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Billionaire has new goal for his 17,000 workers: Learn to code

(Bloomberg) --Less than a decade after stunning workers at his Japanese tech giant with an edict to learn English, billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani wants to do the same with computer programming.

Rakuten Inc. may soon expect its more than 17,000 employees to know how a computer compiles a program and understand the difference between a CPU and GPU (one is the brains of a PC, the other runs the graphics). Underpinning that is a mandatory, entry-level ability to code.

Mikitani, a trailblazer in Japan’s internet economy, is considering this dramatic step as his e-commerce empire faces increasing pressure from the likes of Amazon.com Inc. It’s an attempt to keep the skills of employees up to date and answer the question -- do you need to know programming to work in tech?

“If you’re working for Toyota, for example, you know how the automobile works -- basic structure of the engine, suspension and so forth,” Mikitani told Emily Chang of Bloomberg Television. “So if you work for an IT services company, you need to have the basic knowledge of what’s in the computer.”

An ability to write Python code or dissect the differences between fourth- and fifth-generation wireless networks isn’t something that most tech companies would treat as a prerequisite for a non-operations role. While the World Economic Forum estimates that more than half of workers are going to need significant training by 2022, few seem to be following the lead of companies such as Nokia Oyj, which has plans to make familiarity with machine learning mandatory.

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Thomas Malone, professor of information technology and organizational studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, thinks that maybe they should. Some amount of programming knowledge could be extremely valuable in helping both managers and rank-and-file go beyond buzzwords to understand what technology can actually do.

“We are all living in a world shaped and defined by IT, but many of us have a mental model of technology that’s analogous to disease is caused by evil spirits,’’ Malone said. “You can give people enough understanding so they know how to ask the right questions.’’

The minimum set of digital skills already goes beyond productivity software such as Microsoft Office to include collaborative chat applications, customer relationship management databases and social media etiquette. In the coming years, an average employee may also need to know the basics of data science and understand the different flavors of artificial intelligence to get through the day.

Rakuten may have a particularly pressing need for answers. Mikitani pioneered e-commerce in Japan when he founded the company more than two decades ago. While it amassed more than 100 million registered IDs, Rakuten has steadily lost ground to Amazon as well as a new breed of upstarts such as Mercari Inc. and Zozo Inc.

Instead, it has come to increasingly rely on a disparate portfolio of about 80 different businesses that span banking and insurance to online ads and drone deliveries. Without a market leading position in any of those areas, Rakuten is building a wireless network that it hopes will tie the services together and convince users to spend more on the platform.

Starting in 2018, Rakuten made programming a core part of training for newly hired graduates with about 260 non-engineering recruits taking a six-month course that includes entry-level Java and basic skills for building network architecture. Another 400 new hires coming in April will spend three months in the program, which concludes with a hackathon for grads to create their own product and be judged by their co-workers.

The company said it doesn’t yet have definitive plans for expanding the training to all employees.

Getting it right is a delicate balance. The key is providing enough teaching that people can generalize to real world situations. But there is also the danger of creating busy work and workers getting lost in the details of programming syntax, MIT Sloane’s Malone said.

Simply seeing a page of incomprehensible code can provoke an emotional response that is like a mental block for some workers, according to Nobuhiko Shishido, a director at Advanced Programming Educational Association in Tokyo. Getting around that requires tapping into the person’s curiosity and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, he said.

“The second someone feels they are being forced to program, it turns to agony,’’ Shishido said. “The fear of computers is very similar to the fear people have of math.’’

Mikitani said the company’s experience with what he calls “Englishnization’’ proves that it can be done. While the two-year process was tough, employees had to find time for language classes or face possible demotion, Rakuten staff now score way above the national average on English proficiency tests. It also boasts one of the most cosmopolitan workforces in Japan and the majority of mid-career engineering hires in the country are foreigners.

Despite the success in globalizing its workforce, Rakuten is still a very domestic company with about 80 percent of its revenue coming from Japan. The Tokyo-based company has made efforts to boost its brand presence overseas, including a 13 percent stake in Lyft Inc. and sponsorship of the FC Barcelona soccer team and Golden State Warriors basketball team.

Mikitani is willing to take the long view when it comes to the coding initiative and a future that is evolving fast, especially when it comes to artificial intelligence and other innovations.

“Ten years from now, the world is going to be totally different,’’ Mikitani said. “Most of the service we do by human will be replaced by AI. And if your managers are not aware of it, it is going to be a big problem.’’