Ken Tokusei Talks Technology and Ping-Pong from Inside Google Japan

A Google doodle created by Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami.
A Google doodle created by Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami.

As director of product management for Google Japan, Ken Tokusei has responsibilities that range from communicating with Google offices across the world’s 24 time zones, to refining search results for local users. When Tokusei started off in Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters in 2003, he was one of the first 1,000 people employed by the technology giant, which now has 50,000 employees. In 2009, he moved to Tokyo to lead the product management efforts in Japan. Tokusei talks with Knowledge@Wharton High School about what it’s like to work for Google, and the exciting challenges he comes across while working in Japan.

An edited version of the interview follows.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: You’re the director of product management at Google Japan. Can you tell me what that means?

Ken Tokusei: I have several facets to this role. One is more of a classic product management role for Japanese consumers out of the Tokyo office. Another is to develop products for the worldwide market.

We have product managers and engineers in our Tokyo office. In Japan, we’ve traditionally had a higher penetration of mobile devices, so we’ve developed our services to cater to that type of [technology]. We’ve been in a good position to study Japanese consumer trends. Though the Japanese behavior may be different in some respects, there are some scenarios that could become more widespread around the world. We manage these types of projects by coordinating collaborations across global teams.

We scrutinize how the Google search product works for Japanese users. Of course, there are lots of projects and we need to make sure it works in any language. And then there are a few projects that really cater to our Japanese consumer.

One excellent example is public transit directions. Maybe Americans might look for directions from Philly to Scranton and get driving routes, but the majority here are city dwellers who use public transit. If people type in directions from one place to another, the vast majority of people in Tokyo think of directions in terms of public transit. We’ve recently set up special search results for public transit users. It’s been localized in English, which is kind of an interesting way to look at markets. Typically, we build products for the U.S. markets first, and then localize them to other foreign markets. In this case, we built it for Japan before exporting the concept to other markets.

Another important part of my role is representing Google to Japan. We don’t just do “search.” We have Chrome, we have Android, we have maps, we have ads and we have all sorts of customer-interfacing products. I pick up a leadership role for the country, which means yes, my day job is search, but I’m also responsible for looking at a spectrum of products. What other opportunities are there out there? What other challenges do we face? How is the Japanese consumer using our products overall? I’m also involved in making recommendations to global teams to help prioritize initiatives based on user behavior. I also do public speaking and establish communication with the entrepreneurial community and tech leaders here in Japan.

KWHS: Are you in charge of Google Japan?

Tokusei: Yes, for products. But Google really consists of function-driven organizations, each of which has its own leadership. So beyond engineering and product management, we also have sales, we have public policy, we have marketing, legal, business development, and so on. Different Google leaders have functional roles. We believe in partnerships. Yes, I have a director title. Yes, I’m part of the core product management. But

We rally around what we need to do for our users. What we do for users usually takes the form of products, and people rally around those initiatives. I manage products, but we have strong collaborative, functional roles that make up the core leadership of Google Japan.

KWHS: What do you do on a day-to-day basis; what are your responsibilities?

Tokusei: I have meetings, and not just with engineers or product managers. There are cross-functional leadership meetings. There’s a meeting about search. There’s a meeting about markets and product initiatives. There are also managerial meetings, because I do have people who report to me.

The interesting aspect of working for Google is that it really is a global company. What that means is you wake up in the morning and California is just nearing the afternoon. So I roll out of bed, scan my mobile phone, and see the things I can respond to with rapid replies, “yes” or “I like it” or “let’s try this instead.” That’ll potentially speed the workflow process because folks on the other end can take the next action step right away. Then I take a shower and try to spend time with the family in a hectic morning, which is probably not that different from anyone anywhere else in the world. Then I usually have meetings in the morning with the U.S. folks. As the day progresses, it becomes more Japan-specific and market-driven. Toward the afternoon, the European and Middle Eastern countries start to wake up, so we might have meetings with Tel Aviv, Zurich or London. Sometimes, I might have to stay later to talk to the U.S. East Coast folks.

I don’t want to paint the picture that we’re all workaholics. What I’m trying to convey is that at any time of the day, we’re all part of the global team.

