LOVE JAPAN? LEARN TO CODE
What if the universal language Japan needs most is not English, but code?
Words: David Willoughby/Workers U
AS YOU’VE CLICKED on this article, I’m going to make an assumption about you. You already live in Japan or plan to in the near future.
Japan is not really the place to be savoured from a distance. You really need to be here, to drink it up and soak in it. Most people who love Japan will accept almost any invitation to live here.
Then, post-honeymoon, you realise that living in Japan comes with a price to pay: your career. Job opportunities are limited if you don’t speak fluent Japanese. And even learning the language is no guarantee of a rewarding career.
Yes, the very thing that keeps Japan interesting – its refusal to bend to the outside world and become just another globalised economy – is the same thing that gets to most people in the end.
A typical response is to sit tight and wait for the forces of globalisation to compel Japan to embrace English. But what if we’ve been waiting for the wrong bus? What if the universal language that rescues Japan from its self-imposed isolation is not English, but code?
Paul Gaumer and Sylvain Pierre, organisers of Le Wagon Tokyo, Japan’s first full-stack developer bootcamp in English, are confident they can turn even a programming novice into a developer in nine weeks.
Le Wagon began in Paris in 2013 when developer bootcamps were a relatively new concept in Europe. Global expansion followed in 2015 when Le Wagon introduced a franchise model.
Paul and Sylvain spotted an opportunity and acquired the franchise for Japan last year. The first programme launched in early 2017 at Impact Hub Tokyo in Meguro.
Workers University met up with Le Wagon during the peak of Meguro’s hanami frenzy to find out what their current students are up to, and to delve into their reasons for launching an English-language developer bootcamp in Japan.
Before we get to Le Wagon, tell us about your background in Japan.
PG: I’ve been here for seven years. I came here as a student first and I started my career in recruitment like many foreigners here. Then I moved to marketing and got more involved in digital products. Very quickly I had some ideas of my own that I wanted to develop, but I didn’t have any technical skills. I started to study alone on Code Academy, but very quickly I wanted to do more. I was looking for a bootcamp here but I didn’t find anything. The only option was to go back to Europe or to the US, so I went back to France and did Le Wagon myself as a student. Me and Sylvain were already discussing building something here in Japan and when I came back we launched Le Wagon in Japan last December.
SP: As for myself, I first came to Japan in 2008. I really enjoyed it and always had it in mind to live here, though I was based in Vietnam at the time. From 2013, I started to visit Japan more regularly to meet people and build a network. I moved here finally in August last year, first to set up a representative office for my partner’s IT outsourcing business in Vietnam and then to launch Le Wagon.
So how does Le Wagon work?
PG: Basically what we get from Le Wagon is we share the curriculum, materials and platform. We share all the knowledge that Le Wagon already created, which we know works because they’ve been doing it since 2013 and over 1200 people have graduated. Our job locally is to create the community, to create the partnerships, to find and train the students and to support them afterwards in finding a job.
And the course is up and running?
PG: The first course launched in February and our final Demo Day is coming up on April 28th. Demo Day is a showcase for students’ final projects. We invite investors and anyone else who wants to come.
The curriculum is nine weeks and the programme is full-stack. So we start with Ruby and programming basics, then move to the database, front-end, Rails, and the last three weeks are dedicated to projects. First is building an Airbnb clone for one week, and after that students work on their own project. A typical day starts with a lecture followed by exercises in pairs. That lasts until 5:30pm and after that we have a live coding session in the evening.
SP: Everything we do is project-based so every single day they have to build something using what they’ve seen that morning or on the days before.
What’s the average skill level of students entering the course?
PG: From zero experience to fake beginners. Some people have been playing with tutorials. We also have some total beginners who’ve never touched a line of code, and that’s why we have a selection process. We give them some simple tests so they can see what coding is and if they like it, before they commit to the course.
SP: And then during the course we have both mandatory and optional challenges. So more experienced students will complete 90% of the challenges, while beginners will work mainly on the mandatory ones.
PG: What we see is that everybody is around the same level after around two weeks, because the programme is designed to allow beginners to improve quickly.
