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Naturally enjoying the balance between work and parenting

Naturally enjoying the balance between work and parenting

Hiromi Wakaki
R&D Center (Research and Development) Fundamental Tech.
Research & Dev. Field Tokyo Laboratory 21Sec.6

I realized how much I like research when I stepped back slightly from my daily study

Ever since I was in elementary school, I have loved science-related subjects, especially when they involve making things. As my grandfather taught science in a junior high school, he showed me various experiments and explained how things worked. I think this is how I quite naturally came to realize that science is fun. Instead of seeing science as study, I considered it an enjoyable game using the things surrounding me, something that satisfied my curiosity. From the time I began to think about getting a job, I decided I wanted to work in a company where I could create products that everybody could use.

I joined Faculty of Engineering at university, specializing in Department of Information and Communication Engineering. I was in the department of electronic information systems, but my studies extended to areas such as semiconductors and electric power. Although I had heard it might narrow down my job opportunities, I subsequently joined a doctoral course because I casually thought it would become my specialty. However, it turned out to be far more difficult than I had anticipated, and I even considered quitting. However, my professor and seniors advised me to take a break for a while, so I did nothing for around a month. When I eventually returned to the laboratory, I found it really enjoyable. I reckon that under the pressure of having to get things done, I had lost sight of the fun side of things. Thanks to my doctoral course, I realized that I had chosen a field that I truly enjoyed, and gained the strength to persevere and see things through to their conclusion.

I joined a manufacturing company after I graduated and got involved in R&D on natural language processing, information retrieval and spoken dialogue systems. However, I decided to change jobs because I wanted to try a different environment. I chose to move to Sony because of its image as a company that proposed new lifestyles and was imbued with a challenging spirit. It seemed to promise a new sense of freedom and a breath of fresh air that I had not experienced before.

I discovered that a different sense of values was interesting, if a little perplexing

Before I entered the company I was concerned that mid-career hires might be at a disadvantage, and that the atmosphere might not suit people raising children. But when I actually started work, I experienced no discrimination and in fact was warmly welcomed. My workplace colleagues took care of me as a mid-career hire without a network of employees who had joined the company in the same year. They made sure I created plenty of acquaintances by inviting me to events that would give me the opportunity to blend in with others, and planning occasions where I could develop stronger ties with colleagues.

After joining Sony, the main difference I noticed from my previous workplace was shown as values in the company. While my previous company valued safety, security and utility, probably because of the nature of its business, Sony attaches importance to values focused on sensibilities, such as “Kando” (to move people emotionally) and user experience. Since my work until then had prioritized utility, it was quite a leap to suddenly start trying to understand sensibilities. As I took part in discussions about product concepts, however, I gradually understood that at Sony, the judgments were based on whether something would touch the customer's heart. I came to feel that the conceptual starting point for products and services was whether they are interesting and enjoyable.

I am currently involved in analysis in the area of natural language processing, which I researched during my university days. While the spoken language is at the core of my research, I interpret language using background knowledge, not just the words spoken by people. For machines to process language appropriately, I have to analyze the meaning of these utterances on the basis of the overall expression, which keywords are included and other factors. I then use this information in taking up the challenge of creating products that lead to original experiences and new daily lifestyles.

Creating a life/work balance that juggles work and child rearing properly

My children were born when I was working at my previous company, and are now aged 7 and 4. Since I have to pick them up from school and nursery, I normally leave the office at 6:00pm, but because I also have to leave earlier sometimes to accompany them to other lessons, I coordinate things like meeting times with my colleagues. When it proves to be impossible to synchronize times and dates, I arrange things within the family so as not to interfere with work. Both my family and delivering results at work are important elements of my life. To avoid prioritizing one at the expense of the other, I ensure that my boss and team members understand that I treat my home life and my work with equal care, and consult with them freely about both work and child rearing.

When it comes to balancing work and parenting, it is obviously important to coordinate matters to enable me to raise my children. However, to ensure that I can do my work properly, it is also essential to create a well-balanced work atmosphere and environment. When things are tough with the children, Sony's approach is not simply to let people take time off, but for everyone to work together on finding solutions. As reducing the workload of employees who are raising children is not an option, the environment at Sony allows people who wish to work to do so to the full. I believe Sony enables employees to achieve a balance between home life and work in the true meaning of the expression. In the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, all company employees are, in principle, working from home. Even before that, many Sony employees adopted flexible work styles, and I think the company has created an environment where people can balance their work and private lives properly, irrespective of whether they are raising families or not.

I am also very grateful to my husband because balancing work and family life would be almost impossible without the cooperation of family members like him. I really rely on my husband, who not only dotes on the children but is also very good at housework. We basically share parenting 50:50 and switch roles constantly.

At the Oirase-keiryu mountain stream in Aomori Prefecture with my family three years ago. I taught my son about fern spores. He found a fern and checked the reverse side of the leaves

Creating a team that values the individuality of its members based on mutual understanding

I became a Senior Manager at the end of last year. When I was a team leader, there was much I was not aware of because I only had access to information relating to the areas I covered. But once I became a manager, I gained access to a wider range of information. I believe it has become easier for me to get an overall picture of the work situation because I have to identify exactly what each member is doing, and select the most suitable people when spreading the operational load and assigning tasks.

In managing my staff, I make a point of understanding each team member's background. While remaining aware of individual skills and characteristics, such as their preferences, why they joined Sony, and what they want to do going forward, I assign them tasks that suit their individuality so they can enjoy their work, and take care to prevent overwork. I believe there are some people who cannot speak their minds because they do not want to bother their superiors. I therefore try hard to create an atmosphere that encourages everyone to voice their opinions, and proactively endeavor to adopt their ideas. When things are going well, I find working with the team very enjoyable because the results that emerge are interesting, if only because they often differ from my initial expectations.

One reason for my broader approach may stem from my experience raising children. Parenting involves a great deal of unseen effort that includes spending hours trying to comfort a crying child, looking after the older child while carrying the younger one on my back, and carrying heavy loads and children together. I discovered that I got overwhelmed when I tried to do everything myself, and became keenly aware that the difficulties of parenting were way beyond what I had imagined before I actually had to raise my children. The fact that my own imagination was lacking taught me that I probably could not understand half of what other people were going through or feeling. My child rearing experience enabled me to learn about the possibilities inherent in a wide range of values and life stages.

At a wrap-up party with my team in August 2019

Striving to remain positive and happy at all times

I am really delighted that I can continue to work on natural language processing in my present job because I loved the subject when I was doing research at university. It is very rewarding to be engaged in the process of selecting the technical issues I work on and turning them into products while engaging in areas that really stimulate my curiosity. It is so difficult to enable machines to understand language as well as humans that it may not be achievable in my lifetime. Through my research over a period of five or ten years, I hope to deliver something that is useful for everyone to create technology that can understand human language by exploiting the strong points of machines.

I try not to overdo things in my own approach to work. If I overreach in an attempt to become an ideal mother, or strain too hard to show off how good I am as a researcher, I will forfeit the enjoyment of both parenting and work. I make sure to enjoy my time with my children and my family, and when I am working, I concentrate on delivering the best possible performance and results. I believe things will go smoothly so long as I remain positive and enjoy myself. I live every day grateful that I am either engaged in enjoyable work with wonderful colleagues, or surrounded by my lovely family.

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