Twenty years ago last month, I excitedly started a new job as a Product Marketing Manager for Mitsubishi Electric’s newly formed Telecommunications Network Division in northern Virginia, structured under its U.S. subsidiary Mitsubishi Electronics America, who then produced televisions and monitors for personal computers as their main lines of business. Fortunately, the transition to this new role came as a much-needed change, as my brother, Doug, had passed away on Christmas night. God bless his soul.
Deeply depressed by my brother’s death, I lost all desire to work. A recent organizational change at my company added to my angst. In the reorganization, I was transferred from my technical marketing staff position attached to a national sales office into a sales support role reporting to a regional sales manager who I did not respect; it felt like a demotion. The manager was, and is a fine person, however, I could not make the mental shift into the new role working with him. The combined loss of my brother with my perceived loss at work left me rudderless until the new opportunity presented itself.
As if by divine intervention, the product manager at one of our largest customers, American Mobile Satellite Company (AMSC), recommended that another mobile terminal supplier, Mitsubishi, hire me for a new position where exciting challenges faced me at every turn. My hiring manager, the newly formed division’s general manager, who as a recently arrived Japanese national with a strained command of the English language, needed a local to help him with product marketing tasks and business development. Little did I know that at nearly every meeting I attended with him, the Americans in the room looked to me to “translate” my boss’s broken English for them. Unfortunately, I often could not understand him either, which made for very interesting business meetings! Over time, I succeeded in buffering both sides from any misunderstandings as well as ensuring everyone’s objectives were met; I protected my boss from some comments which, at times, were offensive, and worked hard to develop trust among all parties present.
My fondest memories of my times at Mitsubishi include working closely with the engineers who visited the U.S. from the factory in Osaka, where the Mobile Satellite MSAT terminal and antenna design, development, and manufacturing occurred. Two of them, near me in age, were wonderful people who worked very hard to understand the demands our customer placed on us, and looked to me to make sure the requirements reflected the customer’s requests. During this time, I also took classes in Japanese, learning about the culture and language. As I felt immersed in the Japanese language and culture at work, for my boss often spoke in his natural tongue when visitors from Japan were present, which was quite often, I rapidly picked up aspects of the language, especially in conversations where the technical words marked key meaning in the dialog. This served me well in later positions working with other Japanese partner companies, where I enjoyed the experience of bridging two cultures and languages.
With the MSAT business, as with most new business adventures, each party, customer and supplier, looked to the other to fill in the gaps in what was required for success. In some ways, however, in this business deal, it felt like a game of cat and mouse, with the customer playing the role as the cat, and we, as supplier, the mouse. In fact, the product manager who recommended me for my new role seemed to revel in making feline feigns while we scurried about trying to please him, his management, and the executive team. I learned a great deal about a certain style of high-tech marketing and sales those days, the variant of which I disdain, as well as the results of overly optimistic business forecasting with little consequence for those making the claims. In fact, many times those who made outlandish claims were unduly rewarded, in my opinion, as they were insulated in their executive compensation packages. This aspect of business bothered me greatly then and continues to do so today.
Fortunately, interactions with my engineering colleagues from Japan were not confined to travel within the U.S. On two occasions in 1994, I flew to Tokyo and Osaka to interact with the marketing and engineering teams. I loved my time in Japan. The excitement of a new language, customs, cuisine, sights, and sounds coupled with the privilege of working with extremely talented and professional engineers made this a most enjoyable time. In many ways, I would love to have worked with them for my entire career. I enjoyed working with the engineering team in Japan over many of those I worked with in the U.S., for the uniformity of the culture, and Deming’s influence on their approach, resonated with me. Too many of the American engineering managers I dealt with in my career were unwilling to work collaboratively with marketing or product management, as if they viewed us with disdain; the irony in my situation is that as a member of Eta Kappa Nu, the collegiate national honor society for electrical engineering, I had proven academic credentials and with my studies coupled with my earlier work in RF, antennas, systems, and communication theory, knew nearly as much, or more than the engineers with whom I interacted. In my judgement, their egos got in the way of the bigger picture, which for me is market-driven, not engineering-driven; this tension exists quite often in high-tech ventures.
However, my time at Mitsubishi came to a premature end after an unfortunate misunderstanding with my boss. He felt betrayed by a decision I made where I did not consult with him beforehand. The decision? After developing plans with one of my customer contacts, I decided to take my girlfriend, now wife, with me on an extended business trip to Miami, on my nickel mind you, so she could spend time with the girlfriend of my contact, with whom I would work our mutually sponsored booth at the trade show. We planned to get together afterwards for some R&R as two couples spending some time in the Florida Keys. It was great.
Yet, my boss simply could not understand the norms and customs of America, and in one of the most humorous moments with me lectured that he “read about Americans before he came over and I was not like those he read about in the book.” Ironically, he viewed himself as a maverick, and one who ruffled the feathers of his fellow Japanese colleagues since he acted unlike what the Japanese culture required in certain situations. Sadly, I left the company, momentarily severing my ties with my newfound Japanese friends and colleagues.
Fortunately, as I relocated to Silicon Valley after leaving Mitsubishi, I found myself living close to one engineering friend as he was on temporary assignment. We’ve kept in touch on and off over the years via email and Facebook. I fondly recall the dinner his wife prepared for me in 1994 in their company provided apartment in Osaka. Another close friend from the time is now the CEO of a company he founded. He occasionally follows my activity on Facebook, as I do of his. I hope to meet up with both someday, ideally, in Japan.
I also look back upon my time in the Osaka factory (“works”) with the entire engineering team where I learned a Japanese saying: ganbatte kudasai (頑張ってください), which roughly translates into “do your best.” I recall being told it meant “keep your chin up,” which has more meaning to me. Nonetheless, “do your best” constitutes one of the two central rules in my classroom, as revealed in the following poster I created before I started teaching nearly three years ago.
I penned this post today as I say “ganbatte kudasai” to my students once in a while, especially when they face a challenging assessment, as they did today: applications of integration, with four, released, free-response AP Exam questions. Saying the encouraging phrase in Japanese took me down memory lane, after which I decided to memorialize in this post facets of my wonderful moments working with my Japanese coworkers from Mitsubishi Denki two decades ago.