This post is part of a series interviewing veteran developers, asking them questions about their journey to tech mastery and sharing the advice they have for those getting started.
Today we’re talking to Juan Reyes, an engineer, entrepreneur, and writer living in Tokyo, Japan. An engineer by profession and a dreamer by heart, Juan crossed the seas to reach Japan following the promise of opportunity and challenge. Eventually, he left his stable career at a large IT firm to create his own startup, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Let’s see what lessons he has to share for other aspiring entrepreneurs.
Let’s start by talking about you: What has your career trajectory been? What drives you?
As an engineer by profession and entrepreneur by passion, my career and life trajectory have allowed me to serve as an architect, founding member, and leader to entrepreneurial enterprises in the technology and content industries. Consequently, these roles have helped me develop an extensive work portfolio that includes my experience as a full-stack developer, system architect, VP of engineering, security consultant, technical writer, and even content creator. In addition, I have worked with some of the leading and most fertile companies in the industry, always striving to bring disruptive and sustainable solutions to the complex problems we face in today’s world.
My strong sense of purpose and empathetic nature have been the compass that has brought me to work and collaborate with incredibly talented, kind, and passionate people worldwide. Likewise, my passion for leadership and collaboration with motivated individuals drives me to wear many hats and play many roles.
Be it mentor, consultant, speaker, writer, or friend, my expertise and experience are always at the disposal of those looking for guidance in both career and life.
If you’re starting your journey into a world that you can’t yet understand and have a strong sense of purpose, or you are looking for one, don’t hesitate to reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org.
What made you want to go into engineering?
It’s weird for me to think back and ponder that question. I feel as if I have always wanted to be an engineer. There’s no single instance that I can recall where I wasn’t already tinkering with some computer or thinking about doing just that. Yet, oddly enough, back then, programming was merely the medium for me to keep my passion for obsessing with the wonders of technology alive.
There were, of course, people around me who cultivated my passion and curiosity for engineering. Indeed, I grew up surrounded by overachieving engineers. So, following in the footsteps of my seniors was common sense.
Moreover, engineering is a pretty safe and profitable career path. Indeed, no other career can offer you as much social mobility, overseas opportunities, and prosperity. And when you grow up in a third-world country as a lower-middle-class kid, it’s difficult to find fault with that argument.
So, you know, money, mostly.
How long have you been programming?
My journey as a programmer started quite early.
Despite my desire to explore the wonders of what made the mysterious beige TV with a keyboard work, I wasn’t furnished with one until pretty late in my teens. You know, on account of being broke. Fortunately, I had cousins who owned one of these apparatuses and had free rein to play with them as long as I did not break them.
Those first few years were rough. Internet was still a service only the privileged could afford, so I was left with only my creativity, cunning, and perseverance as my aid to figure out how to make my own programs.
Little came out of my efforts, though. Most of my time was consumed by either playing video games or breaking something and then figuring out how to fix it back. So, it wasn’t until late in high school that I started learning about Java and HTML.
I was instantly hooked.
My memories of my last two years of high school are mostly colored by the blue haze of the screen I stared at endlessly for countless nights and the fatigue caused by my lack of sleep.
That makes 20 years now.
I can still hear the crickets of my old house and feel the cool breeze of the night drowse me into sleep when I close my eyes and think about those days.
What were you most worried about when you decided to pursue a programming career?
Honestly, that I would not be able to get out of my country.
I know it might sound bizarre to most of you, but the truth is that from early on in my life, my dreams were bigger than my country. Therefore, I always based my choices and efforts on the prospect of living abroad and profiting from the many opportunities and experiences that lie beyond my borders.
Early in my journey as a programmer, I knew that if I worked hard enough and played my cards right, I could become talented enough to be invited to relocate abroad. Yet, I wasn’t sure how much of me it would take, and there was no guarantee of an offer. So, it was a gamble.
Luckily my gambit paid off and, eventually, after four years of developing myself and putting my work out there, a prominent IT company in Tokyo reached out and extended an offer.
The process was challenging and demanded a lot of me, but looking back, I don’t regret the investment.
Tell me about your switch from a big IT company to creating a startup. Were you worried about the lack of security?
My entrepreneurial journey began, to my surprise, very smoothly.
Shortly after my relocation and subsequent integration to this big IT company in Japan, I was struggling to adapt to the significant shift in culture in this foreign environment.