In just two months, you take people right up to the level of being able to apply for a job as a developer. How is the job market in Japan?
PG: It’s in dire need of good developers!
SP: Every time we meet small or medium-sized companies, pretty much every time they are hiring. We were at a Japanese internet company last week and one of the team managers was looking for five to ten engineers.
PG: If you compare the situation now to how it was three years ago, you can see it’s become a lot more dynamic. You see a lot more ideas and you can see more investment as well. Still very low compared to other countries, but things are moving up finally.
Living in Japan, it’s easy to get stuck in a mid-career rut. How realistic is it for an older person to retrain as a developer?
PG: Well, what tech companies want to see is what you can do, what you can build. Obviously we have yet to validate this in Japan, but what we see in other cities around the world is that age doesn’t matter. For our first batch of students here, we have an age range of 21 to 34, and the average is 28.
SP: And we already have one student aged 45 signed up for our next programme starting on May 29th. But also, the course is designed to accommodate people with different expectations. Participants aged 30 or over might be training for something more like an IT management role.
One thing that really helps when learning to code is having a mentor, someone who can help you over each little obstacle.
PG: Exactly, and this is why our student-teacher ratio is so important. So right now we have nine students in a group and six developers to mentor them, working in shifts of two or three.
SP: We find teachers in our network here in Japan, and two of the teachers we have right now came from Le Wagon in Paris, so they have a lot of experience with bootcamps.
What are the most important coding skills to learn? And how likely is that to change in future?
PG: I think the language you learn when you’re a beginner is only a tool, and that’s not necessarily what you will use in years to come. In our case, we teach Ruby because it’s a very powerful yet easy language to learn. And it will teach you all the basics that you need to become a developer.
So in terms of stack, we decided to use Ruby and Rails mainly because they’re easy for beginners and very quickly they can build stuff that they can use and showcase. But behind this layer, the most important thing is to understand the core principles of development so that they can move on later to something more advanced.
SP: Another thing that we try to transfer is the mindset of getting things done, of getting something out. So there’s a bit of that startup mindset and making things happen rather than the waterfall development mindset which is totally outdated. So it’s more the idea that shipped is better than perfect.
PG: That’s one of the specific things about Le Wagon compared to other programmes. Le Wagon has a very entrepreneurial DNA and we try to implement an agile way of doing things. For the last ten days, they create and work inside a mini startup so they end up with a lot more than just a set of developer skills.
So, for someone interested in Le Wagon, what should they do next?
SP: We have a lot of online resources. You can find our curriculum and details of our next demo day as well as videos of past demo days. There are also a couple of bootcamp review sites to evaluate Le Wagon against other bootcamps around the world. After application, we have a short interview which is mostly to check motivation, and there is also a bit of prep work to bring new students up to speed on certain concepts.
And for people who say they have no hope of getting nine weeks off work?
PG: Yes, we hear that all the time. But Le Wagon is aimed at a very particular type of person who has already decided that they want to make a big change in their lives. They’re no longer at the stage of wondering if they should do it; they’ve decided they’re going to do it!
FIND YOUR WAY
What are the options for working as a developer in Japan? Le Wagon Tokyo say there are three paths that students intend to follow.
FIND A JOB
Coding is one of the few jobs you can do in Japan with only a basic understanding of Japanese. It’s also one of the most in-demand skills, with many more openings than qualified candidates. Some students plan to find work as a front-end developer or product manager. Others are already being financed by their current employer.
Coding is a job that lends itself to remote working. Some students plan to use their developer skills to live where they choose and sell their skills on a freelance basis. For anyone who wants to enjoy the obvious benefits of living in Japan – especially outside the major cities – this is an attractive proposition, though you’ll still need a visa.
LAUNCH A BUSINESS
Other students will go down the startup route. Japan is becoming an increasingly attractive place for startups with a growing infrastructure of coworking spaces and incubators in Tokyo and other regional cities. More and more Japanese people are looking to swap corporate jobs for something entrepreneurial, so you’ll find no shortage of prospective local partners.
Workers University is all about improving work in Japan. We asked Le Wagon what they’d like to change about the working culture.
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