PayPay launched its service in October 2018. It was only four months before that, in June 2018, that the project to launch PayPay was initiated.
Launching PayPay in just four months was a challenge in itself, and the project hit the ground running with members from three different companies: SoftBank, Yahoo! JAPAN, and Paytm India, naturally, with a mix of languages and cultures.
The language barrier stood high
The development of PayPay began in three time zones through working in conjunction with three locations: Tokyo, Japan; Noida India; and Toronto, Canada. The first hurdle, which may come as no surprise, was language, as engineers from Japan, India, China, Kenya, and Canada were on the project.
“Even though it was a speed race, the communication required a lot of going back and forth. It was frustrating to think that if I could do it in my own language, so much time could be saved.” (Front-end Engineer K. – native Japanese speaker, English beginner)
As such, the team members were confronted with communication barriers, even before getting started with the development.
“At first, I used machine translation, but as I gradually ran out of time, I changed my stance. I decided to provide quick responses, even though I knew I couldn’t fully explain everything. I spoke in simple English. When communicating verbally became too difficult, I would write in English on Slack. We also did our best to communicate using whiteboards.” (Backend Engineer Y. – native Japanese speaker, English beginner)
By using all possible means of communication, the team was able to overcome the situation and bridge the communication gap. It was at this point that a team of professional interpreters and translators were hired to provide support as well.
“Because I couldn’t speak English, it was difficult to communicate with the team overseas. I was only just able to get by with the help of interpreters and other members who could speak English.” (Backend Engineer K. – native Japanese speaker, English beginner)
“The specifications were written in English, so I had to start with unraveling what they meant. I used machine translation to do that since I’m not great at English, and made sure I checked whether my understanding was correct along the way. The project manager was from India, and our official language was English, so when I couldn’t communicate well in English, I asked the interpreter to help me until I could understand. I tried to communicate as much as I could to avoid misunderstandings.” (Designer E. – native Japanese speaker, English beginner)
It was a “War Front,” where development was driven at an aggressive pace in a tense environment involving discussions on the technical matters required for the soon-to-be-born payment app, using a mixture of Indian English, Chinese English, and Japanese English, as well as in-house jargon and unique nouns.
The second barrier that stood in the way: culture and common sense
“Decisions are made at an insane speed, not to mention how fast development is progressing!
Amid such thoughts shared by the team, a second barrier emerged even as it was thought that progress was being made on development: culture and common sense.
For example, how can the concept of Japanese “kana,” used for names and addresses on merchant applications, be explained? Being something very unique to the Japanese language, providing a clear explanation of the concept was quite a challenge.
In addition, an example of a cultural difference was the fact that Japanese people have high expectations in terms of quality, where mistakes are not tolerated. This was something difficult to understand for members from overseas. In Western culture, it is good enough to release the product first and brush it up afterward, which in Japan, does not fulfill the expectations of users. Foreign engineers were confused and dissatisfied, making comments such as: “The excessive demand for quality in Japan is delaying the delivery,” and “It is hard to figure out whether someone in Japan is saying yes or no – they’re so ambiguous.
“I’m from Toronto, but when I came here, I felt the culture was completely different. And in fact, the environment was different, and there were a lot of issues and big challenges.” (Senior Engineer S. – native Chinese speaker, advanced English speaker)
As the project progressed, cultural differences such as ways of doing things, values, and common sense became apparent in addition to the language barrier.
A sudden breakthrough
So how did we overcome this?
The answer is very simple: by sharing the crux of things and continuing to communicate.
One of the key team members with experience in implementing QR code payments at Paytm India said at the time, “There are four key elements in launching a service at lightning speed: clarity, structure, willingness to go the extra mile, and making a stand. Fortunately, the PayPay team was equipped with all four of these aspects, and everyone was extremely eager for the upcoming launch. Having these four things, all that was needed was the technical backbone and effort to understand each other. We realized that differences in language, culture, and common sense were not as big of a problem as long as we had that.”
This simple but far-reaching realization quickly changed the mindset of the team members and accelerated the speed of development.
“Communicate. Communicate some more. Communicate with someone!”
Different departments, even in the same country or company, use different words with different definitions, complicating communication. Imagine what it is like when the language itself or culture and common sense are different.
It is necessary to keep communicating, keeping in mind that one person’s common sense could be the opposite for another. Doing so will speed things up on the road to success. This is the philosophy behind PayPay.
Here are several comments from members with first-hand experience.
“In a workplace where many languages are being spoken, it’s natural for communication gaps to occur. Though as long as you have solid technical knowledge, it is possible to understand each other. Speed is never equal to compromise. While some plans can be altered, critical requirements cannot be dropped.” (Product Manager A. – Native Hindi speaker, advanced English speaker)
Take this request for example: “Change that to a brighter color!” Even if you follow these seemingly simple instructions, the outcome may differ due to the culture of your country of origin or your individual senses. That’s why at PayPay, we try to communicate over and over again. Moreover, in order to prevent waste caused by personal interpretations and ambiguous instructions, we continue to communicate while using more reliable data and numerical values, and standards that can be clearly understood by anyone.
Even so, when we felt that we may have caused a miscommunication from the way something was conveyed or done, we proactively sought confirmation and made improvements. A cycle was unknowingly established within the team.
“I think that the management’s tolerance for understanding different cultures and others’ ideas, their open mindset, and their willingness to say “yes” or “no” in order to unite people from different backgrounds is spreading its roots across the whole team as well.” (Interpreter G. – Bilingual Japanese/English speaker)
An overwhelming sense of speed that comes from being different
“PayPay is a global company with a wide range of experience. The ability to solve problems and develop technologies comes only when people with diverse values come together. I think that’s why PayPay is competitive in the fast-growing cashless space. In a global corporate environment like PayPay, language and cultural barriers are common. What is important is how to compensate for this and increase the speed.” (Engineer R. – Bilingual Japanese/English speaker)
“We’ve had many breakthroughs, but they all boil down to one thing: speed. I think this amazing speed was achieved through close communication between everyone, not only in the product department, but also in customer support, marketing, sales, and back office.” (Product Manager F. – Native Japanese speaker, English beginner)
When you’re advancing at a fast pace, mistakes are bound to happen, but at some point, the whole PayPay team realized that everyone understands this and supports each other. That is the greatest strength of the team. Galloping ahead without being afraid of making mistakes, learning from our faults, and becoming stronger.
At first glance, navigating the barriers of different cultures, different languages, and common sense can sometimes appear to require a lot of effort, but trying to communicate and understand each other to achieve the same goal not only strengthens the team’s bond, but also improves the speed and quality of output. That’s the secret to PayPay’s successful launch, which was achieved in such a short period of time. The fact that PayPay still continues to make progress at an overwhelmingly fast pace, not to mention its successful teamwork, is perhaps due to its diverse culture.
Edit: az (PayPay Inside-Out editorial department)
*Employees’ affiliations are as of the time of the interview.