Profile #20: James Balcombe – software engineer at MODE, Tokyo

Paul: James Balcombe pivoted his career from international school computer science teacher to software engineer at a startup in Tokyo.

James and I spoke about his early interest in computers, his teaching career, his experience at bootcamp and job hunting in Tokyo, and his new life as a software developer.

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

Originally from the UK, I moved to Tokyo after four years in Beijing. I was a teacher of Computer Science in secondary schools for 12 years before making the move into software engineering earlier this year. I’ve been here in Tokyo for 5 years now, and live with my wife and 18-month-old daughter.

You graduated with a bachelor’s of computer systems engineering in 2005. Were you interested in computers growing up?

Yes, I loved playing around with computers and taking things apart and, usually unsuccessfully, putting them back together. My first real exposure to doing so with computers was from a friend’s father who worked for IBM. Their house was filled with computers and he helped me build my first PC – a 486DX66 with I think 16MB of RAM and a 500MB hard drive. I was that kid in my primary school who knew how computers worked and would be called on to fix something by our class teacher if it wasn’t working.

You didn’t pursue an IT career after graduation. Instead, you moved into the education field in 2009, spending the next few years as an IT teacher in secondary schools and doing your master’s in leadership and management for learning. How did your interest in learning & education develop?

When I graduated I had no desire to go into development work. The recruitment fairs were filled with banks, other financial institutions, and all the big companies recruiting – bear in mind this was 2005, there was no Google, Facebook, etc. and I didn’t want to be in that kind of environment. I ended up living in the south of France for almost 2 years where I worked for a small construction company doing everything from pouring concrete to building our website and liaising with suppliers. That business failed and I was driving back to the UK in the middle of the night wondering what I would do next. I really enjoyed being at school as a child and sharing what I know, so it was a logical step to go back and be on the other side of the desk. For the most part, I loved being a teacher, interacting with young people, seeing them develop and those aha moments.

You moved to a head of computer science role at an international school in Beijing in 2013. How did that move come about? Had you an interest in working overseas and in China in particular?

Actually, no. I didn’t even want to work in private education in the UK, I had a pretty strong belief in state education and equality of education, and my perception of international schools was that they were not promoting that sense of equality. However, I was at a turning point in my life, having just divorced my first wife, and I heard that my first head teacher was taking up a post in Beijing. I checked out the school and it looked interesting and they had a role open that was perfect for me. I reached out and he convinced me it was a great school, and he was right. I think that the right type of international school has an important role to play. It would be impossible for a child who has moved with their parents to fit into the local education system in a country where they cannot access the language, and good international schools fill that role for them.

What was your experience like living in China at that time?

I loved working there, with wonderful colleagues and students, but life in China is challenging. It’s almost organized chaos – people driving on the wrong side of the road because of traffic jams, driving on the pavement, litter everywhere in the countryside, and of course the pollution. Eventually, I just had enough of living in that environment and knew I needed to make a move.

And that brings us to Japan. You took up the position of Head of Computer Science at The British School in Tokyo (BST) and moved here in 2017. Tell us about what prompted you to make the move to Japan and your experience at the British School.

Having spent four years in Beijing I was definitely looking for somewhere more stable for my next post and I had my eye on Japan for some years. It’s clean, safe, stable, and the people love to queue (an important characteristic for a Brit). I was fortunate that at the time I was looking to move on, a position was open here in Tokyo. As for my time at BST, let’s just say I was underwhelmed. The school is basically good, but its leadership was definitely lacking. I’d come from a school at the top of its game, where things changed quickly when they needed to and my colleagues were always open to new ideas and improving their teaching. Where I was supported by my managers to develop and progress in my career. Unfortunately, BST was none of those things for me and I found myself getting more and more frustrated at the lack of development and personal opportunity to grow.

Your next move was another big one. You left the British School and took a software engineering bootcamp course at Code Chrysalis late last year. Could you tell us about the decision to change your career to software engineering? You had a newborn daughter at the time, so a lot more responsibility as a husband and father than when you’d moved to China or Japan.

I was feeling a real lack of growth and development for myself in teaching at BST, and having gotten rather attached to Japan and a number of its residents, I had no desire to move to another country once more. I’d spent a summer on a personal software project and had really enjoyed the process of learning new technologies and seeing my ideas take fruition. It rekindled the joy I had as a child building things with Lego and the like. So when I found out about Japan’s generous family leave program I knew I had an opportunity to see if software engineering could be the right fit for a new career. It provided me with a good safety net. If I didn’t enjoy the bootcamp, I could go back to teaching, but if I did, then it would open up a lot more opportunities.

Could you tell us a bit about your experience at coding bootcamp, for example, what the learning experience was like, the experience of taking a bootcamp during Covid, and so on? I understand that it can be very challenging and intense. Outside of technical skills, what else did you learn and overall, was the experience what you expected?

I think I was really fortunate during the bootcamp. There were 10 of us in my cohort with a wide range of skills and backgrounds, but we all connected and really enjoyed working with each other. Although it was still “remote first”, I went into Code Chrysalis’ The Park every day and a few other teammates joined me there from time to time. The first few weeks were definitely tough, there wasn’t a lot of time to spare outside of the assignments, after that it calmed down and people found their rhythm. I’d say I definitely had it easier than the average student because of my background – a degree and 12 years of teaching the fundamentals really helped. Code Chrysalis has a great program, it’s always evolving but at its core, they emphasize the ideas of problem-solving, communication, and teamwork, and they are right to do so. All these things have been invaluable in my first 6 months as a software engineer.

