From 1986 until 1989, I worked in Tokyo, Japan, at an AT&T subsidiary called Unix Pacific. Our official charter was to license AT&T’s Unix operating system in Japan and Asia. To do that, we needed a version of Unix that would work with Asian languages; thus, our second charter was to work with Bell Laboratories to create international versions of Unix.
Our development manager was Jiro Monden, or Monden-san, as we all called him (I never heard anyone call him anything else, I’m not even sure his wife called him Jiro). Monden-san managed a team of five or so developers. His team was responsible for supporting EUC (Extended Unix Codesets; see EUC on Wikipedia for more than you really need to know about EUC). The main historical importance of EUC is that it is the grandparent of the UTF-8 coding scheme for Unicode.
My responsibility was at first somewhat vague; I was brought over because I was familiar with the latest version of Unix, having been part of the development team. Beyond that, my job was to support the development team in any way I could. After bouncing around on various projects, I ended up on a project where I was the manager of five engineers who came to our Tokyo office from Beijing to work on a joint project with our team.
At the time, my sole managerial experience was supervising a few part-time student employees in a computer center. So, I needed an example and a mentor, though at the time I wasn’t aware that I did (youth and hubris, I guess). Our managing director provided one example, but for direct management of engineers, I started watching Monden-san.
Unlike nearly any manager I’ve seen before or since, he kept a perfect balance of strength (he could dress down a miscreant with the best of them), flexibility, common sense, and humor. His team delivered on time and with quality. They met their commitments and had fun working; in fact, the morale there was as good as in any group I’ve worked with. He was nearly always smiling, and so was everyone in his group, even when they were under the gun with a tight schedule.
He taught me the importance of keeping your eye on your objective. It is very easy to get tied up in the details and lose sight of where you’re going. He was able to adjust schedules, re-assign resources, and juggle priorities to help his team reach their objectives. He could keep a firm eye on the objective, and a flexible hand on the means; not easy and not common.
Monden-san never said a word about it to me, but he was an equal-opportunity manager in a country that, at least at that time, had very clearly defined roles for men and women, as well as racial minorities (Koreans in particular). Monden-san paid no attention to that, and hired people based on their engineering ability, not their gender or national origin. We had as diverse a group of engineers as you could have in Japan.
Monden-san passed away this week after a long illness. I will remember him as a mentor whose example set me on my path as a manager. But, I will also remember a man with an unforgettable smile, who knew how to enjoy life.
At a Japanese funeral, you frequently see a picture of the deceased; usually a very solemn, formal photograph. At Monden-san’s service, the picture shows him smiling, of course.