Working as a Software Engineer for Japanese Startup Ubie
I want to write a little bit about Ubie, the company I am currently working for, and give some insight in English. For those who don’t know, Ubie develops an AI powered symptom checker that suggests diseases based on a quick questionnaire about your symptoms.
I am a relatively early member of Ubie. I am able to speak Japanese fluently and joined the company without the expectation of using English in the first place. This was the usual practice in my previous career as well and as a non-Japanese this always has put me in a little bit of a special position.
However, I am now working in the english speaking “global team” of Ubie, but most of the things I am going to write about are more valid for the Japanese part of the company.
Ubie is a med-tech startup that aims to follow in the footsteps of the countless silicon valley success stories, but more on that later. I joined Ubie because a former colleague approached me and sold me the vision. Changing the medical landscape in Japan, followed by conquering the world and aiming for the next big tech IPO. I already have worked with a couple of the members in Ubie before so I knew that there was enough skill present to actually have a good shot at this highly ambitious project.
And I didn’t get disappointed so far. Since I started to work at Ubie, permanent employees have quadrupled and several funding rounds were completed.
The Japanese Startup Scene
What is your image of working as a Software Engineer for a Japanese company? The image of Software Engineers in Japan was pretty bad, or if you are looking at the wrong companies, it is still pretty bad today. Software Engineering is associated with low pay, lots of overwork and also with ridiculously strict hierarchies. Some horror stories that you might have heard are that you are not allowed to go home before your supervisor has left the office or even that you literally work yourself to death (Karoshi). Companies with especially bad conditions are called “Black Companies”. Luckily, I have never encountered such extreme examples and I truly hope it’s just rare exceptions rather than the norm.
But things have started to change in recent years. There are more and more workplaces emerging for Software Engineers that want to get rid of old values and practices. Workplaces in which you are given more benefits and higher responsibility rather than being viewed as the outsourced blue collar worker. In exchange, you have to be more committed to results that push the company further. The development process is more agile and there will also be a more diverse culture. You are more likely to encounter non Japanese engineers as well.
Pioneers of this practice that I can think of are companies like Mercari, Line or Cookpad. There are many other companies that have a positive image with me such as SmartNews, PayPay, LayerX, and more. All of these companies are relatively young and share a vision driven by innovation, growth and success. This may be universal for startups in other countries but it is just recently that these values arrived in Japan.
Founded by a doctor and an engineer, Ubie aims to have a great impact in the medical sector by utilizing AI technology. The heart of Ubie is a suggestion engine that guesses your medical condition based on a set of questions about your symptoms. These questions are crafted and supervised by real doctors. The AI will also adjust the question strategy based on the previous answers in order to make a better guess. Collecting the answers of patients for these questions is usually conducted in the waiting room of a hospital or clinic. The feedback from patients and AI is then sent directly into the doctor’s office. Furthermore, countless other work efficiency tools have been added around that process such as OCR scanning of medicine prescription records or triage functionality. A consumer facing service has also been launched last year which is gaining popularity as well.
Ubie has been founded with the purpose to go public from the very beginning. The role models are the new big players from silicon valley: Netflix, Uber and the sort.
As it is the usual practice, competitive salaries and stock options are provided to attract the skill and expertise needed to realize the vision. Needless to say that the motivation is very high. Many employees left big and renowned companies to take up the challenge.
Engineering Culture at Ubie
With one of the founders being an engineer and a high percentage of engineers in general, Ubie has embedded a lot of engineering philosophy into its core values. The catchphrase “Hello, Healthy World” which is describing our vision to provide great health care and medical guidance for everyone utilizes the famous “Hello World!” phrase from programming. With many engineering concepts being prevalent, interesting things start to happen. For example, doctors that are working at Ubie start to learn SQL and are commenting on each other’s PRs in GitHub. (Our in-house developed medical database is managed by a Git repository)
Software Engineers at Ubie are typically in their late twenties or early thirties. Almost everybody has experienced a leading role at some point in their career. Many have an upbeat and open character which can also show in Slack. In some random channels it feels more like you are on an unmoderated internet message board. Coding chatbots for fun or creating memes of other members and the founders is accepted, if not even encouraged. It is one way everybody utilizes to make work fun and interesting to be able to keep pushing forward.
