. Software has lagged behind for various reasons which I won’t go into here, and Japan does not currently produce enough Comp Sci grads to meet the hiring demands of local Japanese firms and international companies here. Put this together with the generally low level of English-language skills in Japan (and with English being the global language of software) and the result is opportunity!
[Side note, I’m convinced that at least half of Japan Inc. runs on Windows XP, fax machines and hankos. You may laugh, but at some point, you’re going to need to fax something to someone that you had to stamp using a little cylinder of carved wood. Head to your local convenience store and they will take care of your faxing needs like it’s 1989]
If you are looking for an English-speaking entry-level tech job in Japan, you are most likely going to find it at one of Japan’s growing number of English-friendly startup companies or at a Big Tech firm such as Amazon, Indeed, or Google.
But aren’t there thousands of multinational companies in Japan? Won’t they hire me? While there are indeed thousands of global companies in Japan (across industries such as banking, insurance, pharmaceutical, automotive, consulting, and manufacturing) and many of them work in English, in my experience, these companies rarely hire entry-level software engineers here. Many global companies tightly control their Japan headcount, preferring to focus hiring here on sales and business operations and often keeping most software development overseas (in their home country or other offshore location), with perhaps some localisation in Japan.
If they are hiring tech people here, their open roles tend to be for mid to senior-level engineers who can hit the ground running or have specific domain knowledge (e.g, an understanding of equities trading systems for an investment bank). For many companies in Japan, including multinationals, entry-level hiring is purely focused on bringing in fresh new university graduates into the company as generalists to be shaped and moulded into salarymen & salarywomen (the famous shinsotsu hiring cycle).
The startup scene in Japan, on the other hand, is much more dynamic and offers more opportunities for junior engineers. Japan’s tech scene really has come a long way in the past 10 years, with more and more VC money invested in Japan each year. There exist numerous successful B2C and B2B companies growing into behemoths/unicorns, such as Rakuten, PayPay, Mercari, and Paidy, along with many up-and-coming startups building innovative solutions for Japan and the global market.
With the local supply of Japanese engineers nowhere near meeting the number of job vacancies in the market, many companies use English as their working language (or a mix of Japanese/English), which allows them more flexibility in their hiring. Smaller, newer companies also have less brand power in the hiring market and as a result, can be more open to investing in junior talent.
Am I in demand?
Most of the bootcamp grads I’ve spoken to in the past couple of years have taken anywhere from two to six months to land their first job, so it can take time, but most have found a good role eventually. Many have applied to hundreds of jobs online, had countless interviews, done a portfolio’s worth of unpaid mini-projects to show off their skills, and if lucky, received a handful of offers.
As I said earlier, most companies want to hire mid or senior engineers but since that market is so tight, smart companies will hire talented entry-level people and train and mentor them, but still, such opportunities can be hard to find.
Job hunting is hard work and can grind you down. It’s time-consuming and stressful. It will frustrate and annoy you. It’s why many companies pay people like me very well to do it for them.
But here’s the good news – once you find that first job, everything gets easier. You’ll be doing work you enjoy, and learning from interesting people, and after a few months every recruiter in town will be filling your LinkedIn inbox with “exciting opportunities that are perfect for you.”
[Note: Ignore any recruiter who uses this cheesy line who doesn’t already know you, your career goals and your interests. It’s like me telling you I have the perfect Air Jordans for you without actually knowing your shoe size or the fact that you only wear Jimmy Choo]
Tactics, tactics, tactics
So, it’s the day after you’ve received your bootcamp cert and your Inbox is filling up with offers from the top big tech firms and startups with great base salaries, bonuses and stock! and you’re wondering how on earth you’re going to find a job.
I’ll assume your bootcamp had a career week and has helped you put together a resume and a portfolio site, perhaps also introducing you to companies in their network who have hired alumni in the past. That’s all good stuff. But now I’m going to give you a whole load more work to do. I’m going to teach you to think like a recruiter because you need to go out into the market and hunt for that job for yourself.
Your new mantra is “network, network, network” (don’t worry, introverts, it’s easier than it sounds!)
First of all, let’s look at recruiting agencies, as they are often job hunters’ first port of call. There are thousands of recruiting agencies in Japan and they remain a very popular resource for both hiring companies and job seekers.
