Voices of Gatsby: Arisa Fukuzaki

Sam Bhagwat
Sam Bhagwat
May 28th, 2021

Gatsby believes in cultivating inclusion and elevating the many members of our diverse community. Our Voices of Gatsby series showcases and celebrates our users for who they are as they share stories from the tech life. Arisa spoke at GatsbyConf 2021 about “Finding My Developer Happy Path with Gatsby x Contentful

Hi, I’m Arisa 🙌

I work as a freelance Full Stack Developer and a creator of Lilac, an online platform to provide programming hands-on courses and personalized tutoring. Besides my work, I’m an Aikido(Japanese martial arts) fighter, a podcaster(Anonymous.fm), a programming teacher, and a woman in action. 

I would like to tell the story of how my journey into tech took many different wandering paths. I was born in Japan, studied childhood education, graduated and then went back to a different college to study Liberal Arts, and even  worked in Emirates Airline as a cabin crew. Eventually I ended up in Germany.

(Do I speak German? Nope, still a toddler level speaker 😂).

All along the way, in each of those different parts of my past life, none of the people around me could have ever guessed that I would end up with a career in technology.  I, myself, am probably surprised the most that I turned out to be a developer!

My hope is that what I learned throughout my journey could be something interesting for other people from nontraditional backgrounds who are looking to find their way into working in tech, too.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… 

In high school, I was super into band! I even wished to go to college to study music and become a professional saxophonist 🎷. But this was not a practical path…Yes, money is always the problem 😅.

Eighteen-year-old Arisa didn’t think carefully about what to study for her future job. My world at that time was all about building my blog website with minimal markup, and playing a saxophone. Instead of music school, as a compromise decision which I still regret, I went to a junior college to be a kindergarten teacher. 

Maybe that sounds like a reasonable choice, but here is my secret. I chose it because I knew I would get to sing and play piano there. I look back now and think probably my mind at that time was basically simple, kind of like Minions. (I ❤️ Minions 🍌!) 

My two years in this program were not good ones, though. The training at this school was very intensive, with many strict rules about how I could speak and behave and even dress. But going here turned out to be important in an unexpected way thanks to a teacher who instructed me in English conversation. Without her help, I would not be where I am today! Because, with her support, I went outside of Japan for the first time in my life. After traveling to California as part of a college program, I made up my mind to study economics, environmental issues, literature, politics and entrepreneurship — in developing countries, and in English. 

Luckily, my dad had a friend in another college. He helped me transfer to a new program to study  everything I wanted to do and all in English. 

College, again 

After the military-ish life in my previous school, life at my new college was GREAT. 

I didn’t have to leave my home town, Hiroshima and I still was able to study economics, environmental issues and more in English. I had many friends with many backgrounds who came from many countries. I even got to go do field work in Thailand to prototype basic NPO/NGO programs.

Unexpectedly, this field work was the first chance for me to use WordPress. I clearly remember that I bought a book to study HTML and CSS. At first exposure, HTML was like an alien language from space for me! It’s a funny story now, but back then 20-year-old Arisa threw the book on the floor saying, “I will never ever code! This book drives me crazy!” 😂

Life is full of mysteries. No one in my family guessed that someday I would love programming. Least of all me!

But college ended and I had to find a job. Job hunting in Japanese way to be employed in a Japanese company is a nightmare. If you wonder why, simply, google “Japanese job hunting.” 

You’ll see tons of people wearing exactly the same suits with identical hair styles. (It’s not a party theme, FYI. 🦸) The reason for this is that identity is the least priority in Japanese job hunting culture (in my understanding, anyway). 

I value my identity: Who I am, what I like and what I do. 

That’s why I didn’t job hunt in Japan. Instead, I traveled — and another unexpected chance happened. I met an HR person from an airline while we were both on layover between flights at the airport. I enjoyed our talk and, long story short, interviewed for a job with Emirates Airline. Suddenly I was headed off to Dubai. 

“Catch me if you can”: Emirates Airline, cabin crew 

I’m a movie person. 

If you’re a movie person, too, you know what I mean — from watching your ideas about things can be romanticized and much nicer than reality. That’s exactly what happened as I imagined my glamorous life as a flight attendant for Emirates Airline. 

I was full of hope and the excitement of my new work and life in a foreign country. The beginning was great. I became besties with my fellow trainees, and found the Middle East  culture new and exotic…at first.

