Profile #8: Sylvain Pierre, Entrepreneur & co-founder of Le Wagon Tokyo

Paul: Sylvain Pierre is an entrepreneur, co-founder of the Le Wagon Tokyo coding bootcamp, and Tokyo resident since 2016. We talk about how Sylvain got into entrepreneurship, his experiences in Vietnam and Japan, and Le Wagon’s on-going mission of tech education.

Thanks for speaking with me today, Sylvain. Please please tell us a little about yourself.

I am 37 years old, originally from France, and I’ve been spending almost half of my life in Asia, split between Vietnam and Japan.

Also, not sure if that’s relevant, but I just became a dad!!

Well, first of all, congratulations on becoming a father. Perhaps your most important role yet!

Let’s go back to the start of your career. After completing your master’s degree in France you decided to go to Vietnam and co-found Officience, a BPO company. Why did you choose Vietnam and entrepreneurship at that time? Either sounds like a challenge, doing both sounds incredibly hard.

At that time I had freshly graduated from my engineering school, and I was looking for opportunities to work abroad. Through my school’s network, I met with one of the two original Officience’s founders, and basically said yes when he asked: “So, do you want to come to Vietnam?”.

In retrospect, joining Officience’s founding team in Vietnam never seemed like a big decision for me: I don’t think I would have been a good fit for large consulting firms, for example, which is what most of my friends were going for back then.

Fun fact, I actually had interviewed in parallel with a very traditional auditing firm in Paris and failed the interview miserably.

As for the entrepreneurial aspect, I somehow “fell” into it – I don’t think any of my university friends would have bet on me. I have the most fun starting things up, and I see myself more as a multi-instrumentalist, which are two of the skills you need to thrive in the startup environment.

Why did you decide to relocate to Japan in 2016 and why start Le Wagon here?

I visited Japan on a backpacking trip in 2007 and fell in love with the country – at that time I promised myself that I’d come and live here one day.

I did not start working on that plan until much later, in 2013: I started flying back and forth between Vietnam and Japan with the goal to set up Officience’s representative office. I met a ton of people during those years, including my future co-founder for Le Wagon.

When I eventually moved to Japan in Aug 2016 to finally set up the representative office, it was also the perfect timing to launch Le Wagon: my co-founder just quit his job, and on my side, the challenge to start something in a new country was really exciting.

It happened really fast: we got in touch with Le Wagon HQ in September and ended up having our first workshop as Le Wagon in December 2016.

Could you please tell us a little about Le Wagon Tokyo?

In short, we’re a coding bootcamp geared towards creative people and entrepreneurs.

We’ve been offering a Web Development course for the past 4 years, and also recently introduced a brand new Data Science program – both of which can be taken in 9 weeks full-time or 24 weeks part-time.

Our students’ backgrounds are extremely diverse, ranging from a sushi chef, financial analyst to marketing manager or English teacher. Most have been dabbling with code, and want to take it to the next level. After the bootcamp, they’ll start their career as full-stack engineers, freelancers, or launch their own ventures.

In numbers, we’ve helped 300 students change their life since we started in 2016. The average age for our students is 30, we’ve welcomed people from over 40 different countries, and we were happy to welcome 35% women in 2020. Le Wagon itself is a global community, with over 10,000 graduates worldwide.

Le Wagon Tokyo is in a very favourable spot to bring value to the country and address several of Japan’s challenges, starting with the lack of an information technology workforce, and overall startup culture. We wish to drive the company to become a staple of high-level IT education in Japan while still keeping our unique community and culture.

That’s great. As you say, Japan has a lot of challenges in the IT workforce. It’s wonderful to see people from different backgrounds learning skills and entering the field.

2020 was a challenge for everyone due to COVID. How did you and Le Wagon adapt?

With Le Wagon having been an in-person experience for 3 years, I must confess the Covid situation was “scary” at first. Japan suddenly closed its borders (while half of our students were flying in from abroad for the bootcamp at that time), and in-person gatherings were prohibited (while we were a fully in-person program).

We had to completely reinvent ourselves, from running classes remotely to moving our weekly workshops online, among other things. The highlight of the year was probably the one bootcamp session that happened fully online – students had a blast, connected with each other even more than some of our in-person sessions, and it validated the fact that we could “bring Le Wagon spirit online”.

We learned a ton over the past year, and without the limitations of physical space, we ended up growing our reach much faster than the pre-Covid years. We made a bold decision to hire Sasha in the midst of the pandemic, and she brought a lot of energy to the team, along with valuable knowledge and connections in the Japan startup community. [Editor’s note: Sasha Kaverina is responsible for Partnerships & Community for Le Wagon Tokyo]

It can be tough for bootcamp graduates to find entry-level roles, with so many companies looking for mid-level engineers. How does Le Wagon help its graduates? Could you share some success stories with us?

While most bootcamps that go for 12 weeks integrate a full week of “Career Coaching” in their curriculum, we decided to extract that career coaching and have it as an optional week at the end of the bootcamp.