However, as I mentioned above, companies typically don’t use recruiting agents for entry-level hires due to the fees. Agencies in Japan usually charge their clients a fee in the range of 30% – 35% (or more!) of the candidate’s starting salary, so that works out, for example, to a 1.35 million JPY fee for hiring someone on a 4.5 million JPY salary.
If you’re a startup company (or even a more established company keeping an eye on your expenses) and open to hiring someone junior to train up, you’re more likely to want to save your money and use a different recruiting channel, such as contacting a bootcamp directly, using referrals, or LinkedIn, or job boards, etc.
This is why you’re unlikely to have much success if you send your resume to recruiting agencies if you don’t have much professional experience – they generally just don’t have any roles to introduce you to.
If you do send your resume to an agency (maybe you see an interesting job ad and think “what the heck, I’ll try anyway”) and they want to have a call or meet with you, first ask them if they have a specific company and role that fits your level of experience. It is possible they have a role in mind for you, but it’s also possible that the consultant just wants to hit their weekly target of new candidate registration meetings so they don’t get into trouble with their boss at the next sales meeting. Your details will disappear into a database, either never to be seen again or just sitting there until you have more experience and the agency now thinks it’s worth their time to talk to you.
There are some fantastic recruiters in Japan who consistently offer a great service to job hunters, so it’s worth connecting with a few good ones and building a relationship with them. You can then let them be your eyes and ears in the job market, keeping you up to date on new jobs that would be a good next step for your career based on what’s important to you. (Think of them as career bots you let loose into the wild and are working for you for free!)
If you want to find a good, reliable recruiter, I recommend asking people in your network for referrals (it’s what I do when I need a recruiter outside IT). Also, it’s often the individual, not the organisation they work for, that drives the level of service you receive. You can have a great experience with one recruiter and a bad experience with another from the same team. So ask around, check out their LinkedIn profiles, check out their websites (avoid if their website looks like they made it on Wix in 10 minutes), and so on.
A good agent will be open and honest, be able to answer questions about the role and company, work with you on salary negotiations, and (this is a big one) help you prepare for interviews.
A few more points to bear in mind about working with agents:
- Always instruct any recruiter you work with not to send your resume to any company without your permission. “Do you mind if I send your resume to some trusted clients in my network?” might sound good to you, but you need to keep control of where your resume goes. I’ve seen people’s resumes spammed to 20 companies in a day just to hit some consultant’s ‘Resumes Sent’ target for the month. You can also have future problems with the companies you were spammed to if you apply to them later directly or via another agent/source (due to contracts between agencies and their clients on candidate representation).
- If the agent has a role for you, ask them for a job description and salary range, decide if you want to apply or not, and confirm your permission by email (not by phone, keep a written record). Beware of agents telling you that their client’s name is confidential but they’ll let you know the company name if you get an interview request. This is pure BS 99% of the time. It’s unlikely to be a confidential search for a junior role. The agent simply just doesn’t want word to get out to competitors that there’s an open job at their clients
- Sometimes an agent may have a good company fit for you but there’s no open role at the company right now. In that case, they may ask “Do you mind if I send your resume to Taro Suzuki, the CTO at ACME Inc? There’s no headcount to hire right now but Suzuki-san did tell me he’s open to receiving resumes from people with your level of experience/tech stack / particular language skills/background in marketing” or whatever. If you trust the agent, this is fine (they’re being transparent with you and it can actually land you a job if you’re lucky). Do remember to follow up with the agent for feedback later so that you’re not forgotten about.
- Keep track of all your job applications in a simple spreadsheet (company, role, date resume submitted, the agency used, what feedback you received, results of interviews, etc.) so you know where your resume has been and can keep track of everything. (Once you’re sending out a lot of job applications it’s very easy to lose track of where you’ve applied to, for which jobs, and when).
- Recruiting agent fees in Japan are generally paid by the hiring company (there are some minor fees that can be charged to candidates but I rarely see this happen). In general, if an agency asks you for any kind of fee, run away. Recruitment agencies in Japan also need to be licensed by the government and should display their license number on their website (for example, Recruitment License No: 13-Yu-302928).
- There are many recruiters outside Japan trying to recruit into the Japanese market. I generally recommend avoiding these like the plague and suggest only working with a licensed Japan-based agency. This gives you certain protections under Japanese law, recourse if your personal information is leaked in a data breach, the right to have your personal information deleted by the agency, a physical office you can visit if you need to make a complaint or meet to prepare for an interview, and so on. Also, local agents typically know the local market better, have personal relationships with hiring managers and HR, have visited the office you’d be working from and can tell you about the work environment and locale, give advice on where to live if you’re relocating, and much more.
