Paul Maeda
Vice President of Engineering, Ads and Product Features / Tokyo

Creating autonomous engineering teams to achieve ambitious targets

After graduating from Keio University's Graduate School of Science and Technology, Shuntaro “Paul” Maeda joined DeNA as a software engineer. After gaining experience as a system architect, he joined SmartNews in June 2015. He is currently involved in the development of advertising as well as general products as a Vice President of Engineering.

First, tell us a little bit about your early life. What were you interested in when you were a student?

I went to elementary school in Germany and that had a very strong influence on me. I feel that I really benefited from the system in International schools I went to where you can skip grade levels to work on assignments that challenge your capabilities. When I got a problem I could not solve immediately, I would feel motivated and excited instead of getting frustrated. Spending hours on difficult mathematical problems in school was so much fun back then that I can still remember the names of my teachers.

This interest propelled me to major in Bioinformatics in university. Even then, I was still obsessed with difficult math problems. For example, I did things like spend half a year trying to solve never-before unsolved math problems, such as the P versus NP problem and the Poincaré conjecture. To this day, I still enjoy trying to solve the unsolvable.

Tell us about how your responsibilities at SmartNews have grown since the time you joined.

I joined SmartNews as a software engineer in June 2015. I think I was the fortieth employee to join the company. I thought that I would never be an engineering manager when I first joined the company, but the organization had grown and about six months after I joined, I went from being a backend engineer to an EM on the mobile app team. After another six months, I took on the additional role of PM for the Ad Platform team. From 2018, I started overseeing the whole team as a VP of Engineering.

Later, when Youlin Li joined the company as another VP of Engineering, I started to focus on engineering for the advertising side. Once the new area of Product Engineering was added, I also started managing that division as well. Youlin manages Platform & Foundation, and I manage Advertising and Product. So currently, we have a total of three engineering divisions.

Please tell us about the engineering divisions.

As of today, we have three divisions, the Advertising division focuses on the needs of our advertisers whereas the Product Engineering division specializes in creating user-facing features for people outside of SmartNews, such as end users and publishers. On this team, we have many engineers who are passionate about continuously improving our user experience. The Platform & Foundation division focuses more on empowering the engineering teams inside SmartNews, creating platforms that make it easier for those other teams while they also own some user-facing components.

What kinds of backgrounds do the engineers in these divisions have?

The members are spread across three different countries: Japan, the US, and China. The members come from a variety of backgrounds including companies such as Google and Indeed, Tencent and Bytedance, and mercari and LINE as well as smaller startups.

All of our engineers have diverse areas of expertise and skill sets. We have people who are strong in areas like recommendations and infrastructure. Others excel at identifying issues from a customer-first perspective, listening to the pain points in conversations with the advertisers while creating necessary features quickly. Having this diverse collection of skills sets working together makes for strong, cohesive teams.

As is the case with other companies experiencing rapid growth, these divisions are not set in stone. The function of the divisions will continue to evolve and adjust as the needs of the company change moment to moment.

What is it about working at SmartNews that is motivating for engineers?

Engineers at SmartNews are solving technical problems that directly impact the growth of our service. As our product targets a global audience, it’s very motivating to know that your work is impacting the lives of users all over the world. We are also integrating new technology, new methods, and new ways of thinking very quickly to solve wider and more complex problems together as we continue to scale our operation. As we grow, our organization will continue to evolve. There will be new divisions and new teams created. I think being part of an engineering division with a couple of hundred engineers spread across three countries working together on difficult challenges for a single app is a unique and valuable opportunity.

Do you think that engineers who aren’t bilingual can work comfortably at SmartNews?

Of course they are welcome. As I mentioned earlier, people who can speak Japanese are more of a minority these days. We have a translation and interpretation team to support communication, and engineers who speak only English quickly integrate with the other members of their team.

However, I also think that being able to speak Japanese is valuable. The Japanese market is very big for SmartNews, so it is important for us to be able to talk directly to Japanese-speaking people who make up the majority of our users as well as advertisers and media companies. Another thing is that some staff on our sales team only speak Japanese, so someone who can speak both languages can play a very active role among diverse teams.

Considering the challenges SmartNews will face in the near future, what kind of people do you think would bring value as employees to the organization?

As I mentioned earlier, our engineers come from diverse backgrounds, both personal and professional. Everyone brings with them a different skill set and expertise. What unites us is our commitment to our mission of delivering the world’s quality information to the people who need it. We’re definitely looking for someone who can relate to that mission. That’s why we need that person to have a firm understanding of why they want to join SmartNew. Then, after people join, I think it is equally important to have teams that can work autonomously where people are setting big goals based on the value that solving that problem would provide, and then allowing people to iterate freely as they work toward solving the problem.

We have big plans for the future of SmartNews. Just one example of one of our future technical challenges will be the engineering of the platform, especially the creation of a database specialized in machine learning and creating a data platform for internal Flink-based Realtime data processing. By way of analogy, that’s like trying to build our own in-house version of AWS. That’s why we need people who are excited by the thought of taking on big challenges. More specifically, I think people who enjoy both the process of working through challenges, trying different approaches and getting more motivated to solve it when a solution doesn’t work, are a good fit.

This ties in with the previous point, but a strong sense of ownership is also key. I think it’s that sense of ownership of a project or a problem that keeps people motivated on working towards a solution even when things are difficult. Someone with those personality traits would find SmartNews a good fit.


Book Recommendation

Learning how to motivate team members by starting with “why”

When I first became a PM at my previous job, I watched a popular TED talk by Simon Sinek called “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” or as it’s otherwise known, “The Golden Circle.” I remember the talk being useful for my own work, so I got his book “Start With Why.” The content of the book provides a kind of structure for conveying information using why, how, and what. In short, you start with “why” it is important to do a certain thing, move on to “how” you are thinking of doing it, and then explain “what” it is that you specifically want to create. This is important because, for example, if you start with what it is you want to do, then the people you’re trying to engage won’t know why you’re doing this thing and therefore won’t be able to see the point of taking on the challenge. This theory was most useful to me when I was thinking about how to encourage organic excitement among my team members as I didn’t have much previous experience with motivating people before. I still use Simon Sinek’s framework to structure my communication for the most part.

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Author: Simon Sinek
Publisher: Portfolio
Year of publication: 2009

The contents are as of September 01, 2021.