Back then, I lived in an alien world with a language I could not grasp and had little to no connections to depend on for support. So, naturally, I diverted my efforts into building friendships and support systems. Thankfully, Tokyo is one of the most fertile grounds for exploring hobbies, activities, and ideas.
It wasn’t long before I was talking with a very peculiar fellow who had a vague idea in his head and a sea of passion in his heart. His gravitational pull was challenging to resist, and his singular sense of humor too amusing to ignore. So I confided that I was also looking, albeit casually, for a business partner to kick-start a startup. And after a few drinks and some laughs, we decided to work together.
Of course, there was a lot to digest and prepare before jumping the shark. I hadn’t even been in the country for a year and was barely getting used to my employer. Moreover, neither of us had any significant capital or relationships with investors. Our experience was limited to our respective industries. So, we decided to play it safe and work on the foundations during our off-hours. This decision enabled us to prepare for the lengthy bureaucratic process of creating a company, finding other partners, and preparing for the coming income drought, which eased our fears of security.
Ultimately, living in a developed country and having access to safety nets, combined with proper preparation and financial competence, is one of the most important contributing factors to high entrepreneurial development. Given these circumstances, I merely took the opportunity and profited from it.
Now that you have some experience running a startup, what advice would you give yourself when you first started?
Well, I would start by telling my younger self to be more involved.
At the beginning of our journey, many meetings and socializing were unavoidable to build a network of clients and collaborators. However, this was uncharted territory for me, and I felt that it was outside the scope of my responsibilities.
Moreover, all these interactions happened in Japanese, a language I was far from comfortable using in any setting. So, despite the immense work and responsibility that my business partner shouldered, I felt my contributions should be limited to the engineering side.
As most of you know, building a startup necessitates the flexibility and disposition to wear many hats. Having anyone shy away from this responsibility can bring a significant burden to the whole team, and during the initial stages of a startup, every load is critical.
Taking on the responsibilities of a VP and serving as a business associate, architect, and mentor while being an investor and friend can be a lot on anybody’s plate. Thankfully, after a lot of self-reflection and assistance kindly offered by more experienced startup community members, I learned my lesson and rose to the challenge.
What mistakes did you make that you think others following in your footsteps could learn from?
I would advise our readers not to forgo their income and stability to inflate the company’s profitability artificially.
At least, not for too long.
Prioritizing the business over salary is essential in the early stages. But you need to plan a steady and stable increase in your income over time that allows you to sustain yourself and not strain your living standards for too long.
Furthermore, your savings can only carry you for so long. If the company is not profitable enough to allow the adjustments after a year, then a different conversation is needed.
What’s something that no training/boot camp/degree could have prepared you for?
Despite the abundant resources and theory available at your fingertips, nothing can really prepare you for what’s in store for you when taking a leadership role. Leading demands a level of involvement and vulnerability that many people, especially engineers, are not willing to give.
Most employees much prefer playing their roles and fulfilling the responsibilities they are given over the uncertainty and pressure required in a leadership role. And that is fine; not everyone needs to be a leader or should be.
When I started my entrepreneurial journey, I wasn’t comfortable playing the role of a leader. Honestly, I wasn’t ready, and for the most part, I kept myself away from its boundaries. But I had something going for me: I have managed and mentored other engineers earlier in my career.
I loved the idea of helping other people grow. And I felt a strong sense of pride and achievement when seeing how far the people I have worked with have gotten. So, developing this aspect of my career was a no-brainer.
I worked on improving my mentoring skills while expanding my technical toolset and gaining a lot of experience in the business and startup communities. Additionally, I was very fortunate to have a wonderfully supportive and immensely patient circle of mentors to guide me on this journey.
Leadership is not a talent. You have to work on yourself to be good at it. What’s more, business leadership is not something everybody can exercise.
Leadership is a responsibility that we are called to adopt. And we must rise to its demands and pressures.
Nowadays, I collaborate with companies looking for specialized expertise in startup development, security, and infrastructure. In addition, I have worked with several communities and nonprofits that help entrepreneurs in the early stages. Plus, I offer my time and services to motivated individuals looking for guidance and mentoring in their careers or personal lives.
If you want to reach out to me and chat about your career or just want to have some tea and talk about life, shoot me an email at email@example.com or visit my website, ajourneyforwisdom.com.
I also have a podcast, “Don’t Tell my Grandma podcast,” where my wife and I talk about the messiness of life, what it means to be a decent human, finding balance in life, and building healthy relationships—all with our quirky sense of humor.