Job boards have grown in popularity in Japan recently. They come in all shapes and sizes, with many supporting English-speaking job hunters.
Some are tech-focused (like my own), some are generalist job boards that include a section for IT jobs in Japan, and some focus on bilingual Japanese/English job hunters but may have roles where only English is required. Some display job adverts you apply to, while others allow you to create a profile (often anonymously) and receive scout emails from interested companies. A quick search on Google or Reddit will find you plenty of recommendations.
Job board fees are typically far cheaper for the hiring company to pay than agency fees, so they are a very popular choice for everyone from the smallest startup to the biggest tech goliath.
I’d suggest applying to roles that are asking for around 1-3 years of experience level and you might get lucky.
LinkedIn in Japan is weird. There are more LinkedIn users in Singapore than in the whole of Japan, it just never took off with regular Japanese people. However, it is popular with English speakers and you will find of a lot of English-speaking tech people on there.
LinkedIn can be a great resource for finding a job if you know how to use it properly. Of course, you can apply for jobs posted directly on LinkedIn, but those job postings are expensive, so they don’t represent a lot of the actual job market. The real power of LinkedIn comes from networking.
Here’s how NOT to use LinkedIn. You send a connection request or InMail with a very long message telling your life story, attaching three versions of your resume in multiple languages & PDF copies of all your certifications, and begging for a job. This just overwhelms people and scares them off (stalker alert!)
Here’s what I recommend:
- Connect with other alumni from your bootcamp, university, home country, etc.
- Connect with other junior engineers (they know what you’re going through) or software engineers working with tech that you enjoy
- Connect with people who could be your future boss – CTO, engineering team lead, senior engineers, etc.
- Connect with company in-house talent acquisition and HR managers or CEO/COO in smaller companies
The key is to just send a very short personal message when you connect. Something like:
“Hi, Diane. I’m a junior engineer looking to connect with members of the Tokyo tech community”.
That’s it. No other ’ask’. A lot of people will accept this kind of request. It’s not pushy, you’re not asking for a meeting, and you’re not filling their screen with text and attachments.
Once connected, send a brief thank you along the lines of:
“Thanks for connecting, Diane. I’m currently job hunting and would appreciate it if you could keep me in mind for any opportunities at your company. I’m aiming for a junior front-end developer role and my resume & portfolio are here: www.givepaulrobertsajob.com. Thank you.”
Keep it simple, keep it short, be polite and respect their time.
And now you are growing your LinkedIn connections, engage with them. Comment/like useful articles they share, and congratulate them on their new job or promotion. Throw in some advice based on your personal experience. Ask questions. Make introductions between people you know who don’t know each other but should (I love this one!)
The tech community in Japan hosts some excellent meetups and events and these can be a great way to meet new people and connect for jobs (as well as learn something new, of course).
Create a free account on Meetup.com and run a search. Just taking a look as I write this, with ‘technology’ and ‘Tokyo’ as criteria, here are a few examples from many:
- Tokyo Women in Technology (454 members)
- Hacker News Tokyo (1110 members)
- Tokyo FinTech Meetup (3508 members)
- Blockchain Tokyo (469 members)
- Tokyo Developers Group (222 members)
- And there are niche groups with 5 or 10 members that might be discussing something you’d enjoy (maybe you’re building a crypto exchange in Minecraft and need a co-founder)
Many events moved online during Covid, which actually worked out quite well. You could sit at home in Sapporo in your pyjamas and attend an event being hosted in Fukuoka. At the time of writing this article (November 2022), many events are now hybrid events, mixing both physical and virtual attendees, which I hope continues.
Some events may be workshops to participate in, and others may be presentations from speakers you can just sit back and watch, often with a Q&A afterwards. I think many of these are very “user friendly” to more introverted people who dread walking into a room full of strangers and having to “work the room”, balancing a glass of wine in one hand and a half-eaten sandwich in the other.
After the event, send out a few LinkedIn invitations to the speakers, hosts or other attendees. I’ve made good friends by just simply dropping someone a note telling them their presentation was fun and that I learned something new.
One note of caution. Do research who set up & runs the meetup group. Sometimes it’s just a recruiting agency ploy to register new candidates.