When I think back, there were already some suspicious moments that I had to think well about what I value in my life. I was raised to believe that working hard and being polite are the most important things you can do. Heavy stress and family and friends being secondary to your job is normal culture back in my country, so I couldn’t see the red flags in the beginning. 

Eventually one of the cabin supervisors took pity on me and told me, “People are using your kindness to dump their duties onto you.” Until then I didn’t realize my crew mates had been taking advantage of me. The stereotyped gender image of cabin crew also meant I was sometimes harassed at work by passengers, colleagues and even bosses. 

Only rarely did I ever work with the same colleague on more than one flight. The nice supervisor who advised me, I met them only once in one flight. As for my manager, I only ever met them once in a ceremony and that from a multiple meters away on the stage. I bet you already can imagine in this environment, it’s very hard to find anyone who you can ask for help. 

When I started looking, though, I realized many of my cabin crew colleagues were also not very happy. Many of them were already searching for a better job, or studying online college to gain a degree. I started thinking about what I might want to study, that I would like and that would also lead to a skilled, high-demand but skilled job. 

Frontend Development

While I was still flying, I tried an online course to see whether I’d like programming or not. It was a clean hit, a home run. ⚾️ 

The results in the browser made me feel so satisfied and filled my mind with joy! Brutal flight schedules were killing my health while I squeezed in time studying HTML and CSS wherever I could. Nevertheless, I brought my laptop and shut myself in my hotel room while my colleagues were going out in attractive foreign cities. 

After completing HTML and CSS courses, I was full of confidence. In my mind, I knew I had finally found the right career path! I resigned my cabin crew job, went back home to Hiroshima and studied in an online school intensive curriculum for two and a half months.

During the course, I learned frontend development and took on two different job projects with clients. The first project I completed was a corporate website with a BaaS(Firebase) real-time chat feature-integrated web app. (It’s still up and running, although I’m no longer working for that company!) 

This experience gave me confidence that I could work from anywhere. As a freelance developer, the world could be my home office! 

I had always wanted to live in a European country. I picked Germany because, one time when I was there, lost and carrying heavy suitcases, people had been very kind and helpful. Germans also have a good approach to living a good work-life balance, in my opinion. 

After moving there, I started to work as a freelancer and applied to several companies in Germany. But the language barrier was higher than expected and I struggled to find work. Fortunately I found a startup programming school from Japan that was looking for someone to help teach, organize, and be involved in anything necessary to get this school started.

I worked in this online programming school for more than two years, along the way learning how to start a business and develop my own services. Then the school closed down suddenly because I was the only one constantly teaching students. 

Perhaps, you might think, I felt lost? 

Never! Because I’m a woman of action. 

I used this loss as an opportunity. This is how I began running my own business, Lilac, to provide my very personalized tutoring services for every single student with hands-on courses. 

To be continued… 

In all these experiences I had in my life, I learned one important thing: 

Be a YES Man/Woman, don’t be a “but man”(not talking about Batman here, he is cool🦇).

The Jim Carrey film YES Man is one of my favorite movies.  Carl, the main character, was a passive man. But when he started to say YES to everything, his life changed!

My point is, be active instead of passive. You don’t need to literally say yes to everything. But, if you have something you want to achieve, there is definitely a “glitch” word to NOT say: “but”.

Let’s practice a bit. Sam, my imaginary friend, has a wish that he wants to win a marathon competition. In reality, he is not a gym person. Sam tells me his wish, saying “BUT I’m not a gym person. Also, I’m busy every day with my work.” 

Thanks to “but,” he won’t achieve his goal or dream. 

How about if he instead said to me, “I’ll start by signing up at the new gym next to my company.” Perhaps, after a few months, he’ll be ready for that marathon after all.

Thinking back, my life was a roller coaster…But eventually I was able to end up where I wanted to be. That’s because I was a YES woman to my wishes, although they seemed impossible to achieve at that time.

I don’t have a CS degree and haven’t been playing with code ever since I was little. But there’s always a path to start, even from something small. 

That’s how I was able to join tech from non traditional backgrounds. Let me know how my story sounded for you. 

Arigato 🇯🇵 

Arisa Fukuzaki: @arisa_dev

Sam Bhagwat
Written by
Sam Bhagwat

Gatsby cofounder & chief strategy officer. Programmer, analyst, writer

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