Our program is 9 weeks long, so we want students to focus 200% on learning – not all of them need career coaching, and this post-bootcamp Career Week provides a “soft landing” for those who will be looking for jobs. We teach them how to build a portfolio, increase their social presence, and organize a week-long of workshops and recruiting events. After that, we switch to Office Hours mode, and students can book a coaching session with us at any time they want. Lastly, since we’ve been operating for 4 years, we have a network of over 70 companies that hired our graduates at some point, and fresh grads can tap into this network.

Of course, we’ve had quite a few cool stories over the past 4 years, with one person doubling their salary after 1 year, or a construction worker transitioning to front-end engineering.

But on a more personal level, I really enjoy witnessing the radical change of mindset for some of our graduates: students who unexpectedly fall into entrepreneurship or freelancing, get out of the “matrix” and discover a completely alternate (and enjoyable) lifestyle.

You’re active in the entrepreneurial scene in Tokyo. How does it compare with France or Vietnam?

I could probably write a whole book about that… 

My take is that the “I run a startup” or “I am an entrepreneur” movement goes beyond the stereotypes of getting funded, exponential growth, exiting and becoming a multi-millionaire.

As soon as you become an entrepreneur, you suddenly gain independence, control over your life, and very often a higher sense of purpose in your day to day activities.

In Vietnam, this wish for independence is actually the main driver for people to become entrepreneurs. When I was interviewing for potential hires at Officience, 50% (!!) of the interviewees wanted to eventually run their own business.

In France or Japan, entrepreneurship is maybe more purpose or passion-driven, and the side effect is that entrepreneurs, on their journey, discover that there is a life outside of the traditional corporate world, and very often a much more fulfilling one.

It’s interesting to see how entrepreneurship is viewed in different cultures. It’s meeting different needs in different places.

What does your typical working day look like?

As I mentioned, I think I am more of a multi-instrumentalist, and this reflects into what I do on a daily basis. On a single day, I’ll often jump between students admission, finance, marketing, blogging, corporate partnerships…

Our team is very autonomous, so my role is not necessarily to make 10 decisions a minute. I’ll be here to help the team out and add oil to the whole “engine”. Sometimes, I also teach coding!

On a personal level, I feel that I find my sweet spot running Le Wagon: meeting new people, working with an amazing team, all the while doing something meaningful.

What are your dreams or goals for the future, personally and / or professionally?

Great transition from the previous question! 

I tend to ask myself this question the other way around: what will I be disappointed not having achieved when I die? It will seem out of place, but I do want to add an artistic dimension to my life: I, for example, have a passion for music, but I haven’t quite found out exactly how I can express myself in that domain. Writing a book is also up there with a few other items I won’t disclose 🙂

The way you phrased the question is also really interesting: since I was 23, I never felt I made a clear separation between my personal and professional life. Whatever my next step is, I want to keep it that way.

Cool. Let us know when you write your book!

Quickfire questions

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

Maximize your opportunities to practice spoken Japanese (especially in izakayas!)

I’ve been here for 4 years, and I still can’t build a proper sentence in Japanese. My listening and reading skills are pretty okay, but every time I try to form a full sentence, I just mess it up.

– how do you learn new skills?

Most of the time, out of necessity.

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

For books, my all-time favourite read is Reinventing Organizations – Frédéric Laloux, hands down. [Amazon JP / Amazon US]

I’ve been hooked on climbing over the past year, and I keep rewatching Free Solo and The Dawn Wall. What Alex Honnold did often tops the list of single greatest athletic achievements of all time, and when you start climbing, you can’t disagree with that.

I don’t listen to podcasts – Any recommendations?

Good question! Here are a few of my favourites to get you started:

99% Invisible – a super interesting show on the unnoticed design and architecture that shapes the world. Everything from architecture and cities to technology and everyday objects. A real eye-opener.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History – Dan Carlin is a journalist and broadcaster well known for his in-depth (and very long) podcasts on historical subjects such as Genghis Khan and WW2 in the Pacific.

Business Success Japan – this is Lydia Beukelman’s podcast series on Japan, with a focus on communication. She’s interviewed some really interesting people in this series (and me too!).

– your favourite place to visit in Japan?

Restaurants!

Joking aside, I do love the fact that Tokyo has so many family-run places where the owner is going to do everything to give you the best experience possible.

And it doesn’t have to be fancy food – One of my favourite places is a tiny omurice shop in Chofu (where I used to live).

If we’re talking travels, then definitely Hokkaido 🙂

I spent a week there a couple of years ago at my friend’s parents, and though it was crazy cold I enjoyed every bit of it. 

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

I had to think about that one for a while… 

Not that it’s particularly cheap here, but concert tickets.

Some artists are just not that famous here, especially French ones, and I had amazing experiences watching bands that’d fill 10,000 people concert halls in France, like La Femme or Mathieu Chedid, in 300-people concert bars.

You can find Sylvain on LinkedIn here and Le Wagon Tokyo here. And if you’re thinking of hiring a software developer (or anyone else), please consider giving a chance to someone at the start of their career.

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