I’m always amazed at the high level of qualifications of many foreigners living and studying here in Japan. These people are gifted with excellent Japanese, and are eager to get into the workforce – they are a wasted resource that needs to be valued better.

The following is an email conversation I had with one such talented young guy, whom I’ll call “CL”, wanting to get started in the computer industry. He has five languages, and came in on a Monbusho scholarship – usually the mark of a good brain. I wished I could have told him how to get straight into a top flight IT operation that would value his language skills. But such chances are largely closed to foreign talent, and thus I gave him some advice to take the low road – reasoning that if he really is good at his job, he’ll soon get picked up and moved up the ranks due to his achievements.

CL: My name is CL. I have read one of your postings and I would like to ask for some advice concerning my career path. I am 22 years old. I came to Japan on a Monbusho Scholarship as an undergraduate student in April, 1998. I studied one year of Japanese in Osaka then in April 1999 I entered Nagoya University’s School of Engineering, in the Department of Information Science. I will graduate in March, 2004 with a BS in Information Engineering. I am interested in software development, network engineering, etc. My big question is after I graduate, how do I enter the local IT world?

Terrie Lloyd: Without experience, you will probably have to start with a help desk position, looking to move as soon as practicable (within the same company – which for your resume you should stay with for two years) into a floor support or network support position. Salary at these levels starts at JPY3-3.5M per year, and rises to JPY6M for high-end floor support. Beyond two years, if you’re dedicated and good at your job, you can move to an area of specialty on networks and your salary will move up to around JPY10M. Beyond that amount, you need to be in management or very specialized techno-geek stuff.

CL: What are the skills I need to have a good start?

Terrie Lloyd: Commonsense, good interpersonal skills, and you MUST have played around a lot with PCs and servers – regardless of your qualifications – so that you know the right answers when you do your technical interview.

CL: Do you suggest I work in Japan or move to the States?

Terrie Lloyd: You speak Japanese, stay here for the time being. After you gain experience, being bilingual can boost your career very quickly. Then, once firmly in place in a major foreign firm 5 years from now, they can transfer you to the USA.

CL: If in Japan, do you suggest I work in a Japanese or a foreign company?

Terrie Lloyd: If your Japanese is really fluent, work for a foreign company, they’ll value it more. If it isn’t, consider working for a Japanese company for 18-24 months to make yourself fluent. It may be hell adjusting to the feudal way Japanese companies are run, but the experience will be well worth it when you finally apply to a foreign firm later.

CL: Do companies prefer hiring experienced people rather than inexperienced ones?

Terrie Lloyd: The way the tech economy is right now, companies are only hiring people who can produce immediately. Therefore, I recommend you start at the bottom and work your way up.

CL: Are there chances I could get an internship before graduating? How can I get one?

Terrie Lloyd: Yes, but since internships often aren’t paid, try to get a paying position first. If you can’t get someone to take you on, then internships are a very good way to go. You should count on an internship program of 3-6 months at 1-2 companies before someone offers you a permanent position.

CL: How important are college qualifications?

Terrie Lloyd:Unless you’re going into R&D, companies right now are focused on experience. The exception is if you have certifications in security, advanced networking – something of the level of an MSc or similar.

CL: Overall, Would you suggest IT as a suitable career path for someone in my situation?

Terrie Lloyd: Absolutely. The IT industry is in the pits today, but this is an over-reaction of the markets. IT is here to stay. It’s like plumbing or teaching. It’s an indispensable part of running a modern business and an area with an insatiable demand for smart people to deliver it. It’s also very portable, so that skills you pick up here in Japan can be taken with you wherever else you may choose to go.