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A career change to software engineer at 51 years old


After graduating from university, Mr. Sakayama began his career with All Nippon Airways (ANA). He switched his job to a foreign-based IT firm after being stationed in Washington D.C. After returning to Japan, Mr. Sakayama took a risk and joined an IT venture with just 10 employees, and the company successfully grew to become publicly listed. Mr. Sakayama retired at 51 years old and started learning programming, thus beginning his current career as a software engineer.

In this article, we interviewed him about his experiences and career switch.

From ANA to IT

Interviewer: Going from a sales job to software engineering in your 50s seems like such a risky choice. What made you decide to do it?

Sakayama-san: I have always been interested in technology as a child. However, seeing as I was very weak in mathematics, I chose to study humanities instead. For my very first career, I started work with the airport passenger services with our national airline.

When I lived overseas in Washington D.C, I had many opportunities to visit the local library. While I was there, I came across the browser prototype NCSA Mosaic. I thought to myself that the age of the Internet was fast approaching! I distinctly remember this reigniting my interest in technology again.

At the time, I was shocked by the fact that the browser had so many images and that you could jump to different pages by clicking on links. I was fascinated by this, this idea of ‘what could be coming next?’

After my stint in the USA, I couldn’t shake the longing of working in the IT industry. Despite a drop in my salary, I decided, ‘why not?’

Interviewer: This long-awaited job with an IT company. How was it when you finally joined?

Sakayama-san: My first role was in marketing, but I also did some corporate sales, planning and some IT-related work in the business department. During this time, I had a lot of contact with users and I was constantly thinking about their needs in terms of the products on offer. I thought to myself: ‘how nice it would be if there were more functions for the users, it would be more convenient and users would definitely be happier.’

Of course at this time, I definitely was not able to meet any of these needs on my own. However I did think it was fundamental to express to my company’s engineers what I thought about the prototypes of products and its effect on users. I also thought: ‘it would be great if I am able to program this on my own, instead of telling someone else what I thought.’

Going from salaryman to software engineer at 51

Interviewer: I heard that you taught yourself programming while you were still working in sales, could you tell us about your study methods?

Sakayama-san: At first, I used books to learn. But this was really tough because I couldn’t make progress when I encountered errors, and the books couldn’t really tell me what the mistakes were. It was really frustrating at the time.

A constant thought I had – ‘This is impossible. I can’t do it.’ This led me to want to give up. However after a short while, I told myself to try again. The progress I made was extremely slow though. Trying to study and work at the same time, I felt like a tortoise in terms of speed of learning.

After some time, I came across video materials on Udemy. This was great for me as I could learn a lot faster and make better progress. This was the big difference between using books and online materials. The video tutorials showed me what the books couldn’t. This allowed me to fix my errors in a smoother fashion and completing tutorials were a breeze! By this time, I had already turned 51, and decided to retire.

Interviewer: Retiring at 51, were you prepared to make such a major decision?

Sakayama-san: I can’t say if I was 100% prepared to do it,  but I couldn’t see the prospects even if I continued my career in the Biz department (planning, sales), and I didn’t feel like I had room for growth. There were also many people of my generation still working (in the Biz department) so I wanted to work and compete with them and the IT field presented this opportunity.

To embark on something new, to kickstart new exciting trends, I was aware of how difficult it would be. But the draw of this new and unexplored territory was too great for me to ignore, even though I remained unsure of whether I could really do it. Nevertheless, I stuck to my decision to become a software engineer.

Interviewer: How inspiring! Did you become a software engineer immediately after you retired?

Sakayama-san: Of course not! It was not so easy and clear cut. There were many twists and turns along the way…

After I retired, I spent a year learning on Udemy and also at a vocational training school. I still use Udemy now, I think I’ve purchased over 100 courses on the platform!

Once I grasped the basics, I built my own app and repeated this a few times.

After this, I was put in charge of a project at MENTA and I was also introduced to a job through an acquaintance.

At first, I was only making UI for devices. The next project I worked on was at a start-up. But having joined in the middle of a project, there wasn’t any documentation so I could not even create an environment for development.

As a result, I couldn’t do anything for a week and I got very impatient. Also, I got mad when I used the library which was not maintained and  outdated. Nevertheless, I worked hard on all the projects that I was allowed to do. Slowly but surely, I managed to gain experience and now I am here at GAOGAO.

Diversity and Teamwork

Interviewer: How do you feel about working at GAOGAO now?

Sakayama-san: As I expected and suspected, everyone is of a very high technical ability! At the start, our co-founder Mr. Tejima told me, ‘don’t worry, it will be easy!’ It was not easy at all…

With security, there’s definitely more than meets the eye. Even with a simple input field, the validation logic is intricately intertwined. Naturally at the beginning I was terrified that I would not be able to understand it at all. After all, this was at a level that was completely different to what I had learned so far…

Having said that, if there was anything I didn’t quite understand, I could always ask for support. The documentation for projects are well maintained. Also I’m in a place where I can easily research and solve problems by myself.

For the first month, Mr. Tejima taught me a lot onsite. So I had no choice but to keep up!

Also, technology trends are constantly changing! Once I’ve taken the trouble to adapt to one version, it changes and no doubt will it change again in the future. I have to make sure I remain updated all the time. If one learns only one thing and is content with just that, you will definitely be left behind.

Interviewer: I understand that you have to communicate with your teams primarily in English, do you work with many English speakers from various countries?

Sakayama-san: Yes that’s right. It’s all in English. The members are made up of people from various countries – Japan, Taiwan, Ireland and Vietnam – all of whom are confident in using English. The ones from Taiwan are especially good, they are in their 20s and can speak both English and Japanese so fluently!

Interviewer: With a TOEIC score of 900, I’m sure you have no problem communicating in English!

Sakayama-san: I have to say I am grateful to be able to communicate in English. Even as a native Japanese speaker, I’m not good at using honorifics. A short text message in English is simple and fuss free.

Interviewer: I heard that you can also speak Chinese! At a business level proficiency too?

Sakayama-san: Ah yes. I studied the Chinese language before. I have thought about visiting the country too.

Interviewer: Your language skills are too good! Now that you’re with GAOGAO, could you tell us what are your impressions of your fellow members?

Sakayama-san: When I think of our members, I think of the words – diversity and teamwork.

While the generations, nationalities, responsibilities and values of the members are diverse, everyone is united as a team.

Even in the monthly meeting, multiple nationalities gather, listen to presentations and share feedback effortlessly.

Interviewer: What are your future plans, career-wise?

Sakayama-san: As I’ve just started my current career as a software engineer, right now I’m solely focused on this job and my tasks at hand. As time passes, perhaps a new path will emerge for me.

Interviewer’s impressions of Sakayama-san

Deciding to switch careers and become a software engineer at 51 years old is certainly no easy feat.

In Mr. Sakayama’s case, he has a strong foundation of varied skills – in language, sales, management. I wonder if I can accumulate such skills as easily and effectively as him…

I believe that Mr. Sakayama is a person who embodies the values and mindset that GAOGAO cherishes most. We thank you for your continual efforts!