Our employer ID is unique across our entire organization, no matter which country you work in, and this is something that is surprising to lots of people.

How we hire people is completely standardized across the globe. We have tremendous respect for local culture, but English is the official language at Google. If you come into our office during any part of the day, someone is having a video conference with someone around the world, and sometimes there’ll be multiple screens with those joining from Boston or Sydney or wherever. You belong to the company as part of a global team. Your role determines who your partner is in another office. It also means you have to have strong collaborative skills and communication skills. It also means we sometimes have to travel, since we also value face-to-face meetings.

KWHS: Part of what you describe is what people think of as the “cool factor” of working at Google. Can you talk about the other cool aspects? I saw on the Google corporate website, for instance, that the Japan office has a tatami meeting room where people can take off their shoes.

Tokusei: Each office has latitude to incorporate some cultural aspect. We have a café with a tatami floor. We have Japanese-style rooms with paper doors. We also have pool tables and ping-pong tables. Our Zurich office has a meeting room in a ski cable car. Google likes to add a playful, emotional sense of fun to the office. We can all relate to the experience of waking up in the morning and feeling excited to go to the office. The point behind these meeting venues is that we believe the work environment can foster faster, spontaneous communication with people you work with.

We have a microkitchen with snacks and drinks. We can strike up a conversation about new ideas and new projects. Some other companies say it’s a luxurious perk and they can’t afford it. But we see a strong benefit, and it definitely pays off to encourage spontaneous communication or simply saving time.

One practical way to look at it is if we have tens of thousands of employees and they take lunch breaks out of the office, we are bound to incur overhead with travel, congestion and unproductive man-hours out of the office. It’s a lot more efficient when you can just walk downstairs, go to a café, run into someone and start a conversation.

I broaden my horizons and learn from other teams. Usually, the conversations go around to something about product feedback or finance. The Tokyo office isn’t unique. We try to replicate that kind of cultural environment across the world.

KWHS: How did you end up working at Google?

Tokusei: The shortest answer is that I got laid off.

I went to Cornell University for computer science and then moved to California, which was still the mecca for computer science, even in 1992. I took some startup jobs here and there, but I still couldn’t picture myself in a large company. I started off working in a 14-person office doing mechanical simulation software, which was really cool.

In 2000, there was a tech bubble and companies were taking big risks. Then in September 2011, the bubble burst. The housing market was soft and I bought a house. Four months later, I got laid off. That was a time I really reflected on what I wanted to do.

The Google interview was completely electrifying. It was completely different on many levels. After working in senior positions at many companies before Google, I thought I had the hang of interviewing other people.

But the Google interview was on an entirely different level. Google was a constant barrage of very, very inspiring questions about technology and products. They weren’t trick questions to test emotional stress. I could imagine what it was like to work with really smart people. It was about keeping you on your toes. I never got the impression I was getting tested or they were looking at me with contempt. It was purely like “Here’s a problem I have. How would you go about tackling this?” Then we had interactions about how to improve this. These guys think so fast. And some of them talk really fast. You know when you talk to super sensible people? The conversation just picks up and moves forward with a ton of momentum.

I thought, “Wow, these are such an awesome set of people.” I was excited to get through to a second round of interviews. Back then, every product manager interviewed with Larry [Page, Google’s co-founder and CEO], and it was like a 1,000-person company, which was bigger than any other company I ever worked for. Now it’s like 50,000 people.

Here, my impact is visible. I have a very strong collaborative relationship with so many smart people. People care about the users. People care about the products. People care about the metrics. When we see a problem, we’re going to solve it. We’re not going to run away from it.

I wanted to grow and get constantly stimulated and challenged. Because of these people, we have this momentum to build great things. Every day, I’m constantly facing different challenges. It never gets old. Working with computers has always been my career passion. Even way back in the third grade I really wanted to go into technology.

KWHS: How you did end up in Japan?

Tokusei: When I started my career at Google, I was given the role as international product manager. I was only the second one ever [to have that position]. We had search engines in other languages. As soon as we started expanding into other products, not everyone understood the intricacy of the market, and I daresay, we still don’t fully understand it all. My first job was to broaden the reach of advertising products.

