Profile #18: Drew Terry – founder of OpenSalary.jp

Paul: Drew Terry is the founder of OpenSalary.jp, a website promoting salary transparency for the tech community in Japan.

Drew and I spoke about starting his career as a software engineer in Japan, transitioning to a Technical Product Manager role at Mercari, building OpenSalary from his initial idea, and his goals for the future.

Hi Drew. Thanks for speaking with me today. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Drew: My name’s Drew. I grew up in Northern California just outside San Francisco. I went to university in Los Angeles and then moved to Japan at the end of 2015. Most recently I worked at Mercari as a Technical Product Manager but left a couple of months ago to go full-time on my site OpenSalary.jp, which promotes salary transparency and helps employees figure out what kind of pay they can expect in Japan.

You studied at the University of Southern California, majoring in business administration with a minor in web technologies and applications. What were your interests and what kind of career were you thinking about when you chose these to study?

I studied business mainly because after graduating from high school I had no idea what I wanted to do or what I was really interested in. Both my parents studied business at Berkeley so they suggested I study business as well since it provided a lot of flexibility in terms of jobs and industries I could enter after graduating.

I eventually added the web technologies minor on top because I had been interested in startups for a long time and I wanted to learn more about technology in case I wanted to be able to build something myself. The minor itself was actually the smallest minor offered at the entire school so it definitely did not really prepare me to be able to create something completely on my own but it did teach me some PHP, how to connect to a database, and some JavaScript and jQuery so I could make simple frontend pages. It was a great introduction and it interested me enough that it inspired me to start self-studying web development on my own.

What was your interest in Japan up to this point?

My interest in Japan is a little convoluted but basically, I grew up my whole life in California and was 100% content staying in California. However, as part of the business program at USC in my freshmen year, everyone was encouraged to participate in a program where we went on a “business trip” to a different country. I chose to go to Hong Kong, which was my first experience abroad and it was really mind-blowing realizing there was a whole different world outside of California. After that, I decided to study abroad in Hong Kong for a semester. During that period I travelled a lot around Asia and I got really jealous of my friends that could speak Mandarin or Cantonese and talk with people in the places we travelled to. So I decided that I wanted to learn a language since I could only speak English at that time.

I was debating on learning Mandarin or Japanese but I ultimately decided on learning Japanese. During my study abroad, I visited Japan for a week and really loved Tokyo. I was really surprised by how clean it was, how good the public transportation was and how great the service was, which was completely different compared to what I was used to in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Additionally, I was really surprised by the low level of English which was important to me because I wanted to learn a language that would allow me to speak to people I normally wouldn’t be able to speak to.

As more of a coincidence than anything, my Mom is third-generation Japanese-American so I’m technically half Japanese, and this played a small role in my decision as well since I thought it would be interesting to “visit my roots” so to speak.

How did your career start in the US after graduation and how did you end up relocating to work in Japan full-time?

This is another long story, but I actually found the job in Japan first.

After I graduated, I went to Japan for two months to do a language program. I intended to go back to the US after that but after I did the language program I realized that I had to live in Japan for a  longer period of time if I were to get better at Japanese. The tourist visa in Japan is only 3 months so halfway through my program I started frantically looking for jobs. Most people told me as a new grad that didn’t speak Japanese that my only option was probably going to be teaching English but this wasn’t so interesting to me so I (desperately) kept searching for other opportunities via networking. I was so desperate that I posted a question on Quora asking if there was any tech company in Japan willing to hire foreign graduates. You can actually see the question here.

Someone saw my question and contacted me. He ran a venture-backed startup and I met up with him for lunch. He didn’t have anything for me since I didn’t speak Japanese and basically, my skillset was all business and product-related but as we were leaving he mentioned that he was looking to hire engineers. I told him that I had been building a website on the side and that maybe I could be a software engineer. He set up a meeting with the CTO and I showed him some of the websites I was building. He was impressed enough to give me a one-month internship.

I completed the internship and was lucky to get a full-time offer afterwards. From there I went back to the US to do the paperwork and wait for the documents etc. But it ended up being that once I was ready to go to Japan the company had some financial issues and told me it would be best to wait for a while.

So in the meantime, I went back to one of the companies I had interned at previously and worked for them for about a year as a product manager/business analyst. 

Eventually, the financial situation of the company I was joining in Japan improved and I was able to move to Japan and start my career here! Haven’t looked back since.

