By Chang-Ran Kim
Barely six months after inaugurating a tiny software-coding boot camp in a basement in Tokyo, Silicon Valley transplant Kani Munidasa stood before some of Japan‘s top business leaders in February with a warning: software was threatening their future
A Sri Lankan native with a Japanese mother and wife, Munidasa was speaking at the invitation of Nobuyuki Idei, a former chief executive of Sony Corp.
Idei had offered to become an adviser to the boot camp, called Code Chrysalis, whose mission of bringing Japan’s software engineering up to global standards and helping its companies transform aligned with his own.
“Idei-san told me, ‘Tell it as it is; don’t sugar-coat anything. They need to hear that change has to happen,'” Munidasa said, recalling how he showed up at the executives’ meeting in a T-shirt and hoodie.
Long known as a “monozukuri” – or manufacturing – powerhouse, Japan is in danger of getting left behind as artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning sweep through industries from cars to banking, Idei and others say. Japanese companies have traditionally treated software as a means to cut costs rather than add value, and code-writers as second-class citizens. Entry-level software engineers in Japan make about $40,000 on average – less than half their U.S. counterparts.
Programs like Code Chrysalis are trying to change that by injecting Silicon Valley training methods into Japan’s slow-to-change corporate culture.
Coding, “soft skills” like public speaking and even physical fitness are all on the agenda. Since Code Chrysalis opened last July, a dozen students have graduated from its 12-week course, with six more in the pipeline. The camp currently accepts up to eight applicants per session.
For the students, the benefits are clear: their salaries increased by an average of nearly 80 percent after graduation, according to Code Chrysalis.
Japanese companies are desperate for skilled developers, with top IT recruiter Computer Futures seeing 2.3 job openings for every applicant so far this year, and most positions being filled by foreigners.
Educators and industry leaders hope programs such as Code Chrysalis will be transformative for Japan.
“Even if the numbers are small, I think (Code Chrysalis) can have a big impact,” Idei told Reuters, noting that Japan had focused too much on “physical goods” in the post-Internet age.
“The United States has Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon,” said Idei, now CEO of his consultancy, Quantum Leaps. “China’s got Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Japan doesn’t have a single platform company. That’s the No. 1 difference.”
A TEXTBOOK PROBLEM
Japan’s English-language education, notoriously focused on standardized testing, has hindered the development of good programmers, industry insiders say.
Without a good grasp of the language, programmers are always a step behind, waiting for translations to access cutting-edge tools and methods.
Toyota is making English the common language for the 1,000 software engineers it plans to employ at a new automated-driving unit launching in Tokyo next month.
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