The main reason for this was that I wanted to create a diverse development team in a diverse company. In my previous job, I worked on developing first-party advertising platforms for monetizing our own media and so on, but I came to feel that in the future, it would be difficult to make globally competitive machine learning products working with a team composed mainly of Japanese speakers. To begin with, there are few engineers who have the skills necessary for this kind of role in Japan. This means we were competing not only with our direct competitors but large Japanese corporations for the best talent. This is something that I heard at that time, but I heard that there were thousands of machine learning engineers at Chinese companies. At that time, I was the only one on my team working with machine learning. I thought to myself, if we keep going like this, it’s going to be impossible to win in terms of scalability. I remember thinking that it would be impossible to catch up in terms of scale if we didn’t start hiring a more diverse group of people regardless of whether or not they spoke Japanese.
That’s right. I was also interested in SmartNews from a product point of view. I wanted to learn a modern methodology that would allow me to build a product with a team of hundreds of people as tech giants were doing. SmartNews was also doing that, so it just happened that the company was doing both of the things I was looking for.
First, there’s no shortage in terms of diversity. Now we have fewer Japanese-speaking engineers than non-Japanese speaking engineers. Since joining, SmartNews has also opened development centers in Asia, so now we can hire an even more diverse group of talent.
That’s also just as I expected. For example, the SVP of Engineering has introduced a global standard hiring process called “Structured Interviewing”, while my boss, Jeannie Yang, also an SVP, has introduced the Squad model of team building. These people bring world class practices directly to SmartNews. And more recently, we’ve been able to learn best practices from our Shanghai office. Naturally, there are some ideas there that are more advanced than those in Japan and North America, and we are eager to implement them. There is no end to this list, but I think it is wonderful that people with diverse backgrounds are able to make use of their experience.
Well, we’re still not as well organized as I might have made it seem, so don’t get your hopes up too high (laughs). The direction of the company is to learn from our global offices as we create what we want to make. And precisely because we are not completely established yet, there is a degree of freedom that is really interesting. I think that the next one to two years will be especially important for SmartNews in terms of setting the standard and that we’ll look back on this time and say, “that was a really important year for the history of the company.” Basically, you should concentrate only on what you’re working on, so I think you need to be a person with a strong will to survive.
I belong to the Ads Pillar, which is in charge of monetization. I am responsible for monetization of advertising revenue as well as developing the product to meet the sales target of how much revenue we can generate in the long term, not just in the short term. At the same time, I am also working to ensure the scalability of the business as it expands in the future.
For example, we work with goals such as maximizing sales in a particular area, gaining a certain amount of market share in such-and-such area, or improving the performance of a machine learning model by a certain percentage. Rather than working from a to-do list, it’s more like, “there’s an opportunity in this market, so let’s be number one in it,” or, “if we solve this problem, it’ll be very beneficial. So let’s solve it.” These themes are set backwards from the medium-term goals of SmartNews, and from the discussions about what monetization should or should not look like at that time, themes are set as things that need to be solved in order to achieve them.
In terms of a roadmap, we try to think about the next two years. However, we also have short-term quarterly goals, but we usually are thinking about six month’s out in terms of impact.
Maximizing ad sales is a challenge that is very easy to express in the long run. The reason why is that the more we provide our users with useful information, the more the ad performance will increase. So if we keep doing the things we need to do like updating the machine learning algorithms, increasing the number of advertisers and creatives, developing the best formats and so on, we’ll be good.
However, there are also options that exist if you’re only considering the short term. For example, you may be able to triple the performance in the short term by taking a certain course of action, but that action could contradict or even harm the performance in the long term. Those kinds of temptations are all around us, so it’s very important that we choose carefully.
It’s not a judgment criterion, but I often feel that everyone at the company is interested in advertising. In addition to things like what kind of ads are being run and what kind of feedback is coming from users, there are often discussions about the best way to display a certain ad or about the baseline user experience. I think this is something unique to SmartNews.
I think we have a mission driven company culture. Here’s an example that illustrates that. In the first half of 2020, there was little information about COVID-19 and there was this vague sense of anxiety throughout the world. Our CEO Ken Suzuki said, “we are a company that delivers quality information to people, so we are committed to providing accurate information about COVID-19.” It was around that time that we started launching various COVID-19 related features such as the Coronavirus Vaccination Channel. During that time, there wasn’t a single person who said, “no, we need to protect our advertising profits or the company will go out of business.” I think the reason was that we all thought about what we could do at a time when the world was in turmoil and we ended up coming back to the mission of SmartNews, which is to deliver quality information from around the world to those who need it. And since we were able to do this, I think this shows that the people at SmartNews are mission-driven at their core.
We believe that advertising is the economic underpinning of our mission to deliver good quality information, in other words, to carry out our mission. Information isn’t free, right? Let’s take as an example a major business-focused newspaper. That company employs over 10,000 people who work to produce massive amounts of high-quality news content daily. Usually if you want access to that information, you have to pay an amount commensurate with the cost of production, usually in the form of a monthly fee. I believe that advertising is a way to increase revenue opportunities for content through means other than charging, and to make it available to more people.
On the other hand, I think that advertising itself can also be considered as good information. For example, an advertisement that says, “a soba noodle restaurant has opened in your neighborhood,” is information that someone somewhere in the world would like to know. I think my role is to increase the number of entities that can send out such advertising messages and to turn them into effective communication.
When I was a student from the late 1990s to 2000, the world was buzzing about the “IT revolution,” but I didn’t really understand the reality of it. At that time, I came to know about JMM (Japan Mail Media), a mail magazine headed by Ryu Murakami, a novelist whose works I liked and read. It was through reading the articles in that magazine about the Internet and how it would affect the world that I finally was able to grasp the reality of it. I thought to myself, “I want to be on the side of the people changing the world rather than those watching it change,” and decided to enter the Internet industry.
The content of the book was completely different from his novels in that Mr. Murakami invited people who were at the forefront of various fields and asked them about the essence of what was happening in the world at that time. In particular, there was one section of dialogue in the book that left an impression on me. Using Amazon as an example, the speaker said that “value takes precedence over profit (in the IT revolution)”, because at the time, Amazon could have made as much profit as they wanted, but they stayed in the red and focused on “creating value.”
If you think about the value that Amazon has created today, it was exactly like he had been talking about, wasn’t it? In addition to that, he talked about the communication costs that have been lowered by the Internet, all of which were very groundbreaking at the time, and I remember being shocked.
JMM Volume 7. The reality of the Internet Revolution: Value takes Precedence Over Profit
Editor: Ryu Murakami
Publisher: NHK Publishing
Date published: June 2000
Overcoming differences in language, culture, and time with empathy for the mission
Creating autonomous engineering teams to achieve ambitious targets
Data-driven decision making at the center of SmartNews
From English teacher to engineering manager