Talk us through your career in Japan from software engineer to technical product manager at Mercari.

As I mentioned before, I kind of accidentally fell into my job as a software engineer in Japan because it was the only job I could do outside of teaching English given my Japanese level. I never intended on being a software engineer until I found that opportunity in Japan.

My plan was always to go into product management since I was really most interested in thinking about users and figuring out ways to make their lives better. I had always been told though that the best product managers tend to have a technical background (it’s actually a requirement at many of the larger companies in the US) so that was was one of the main reasons I had been studying programming and why I accepted the offer to become a software engineer.

Anyways, I worked at the initial startup I joined as a full-stack software engineer on a team of 5. It was an amazing experience because they taught me how to code and no one on the development team spoke English so they also ended up teaching me a lot of Japanese as well. After a little over a year, the company went through a downsizing due to some financial issues and I was part of that downsizing. 

But it was okay because then I joined an education technology company called Quipper (part of Recruit) where I continued working as a full stack developer and was able to learn a lot about working on a larger product with a much larger team of software engineers (around 50 members or so). Quipper was an amazing company and I’ve never worked on teams where people were so passionate about the mission and the product. I also met several of the most influential people in my life there so it’s definitely a period in my life I don’t think I’ll ever forget. After working at Quipper for about 2.5 years, launching several features on the existing app and then launching a product from scratch, I decided that I had learned more about software development than I had ever intended and began focusing on finding something related to product.

I really love Japan and one of my dreams is to see a Japanese tech company become well known globally such as Google, Facebook, Uber etc. So I knew I wanted to join a Japanese company and one that I thought would have the potential to have a global impact. Mercari was one of the few companies that had that kind of ambition so it had been on my radar for quite a while. Actually, I applied to Mercari four times before I got an offer (just goes to show not to take rejections too hard and to not give up if you really want something!). I ended up joining Mercari as one of the first members of their newly created Technical Product Manager team. As a Technical Product Manager, I led the Design System team for almost two years and then eventually transitioned to a new team called Merwork where I helped launch the initial Merwork product which is basically a micro-tasking platform that allows Mercari users to help Mercari with some of its data efforts.

And then after that, I left Mercari to pursue OpenSalary and that’s where I am now!

That’s fantastic and brings us on to OpenSalary. The site provides transparent salary information for software engineering jobs in Japan and you launched in July 2020. What prompted you to create OpenSalary, what were your goals, and how does it work?

There were a couple of reasons:

  1. I wanted to solve my own problem. Every time I switched jobs I never had any idea of how much was reasonable for the company and for the role. 
  2. After talking with a bunch of people it became apparent to me that pay was all over the place in Japan in regards to companies, roles and experience. I had many conversations with people where for example a senior engineer was getting paid about as much as a junior engineer at the same company and the senior engineer had no idea. These kinds of situations really bothered me.

Basically, the goal of OpenSalary is to help bring more power to employees so they actually have the data to be able to make good career decisions.

Right now the concept is really simple. It’s a community-driven database of salaries. Visitors to the site can share their compensation details anonymously and then those details are added to the database where other visitors can then see them! One other special thing to note is that we really believe this kind of data should be made available to everyone so we don’t require any kind of login or make you submit information to see all the data.

Are you focusing full-time on OpenSalary now? I see you recently added salaries for Product Managers to the site too. Tell us about this and your future plans.

I’m all in on OpenSalary. I’ve wanted to start a company for a long time but always had trouble finding something that I was passionate enough about to go all-in on. 

Up until now, we’ve only been focusing on software engineers but we recently released a page for Product Managers as well because a lot of people had been asking for it (I also had a personal interest in it since I was a product manager as well).  We want to support a lot more different roles but now our focus is to expand the site to support others that are on a typical “product team” so engineers, product managers, designers etc.

Other than that we hope to be able to increase the amount, quality and granularity of our data so we can provide other interesting insights about compensation in Japan.

Brilliant. It’s an amazing resource and I recommend it regularly to job hunters and companies who want to better understand tech salaries here.

A lot of people have an idea for an online business or a website they’d like to build but it never comes to fruition. Could you tell us about the process of building OpenSalary, from the original idea to where it is today? Areas such as the design, prototyping and development, along with the business side such as how you’ve raised awareness of the site, grown the amount of salary data users have submitted, promoted the site, and so on?