Being born in Japan, I quickly gravitated to the Japanese market.

I felt like the mobile [phone] was the key to growth, so I got a team together and built a search engine for WAP [Wireless Application Protocol, a technical standard for accessing information over a mobile wireless network] content, which was burgeoning in Japan and other markets.

The bottom line is I basically started building products for Japan while working in Mountain View — pitching opportunities and presenting strategies. It was much more of a grassroots-type movement before we had a development office in Japan. In the meantime, the engineering and product management teams in Japan grew big over time and they needed product leadership on the ground. I got called to become the product manager lead in the Tokyo office.

KWHS: What is it like to adapt an American-made brand to a foreign market?

Tokusei: We aren’t trying to adapt a brand to a foreign market. Our core efforts are really about identifying how to make our users’ lives better and building a solution that works well across the globe. We may start a solution in one market or another, but everyone strives to build a scalable solution so that each product works in every locale.

On the other hand, we have also been working on a lot more locale-heavy products. Take maps, for example. You need language assistance and data, but on top of that, the street addressing system is different. In countries like Japan, you don’t address by street numbers, you address by blocks, and so streets don’t have any names. So how do you find addresses? We developed a more generalizable solution.

Also, the perception of spatial locality is different for people around the world.

We use Google Maps and your location to find pizza joints in a two- to three-mile radius. Most people drive, and driving two miles to get a pizza is no big deal.

In Tokyo, we’re urban dwellers with a heavy reliance on public transit systems.  A locality name, like Shibuya, often means a subway station rather than a city, and you are unlikely to walk two or three miles away from a station just to get a good ramen. So the way we show results of local restaurants appears differently to folks near Palo Alto or Shibuya.

What is a map? What is an address? All these solutions may sound simple, but imagine how to do this in another country. So you need to consider a lot more scalability in the system you design. What kind of data structure do you need to do software architecture in? Our engineers and product managers need to think in that way. We often call it internationalization. Product owners want the product to [work] globally, and we sometimes help them.

Google Play, Chrome browser — a bunch of engineers work on a chunk of it here. There are a lot of household Google products you might be familiar with that we work on [in Japan].

KWHS: What advice would you give to teens who want to work at Google, especially at Google abroad?

Tokusei: Google is still a very technology-driven company. We try to solve user problems through technology.

That’s my first piece of advice.

The second part is that all of us are interested in solving user problems in unconventional ways.

Think of a problem, and then think of a solution that no one has thought of doing before. How do we dramatically improve our products, even if it might need a lot of resources? We are here to add value to the world. If we do something others can easily do, we aren’t making contributions.

The third thing is to

  What I mean is international companies may adopt or devise solutions for each market, providing a lot of autonomy to blend into the market where you live, even if it means using a different brand.

Our approach is to find and build a solution that will work everywhere in the world, as we strongly believe we can make it into a win-win for everyone. Users around the world can expect familiar product behaviors. What we improve in one area could benefit all other areas, and we could make a bigger impact with a fewer number of people, leaving others to pursue bigger challenges. Contribute your insight, which may come from where you live. It’s starting to matter less which country you work in. If you’re young and want to tap into a new world that you haven’t experienced, Google can give you a huge opportunity to do that.  You may be hired in one place, but you have opportunities to make an impact in other markets, sometimes by moving there.

or the place they call home, given the increasingly diverse environment we foster. A Google office anywhere in the world personifies the kind of global company we are today.

 

Questions

What does Ken Tokusei mean when he says, “At any time of the day, we’re all part of the global team.” How does this apply to how Google develops products?

Did Ken Tokusei begin working for Google right out of college? If not, what was his path to the Internet giant and why did his interview there leave him with chills?

When Ken Tokusei says, “Think of a problem, and then think of a solution that no one has thought of doing before,” he is really getting at the heart of innovative thinking. How valuable is innovation in today’s business world? How might you become a more innovative thinker? Need help? Check out the KWHS article, “What Is Innovation?”

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