When Your Normal is Another Person’s Oddity: Life & Work in Germany
Takuya Konno came to Germany from Japan in 2015. He has now been living in Dortmund for four years, together with his family and is a Senior Software Engineer at AutoForm Germany. One of the things we often forget is that our worldview and work environment might be totally upside down for others. Therefore, we decided to ask Takuya about “Life and Work in Germany” to get a fresh take. He delights us with irony and the most unexpected in this interview!
“I would be glad to tell you about life and work in Germany and what’s so funny about it. There are some funny things and for me, personally, some very positive experiences. Today I work for AutoForm and previously I worked in Japan in a fast paced environment to develop software so I can really compare the two working environments and lifestyles quite well.”
“Let’s first talk about teamwork. In Germany we work in small teams, normally from five to seven people, so we can collaborate quite closely on projects. When I worked as a software engineer back in Japan, teamwork was quite different. You’re more specialized there. You are given your own specific functionality to develop. You work in teams, yet you’ve got a single functionality assigned to be created by each team member. Each team-member has to realize that function for the software. So, the burden of getting this one thing to work rests entirely on you. Over here, the task is shared and the whole team collaborates to realize that one feature. It’s a contrast and, I must admit, feels better. What’s more though, now I’m a “Senior Software Engineer.” Such a role didn’t exist for my previous company. The organizational hierarchy in Japan is more complex as well. Employees, for example, who have been with the company for a longer period, are perceived as being “higher” in the company culture. For this, and many other reasons, I am more relaxed when speaking with someone of a higher position at AutoForm. Whereas in Japan, when speaking to those of higher rank you immediately feel nervous due to the barrier there. This creates a difference of mentality at work. In Japan you might want to keep your head low when it comes to raising issues or problems. In Germany we can discuss issues more easily where I would otherwise hesitate to do that in Japan. I think the German mentality makes for better teamwork and we get onto solving a problem far more quickly.”
“Now, strategically, if we’re talking about “how to develop software,” then it’s all the same. But, the working cultures contrast quite strongly in comparison. You may have recently seen on BBC news that Japanese offices are starting to turn to “Office Siestas.” Just imagine it. Japanese sleeping at work. Why would any company need a special room dedicated for lunchtime sleeping? But that’s just what they are doing. They are installing sleeping spaces in offices. Our reality in Japan is that we work extremely long hours. In Japan I worked at a company developping PCB CAD software. My typical workday was 12 hours long, but I sometimes spent 15 hours a day in the office finishing at 1 a.m. – sometimes for a whole month at a time. Meanwhile, here in Germany, I have fixed work hours. Great! I can go home at 5.30 now. Of course, this benefits my family life and in Europe we are quite lucky to be here in this respect for the quality of family-life it brings.”
“As for the lifestyle I now have here, the first thing worth mentioning is the German homes – they are cool in summer and warm in winter. Really, it’s not like that in Japan. Believe it or not. During winter the chill and wind invades your home. So, you get cold! And then in summer it’s hot inside to boot! That’s because we have less insulation and our windows are not double paned like yours. Our walls are thinner so heat escapes or gets in. What was really funny though was when I first moved here I opened the door to my first apartment. Lo and behold, there was no kitchen inside! The previous tenants took the kitchen with them. My colleague Thomas Rink had only just warned me about this, saying that when you rent an apartment you have to install your own kitchen. But seeing it with your own eyes makes it look quite funny. It’s a strange practice and I don’t think other countries do this.”
“Another funny thing was that when I went on my birthday it turned out that I had to pay for the others. Even though it was my birthday! So, here in Germany, if you go out for birthday drinks, you have to pay for the drinks for everyone. It’s not just “a round of drinks” like in England. I mean you’re getting all of them! If there’s a cake or something at work for the others to eat, you cover that too. In my country it’s the other way around. If it’s my birthday then I get a surprise or get a cake. My friends and colleagues will take me out for drinks and they cover the whole deal. So, sure, I must admit that I miss having a special day just for me to get spoiled. Still, at AutoForm there is a never ending flow of birthday cakes showing up in the staff kitchen from others, so that’s nice too.”
“You know what was new though. Germany is very good to children. If I pop into the butcher then often a child will get a meat snack or something for free from the butcher. At a restaurant kids will get some sweets or something on top of their dinner. If I go out to the market maybe they’ll be given a piece of fruit or something nice. This was totally new for me. What’s more, my son is learning violin, plays soccer and goes swimming in a club. All of these activities are ultra-cheap for parents. Over in Japan this stuff is a real luxury and this really extends the education of your child. Even for adults though sports clubs are dirt cheap. I can do fitness or do most sports for around 20 Euros a month.”
“New Year’s Eve, Christmas and New Year’s Day are all unexpected. In Japan our Christmas is totally noisy stuff! People are partying and drinking a lot. These are huge social events for us. But, here in Germany Christmas is somehow “silent.” Maybe because of its spiritual past. Over here it certainly is a family time so I had to learn to shift a few gears down for this event. New Year’s Eve is great. I never knew that in Germany I’d get to celebrate with all these fireworks. It’s totally noisy. For us in Japan this day is silent! Well, a bell does ring. But it’s all back to front!”
“When you go to the city there’s also one important difference. In Germany you have the local market. Twice a week farmers set up fruit and vegetable stands to sell fresh produce. There are cheese stands and special butchers and fishmongers as well. I can get potatoes, cherries, corn, apples and whatever is in season. When I first saw that I wandered about open-eyed trying to take it all in. It’s nice to see people all chatting away, drinking coffee and meeting up. The sellers at the stands help me choose the best things. We don’t have such things in Japan. We did once though. This German practice in every town square obviously goes back to the middle ages. For us, they went extinct millennia ago.”
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