I’ve been interested in company/work transparency for a long time, ever since I came to Japan basically. There are a lot of companies around the world that are starting to embrace higher levels of transparency and I was interested in ways that this could be brought to Japan. Initially, I created an MVP of a site in a weekend that just highlighted “transparent” companies that have open information on salaries, culture values, employee demographics, revenue etc. and then shared it in some Slack channels I knew (you can still see the site here: Transparent Tech Companies). It didn’t get much stable traction but I tracked where users clicked on the site and basically no one cared about anything except the salary information. That gave me a sign that people were most interested in salaries. Additionally, at this point from my work experience, personally, I had seen and dealt with a lot of issues around compensation in Japan so this was something I felt really needed solving and gave me the confidence to move forward just focusing on salaries for now.

I knew there were already some sites in the US that had been crowdsourcing salary data so I thought this was a reasonable way to start getting some salary info. So the next thing I wanted to test was if people in Japan would actually submit salary information so this time I spent another weekend and created OpenSalary which at the time was a two-page website (just the home page with a list of salaries and form to submit).

After that, I shared it privately with my personal network and was able to get enough data for it to be interesting at which point I shared it on a couple of other Slack channels. From there, someone eventually shared it on Twitter and since then it’s basically just been growing organically.

In terms of the design, development, prototyping etc, it was basically me doing everything in my spare time (also probably why the design is still so bad haha).

My advice is if you have some idea or site you want to build (especially if you’ve never launched something before) is that the most important thing is to just release something and don’t worry about it being successful. And when I say something, it could just be a landing page or an article about your idea. Just as long as it’s enough for you to share and start getting feedback from other people.

That’s good advice!

So, what does your typical day look like currently?

For better or worse, I feel like I don’t have that much of a typical day. The one constant is that I pretty much go to Starbucks every morning and get some kind of tea latte (matcha, chai, or Earl Grey).

But other than that some things I might do in a day are coding, planning product features, attending meetings, attending events, reading books, working out, and recently studying more Japanese. 

What are some of your goals for the future? Short-term, longer-term?

I really want to see a shift in work culture in Japan. Japan has so many great aspects and so many diligent, hard-working people and it’s a real shame that Japan still has a reputation of having not very good work environments. I would like to see a Japan where people really enjoy their work and don’t see switching jobs as being something that is extremely risky. I’m hoping OpenSalary can help reach this reality.

As for personal goals, I gained a lot of weight during Covid so now I’m trying to get back down to what I was pre-Covid haha. Also, I’ve recently recommitted myself to learning Japanese since I felt like I got quite rusty after working so long at Mercari where most of the conversation was in English.

Great. I think information transparency can be a hugely beneficial tool for helping to reform work environments. I can relate to the Covid weight gain too, so good luck with that!

Quickfire questions

– what’s the most important piece of advice you’d give yourself if you could go back in time to your arrival in Japan?

Living in Japan won’t make you good at Japanese, you actually need to keep studying and actively trying to learn Japanese to improve at it.

– how do you learn new skills? Is there anything you’re learning currently?

I learn by doing. I find no matter how many books I read or how much research I do, I learn the fastest by throwing myself into the fire and making a ton of mistakes.

I feel like I’m learning new stuff every day since it’s the first time I’ve started a company. How to set up a company, employ myself, talk to users and understand more about what they want etc.

– tell me a few of your favourite or most recently read books, movies, podcasts, games?

It’s a classic but I really like 1984 by George Orwell, might be my overall favorite book [Amazon JapanAmazon US / UK / CA / FR / DE / ES / IT]. Recently I read Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal [Amazon JapanAmazon US / UK / CA / FR / DE / ES / IT]

I haven’t played many games recently but I really love hard games so some of my favorites have been Dark Souls and Hollow Knight. I also have to say I love Super Smash Bros (I used to host competitive tournaments in Tokyo).

– what’s the best thing you’ve spent 10,000 JPY on in Japan?

Kobe beef in Kobe.

Finally, do you have any asks from our readers? How can they support OpenSalary?

If you believe in more openness and transparency in the workplace please consider contributing to OpenSalary!

Another thing that is really helpful is sharing the site on social media or with your friends. I love getting feedback on the site so if there is anything you want to see or any ways you think you can improve it, send me a message on Twitter or Linkedin!

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Drew, and best of luck as you continue to grow OpenSalary.

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