While most people are looking for a full-time (seishain) job, don’t ignore contract roles. They can be a great way to get your foot in the door of a company and gain valuable experience for your resume. Many companies are more flexible when hiring contractors and give more junior people a chance (I once helped a young guy get a job whose only previous work experience were summer jobs as a beach lifeguard. He’s now sales director at a financial software firm).
From your side, you can try out a company and role and see if you like it. You can more easily move on if it’s not the right fit for you than if you had joined as a permanent employee. (If you’re asked why you left the role you can simply state that ‘the contract was completed’.) Interview processes are often dramatically shortened too, often just to one meeting.
Many companies are happy to convert hard-working contract staff to permanent employees if they perform well, and many contracting agencies are happy to make this happen. I really liked introducing someone to a company as a 6-month contractor and seeing them as a full-time employee managing their own team a few years later.
You don’t usually see contract roles advertised online as often as permanent jobs as most companies hire contractors through a contracting agency (for convenience & various legal reasons). Many agencies with permanent recruitment licenses are also licensed to dispatch contractors (they should have a temporary dispatch or haken license).
Instead of paying a one-off lump fee to the agency when hiring someone permanently, the agency charges an hourly or monthly fee that includes your salary, plus their agency margin (e.g., employment costs such as social insurance contributions & employee benefits, a finders fee for locating you, & some profit). The agency will act as a middleman to negotiate with both you and the company, preparing contract paperwork, handling contract renewals, and generally supporting you during your time as a contractor.
Contracts come in several different forms. I’ll write an article on contracting another time, but a key question to ask the agency is whether you are going to be on the agency’s payroll (i.e. their employee for the duration of the contract) or acting as an independent contractor (i.e. self-employed and responsible for your own taxes, social insurances, and so on). As these can be complex and affect things like taxes and visa sponsorship, make sure the agent explains all this to you clearly.
Do a Google search and you’ll find quite a few contract agencies that help English speakers. Some will provide a great candidate/contractor experience, negotiate a good salary for you, provide decent benefits & training, and generally take care of you. But there are some dodgy agencies out there too, paying salaries late, messing up tax or social insurance paperwork, providing no benefits, or underpaying you.
I’ve worked at Skillhouse and Morgan McKinley and trust them to be honest and above board, but ask around for referrals and do your own due diligence.
Another often overlooked path into a company is via an internship. I did a summer internship at an Irish software company during college and they offered me a full-time job after I graduated, setting me on the path that has me sitting in Yokohama writing this for you.
I don’t know of a good resource/list for internships in Japan, you may just need to Google and look at company websites directly.
Internships are either paid or unpaid. Personally, I think unpaid internships are exploitative (everyone should be paid if they are providing work), but if you have the means and value the experience, I can understand someone taking an unpaid internship too. I’ve seen several bootcamp grads successfully go down the internship -> full-time employee path.
Open Source Projects
This isn’t in the ‘full-time job’ suggestion category, but I think contributing to open-source projects can give you both valuable contacts and experience.
Don’t worry about impostor syndrome or that you’re too junior to contribute. Many projects need help with bug fixes, QA & testing, documentation, translation & localization, and other things you may be able to help with based on your background. You may be able to take on more coding responsibilities as you get to know the project team.
Along with experience for your resume and portfolio, you can contribute to the tech world at the same time!
The same goes for freelance projects. If you can pick up some paid (or voluntary) projects while you continue to job hunt, it’s all adding value to you.
The Indirect Path
Don’t forget that you don’t always need to travel from A to B directly. Sometimes you can make a stop by C on the way. I know quite a few developers who started as QA or technical support engineers and moved into software engineering roles later.
Examining opportunities from a slightly longer-term perspective can be wise. If you’re interviewing for a non-development role, ask if there could be future opportunities to move into development and if it’s happened for other engineers in the past. Many good companies would rather offer you a varied career path than see you move on to another company or a competitor.
So there you have it, my basic advice to you for finding your first job after bootcamp. As I said, it can be stressful, tiring, and a lot of hard work, but trust me, the feeling you get when you receive your first meishi with ‘Software Engineer’ as your job title is hard to beat!
I’m always open to making connections with new people. If you’d like some advice on your resume or portfolio or just a chat about the market, feel free to contact me anytime.
And one request from my side – I will try to keep this guide updated based on your feedback. I’d love to hear from you about what worked or didn’t work in your job search, what I may have overlooked or omitted in this guide, and your success stories and lessons learned.
Was this helpful to you? Drop me a comment below.
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