This article is part of a series of interviews with Rakuten Mobile employees. In this edition, we speak with Saejong Lee (Paul) of Rakuten Mobile’s IoT Business Department. Lee, who grew up in the UAE, Morocco and Spain before being educated in Korea, relates his experience working in Japan for the first time.
Rakuten Mobile recently launched the world’s first end-to-end cloud-native mobile network, which you can read about here.
Where were you before coming to Japan?
I am Korean but I was born in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. I lived there for four years and then I moved to Casablanca, Morocco, for another four or five years, then Spain for another nine or 10 years, and finally to Korea. I graduated from Seoul National University, majoring in international relations and political science.
Why did you choose to study a political field?
I want to have a positive impact not only in my own life but for those around me as well. I originally wanted to be a diplomat, but soon realized that I could make a more tangible and direct impact through the business world.
One of my professors recommended me to work at the office of a CEO of a large conglomerate in Korea during the last two years of my degree, and when I did that I got to experience corporate life at an executive level. That helped me broaden my horizons and eventually led me to landing a job at a consulting firm.
How did you find your way to Japan?
A friend from college worked at Rakuten and he thought I would be a good fit here. I applied through LinkedIn, got an offer, and came straight over to Japan. All within a month!
I love living here so far. The work itself is very dynamic and fun, similar to my work back when I was a consultant.
“It’s a very positive feedback loop — if you go the extra mile, your hard work is noticed.”
I also like the company’s location — away from all the hustle and bustle of inner Tokyo, yet it’s just 10 or 15 minutes to Shibuya. I live just a 15-minute bike ride away, and there’s no traffic, parents are walking their kids to school, it’s super chill. No pressure, not too many people nearby, a lot of green. It makes me appreciate living here.
What do you do at Rakuten Mobile?
I’m a business owner in the IoT Business Department. I am responsible for developing the business model of end-to-end IoT solutions, which includes the actual sensory device — think of temperature sensors, home IoT and wearable devices, all the way to RAN and back-end IoT core platforms. I am also heavily involved in developing our department’s strategic direction and making a standard operation manual to improve work efficiency.
What is the IoT Business Department’s role?
We essentially build vertical, or end-to-end IoT solutions. We define the requirements for a certain product or service, build it and integrate it into the network. We closely collaborate with our communications team for B2B sales and with our mobile sales team for B2C sales. Our tech team develops the back-end core platform upon which all our solutions are built. Our ecosystem team works with different partners to build out Rakuten Mobile’s IoT ecosystem. About half of our members are on the technical side, both hardware and software, while the other half work more on the business side.
Did you have any experience in the telecom industry before?
No, my previous job was in consultancy and my focus area was the automotive industry.
It’s quite a drastic change to be honest. The actual work I’m doing now is something I’ve had very little experience in. That’s very invigorating for me. I must go beyond what I know, to actively reach out to people and find the material I need to get the job done. It’s a melting pot of different cultures, ideas, religions and backgrounds, so you need to have an open mind.
I keep notes of everything I learn and revise them at home. Thanks to that, I think I’ve learned an incredible amount in a very short span of time since starting at Rakuten. Vendors and partners are often surprised that I don’t have telecom experience because of the confidence I have in what I’m talking about.
“It’s a melting pot of different cultures, ideas, religions and backgrounds, so you need to have an open mind.”
What kind of people do you work with?
The people are actually one of the main reasons I like working here. At Rakuten, it’s less about procedures and more about getting the work done.
In Korea and other Japanese companies, things often operate in a very hierarchical way, which slows things down. But here, if you have a good, logical point to make, you can say it out loud and there will be a healthy discussion regardless of age and status. Things are less emotional and more about getting the best result, so it’s a very positive atmosphere.
Another thing I like is that there is no strict instruction manual. The output that you get is directly correlated with what you invest. It’s a very positive feedback loop — if you go the extra mile, your hard work is noticed.
What kind of person works well at Rakuten?
Someone who’s proactive, flexible, and empathetic.
Proactive because it’s up to you to get things done. Don’t wait for it to happen, go and make it happen. We’re building something out of nothing at Rakuten Mobile. If you just want to be part of a system, then this is probably not the right place for you. But if you are someone who wants to build the system, who wants to get things done, to have your name on things, then Rakuten is a great place to work.
“Don’t wait for it to happen, go and make it happen.”
Flexible because there is no manual that everybody needs to follow. You need to be open to change. Empathetic because of how diverse it is here. It’s a melting pot of different cultures, ideas, religions and backgrounds, so you need to have an open mind.
What’s the most fun thing about your job?
Probably the sense of responsibility, and the impact that your work has. I think it’s hard in most companies to have your achievements recognized. Rakuten Mobile is such a young company, and it can be chaotic, but the upside is that your actions really stand out. It allows you to have a significant role in building the fundamentals.
If you join a system that’s already perfect, the value you can add is very limited. But being in the very initial phase of creation of this new business, every input you give, all the time you dedicate becomes part of something that transcends your own work.
It’s something that keeps me motivated. The work I did on my first project caught Tareq’s eye, and he asked me to be involved with the CEIO where we’re exploring the upside revenue potential of 5G.
5G is something radically different from anything that existed before it. Massive amounts of data with almost zero latency — as a platform, it has huge potential. Korea was the first to launch 5G services last year, but none of the MNOs have found a stable business model with which to monetize it.
“If you are someone who wants to build the system, who wants to get things done, to have your name on things, then Rakuten is a great place to work.”
What is your goal for the future?
My dream has always been to build a more tolerant world, in which we all consider how what we say impacts the thoughts and feelings of others. It wasn’t easy growing up Korean in Spain — there weren’t many Asian people and there were a lot of preconceptions.
I would like maturity and tolerance to be part of the human fabric. That’s something that I’m working towards as I build my career here. I want to be the best at what I do, and build on that to have a positive impact on the world. I’m a strong believer that if you have a clear goal and you’re dedicated and really good at what you do, the two will somehow connect.
Saejong Lee (Paul) is a business owner in Rakuten Mobile’s IoT Business Department. He is also exploring the upside revenue potential of 5G in the Chief Executive Innovation Office.
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