Job hunting can be very challenging for bootcamp graduates in Japan. Most companies I see hiring in Japan are looking for mid or senior-level developers, with entry-level opportunities being very difficult to find, and as a recruiter, I’m rarely asked to find engineers with less than a couple of years’ experience. Could you tell us about your experience job hunting? For example, what tactics or strategies did you employ, what worked and what didn’t work, what were the interview processes like at the companies you interviewed with, and so on?

Job hunting was definitely tough, but again Code Chrysalis prepared us well. You will get rejected, you will get ghosted, you will get no response from most of your applications, but you have to keep on applying and keep your skills up. I applied to about 40 posts, I think I had responses from half, and in the end, I secured 3 offers.

My strategy was pretty simple, I applied for literally any post I saw that was even remotely interesting to me, regardless of the requirements like 3 years experience, etc. For someone with essentially no experience, it will be a numbers game here in Japan where positions for entry-level engineers are few and far between. The other part of the strategy was to emphasize my USP. I spent 12 years honing my ability to communicate technical concepts to children as young as 11, a huge part of working in tech is communicating your ideas and the product, whether to your colleagues, customers, or other stakeholders.

I don’t remember exactly how many interviews I had, but the process was pretty much as follows in each case:

  1. An initial conversation with an internal recruiter/HR
  2. A take-home assignment/test or a live coding challenge
  3. Sometimes a follow-up technical challenge
  4. Q&A with engineers/team leaders
  5. Q&A with CTO (or similar)

You joined MODE, Inc. as a software engineer in March. MODE is an IoT startup providing cloud services for real-world data collection. How have your first six months as a professional developer been? What kind of challenges have you come across and how have you dealt with them? Is life as a developer what you thought it would be like when you decided to change careers?

I’ve really enjoyed my time at MODE so far. The company is still quite small with about 20 staff, half of that on the product engineering team so it’s pretty easy to get to know everyone, and they are all very friendly and supportive. I was given plenty of time to find my feet and understand our products. 

I think the biggest challenge is still knowing when to ask for help. It was mentioned often at Code Chrysalis that you shouldn’t spend more than 20 minutes stuck on something. But it’s hard to keep asking questions when you know your colleagues are very busy, I often felt like I didn’t want to bother and distract them from their work. But at the end of the day, my work is going to contribute, and if I can’t make progress, then overall progress is slowed, and if you really are stuck you can’t learn without help. Often just writing the question to a colleague in Slack is enough to get a spark of a solution. I think this hesitancy is important to get over.

Life is definitely less hectic than being a teacher, my day is mine to plan, there is no timetable to stick to (I can go to the bathroom whenever I want to!) I think a difference from my expectation is that despite my lack of experience I spent a lot more time planning solutions and on product development discussions. This could be down to the size of the company, but I think it’s also the confidence and trust my colleagues have developed for me in the short time I have been there, and that feels good. It is what I felt was lacking in my last teaching position.

Is MODE a Japanese company?

In fact, MODE is a US company which was co-founded by the first Japanese engineer at Google, hence the Japan connection, so most of the early hires were in the US as far as I know. I am the only British employee though 😉

How do you spend your time outside of work these days? Any non-IT-related hobbies?

In the early days of fatherhood, I stumbled across NHKs English commentary on Grand Sumo so every two months or so I get really into watching it. I’ve been three times to see it live and I’m going again in September. I try to get out and cycle early in the morning to avoid the traffic (and the heat), and hopefully, now I’m in a good rhythm with work I will be able to meet up with some old colleagues for board gaming again.

What does your typical day look like?

I’m an early riser, and because our team is split over a 16 hours time zone difference (US west coast and Japan) I like to start work at 7:30. I’ll usually check on any code reviews that have come in from the previous day and then pick up where ever I left off the day before on my own tasks. If it’s good weather I’ll go for a walk at lunchtime.

I typically stop working between 4:30 and 5pm depending on what I’m working on. Then I’ll help prepare dinner and give my daughter a bath. I try to go to the office once a week, another colleague does the same and we try out the restaurants around the office.

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

Definitely going to be at MODE for at least a few more years – I’ve got a lot to learn and great colleagues to learn from. After that, who knows, it would be great to be able to personally develop something that allows for a bit more freedom in my life and ensures the best future for my daughter.

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?

Gatsby wipes are a summer godsend.

– what advice would you give to someone considering pivoting their career into tech and studying at a bootcamp?

Think about why you want to change your career. It’s going to be hard work and, at least here in Japan, finding an entry-level position can be tough.

– how do you learn new skills? What are you learning currently?

I learn best by doing and having clear feedback and guidance – not from reading textbooks. At the moment I’m learning Go as it’s our backend language, mostly from reading our existing codebase and following tutorials.

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

Top Gun Maverick was great fun – it’s the last thing I saw in the cinema.

I think the best set of books I read recently was Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, better known by its first book’s title – The Three-Body Problem.

– your favourite place to visit in Japan?

This is tough – there are so many wonderful places. We had great fun in Okinawa as a family recently, but Hakone is always a favourite for onsen.

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

Laser eye surgery, although that 10,000 was just a fraction of the overall cost (does this count? haha)

Yes it does, and I’ll second that! Getting Lasik was a life changer for me too after wearing glasses since childhood.

Well, thanks for sharing your story with me today, James. Best of continued success to you in your software engineering career!

You can connect with James via his personal website and LinkedIn

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