At Ubie, Software Engineers will also participate in the development of the product itself. New ideas for verification or the introduction of new tools is strongly encouraged. Taking the lead, wanting to make changes and pushing the product forward, both short and long term, is expected. This is done usually in collaboration with the other roles, such as designers and project owners, everybody is part of the decision making process.
Talking about the technology, Ubie adopts a microservice architecture. Each team can decide programming languages and tools by themselves and is not bound to company-wide rules or policies from some sort of upper management. More commonly used languages/frameworks that are used through the company are Kotlin/Spring for the backend and TypeScript/React at the frontend. But as long as the application is neatly packed into a Docker image that SRE can deploy, there are no real restrictions. Getting things done rather than having endless discussions is also a core value that everybody shares. To prevent chaos, the microservice architecture is managed separately by a couple of members from each team and sane ground rules are being worked out. The necessary refactoring included.
Management Culture at Ubie
One unique aspect of Ubie is that there are no pure management positions. Even though we now have over 100 permanent employees. This raises a couple of questions, for example of how to keep things in order or how to evaluate the work of employees.
To keep structure in the organization, the Holacracy framework was adopted when there were around 50 employees. Departments and teams can be managed by this framework and even though there is somebody who manages a team’s resources (the Lead Link in Holacracy jargon), nobody has full authority over other employees. Holacracy doesn’t eliminate all of the management tasks, but it shifts the hierarchy from people into a hierarchy of purposes and responsibilities. Changes in the structure are managed as a collective in a democratic fashion.
So if there is no traditional manager, who will evaluate an employee’s work? Having a fair, accurate and satisfactory evaluation of every employee takes a lot of time and effort. Time and effort that could have been spent on improving the product. Evaluating a Software Engineer’s work can be especially difficult. A perfectly looking fine software could be full of technical debt and quick hacks, with unpredictable costs in the future. This is very difficult to spot unless you have invested a great amount of time with the source code yourself.
So in order to reduce this cost and focus on the product, Ubie simply does not do the practice of evaluating employees. To avoid motivational problems, employees must be responsible and highly self motivated in the first place. Such traits are highly emphasized and rigorously checked during the recruitment process. People who are not able to work efficiently without an evaluation are simply not hired in the first place.
Still, having some sort of feedback is crucial for self-improvement. There are some mechanisms for this implemented in Ubie. For example a chatbot in Slack that makes it easy to request and give feedback to other people in the organization. Another mechanism is immediate feedback to each other after having an interview with a candidate as part of the process.
So to sum it up, Ubie is managed in an exceptionally flat fashion. However, there are some other parts of the organization, such as the sales department, which have adopted their own system. But that does not apply for any Software Engineers or roles that involve developing the core products.
Future Goals and Global team
Ubie is gaining strong momentum in Japan, but that is no reason to not reach out a little bit further. The concept of Ubie could benefit people everywhere in the world. For this purpose the “global team” has been established. We have entered the Singapore market to conduct the Proof of Concept of our product in English language. If successful, many other markets will open up, although competition is expected to be fierce. Other players such as Babylon or AdaHealth are already in the field.
Half of the members of the “global team” are located in Singapore, while the other half are based in Japan. This includes me and the other engineers. As a result, the team is managed 100% remotely. Although quite far in distance, Singapore only has a 1 hour difference compared to Tokyo, so communication is not too complicated.
There are Non-Japanese speakers working in Singapore, the team’s language is English. Language and locational differences are putting the global team in a bit of a special place in the Company at the moment. One of the challenges is to grow the team without losing important core values but also without sacrificing the diversity that is needed for innovation.
But one thing is for sure, everyone here is determined to make this whole thing a big success globally as well.
Whatever reason brought you to this article, I hope this gave a quick impression about Ubie and that it answered some of your questions. I have barely scratched the surface of topics that I could write about. Even with over a hundred employees now, the company is still growing rapidly. Another year from now, many new concepts will probably have been added or changed for sure, as it has been like this the whole time I have been working here.