So after I launched Noisy on ProductHunt, an interesting fellow by the name of Henry Ning reached out to me.
Basically, he worked for a Chinese company called iDreamSky, which publishes mobile games to the Chinese market. They've been distributing games like Subway Surfer, and were now trying to make their own "Discord but for China", called Fanbook. Henry was in charge of the voice bot effort, and wanted me to port over Noisy to their platform.
I said yes, for three reasons:
Since I was a fetus my parents have been hounding me to learn Chinese and stay up to date with the going-ons of this faraway place called China. They said, "Soon China will be a world power. You'll need to be ready for the future" and stuff like that. I was curious to see for myself what working in a Chinese company would be like, and what this "new world order" is going to look like.
This was the first time I got a career opportunity from a personal project I made for fun. Of course I'd love to get paid to continue working on it!
I was interested in learning Chinese. What better way to learn than to pick it up on the job? (Answer: many other ways)
So for the next month and a half I did remote contracting for this company based in Shenzhen, while I was living in SF. From the get go, I noticed a few differences that diverged from the Western tech space that I was used to:
Beaureaucratic Even by company standards, iDreamSky operated extremely beareaucratically. During standups, most employees were not present, and the interns that were in attendance were silently using their phones distractedly the whole time. The dialoge is very much Q&A instead of free-format. Even within teams, communication is mostly restricted to vertical dialogue with the team leader.
Number Centric At the start of each standup, the moderator would ask every team questions like "What percentage of your project has been completed this week" and "How many days do you need to push this feature" and "Can you do 20 tickets in 2 days instead of 15 in 4 days". There's a hyper-focus on numbers, quantifiables, and deliverables. And not much room or time is left to discuss vision, creative endeavours and culture.
Fear and responsibility For project communication, I was in a group chat that included the CEO and the project manager for Fanbook. When I asked the manager any questions about the documentation or features of the product, he was awfully quiet and vague. I later realized that this was because he was afraid he would seem wrong or incompetent if he messed up in the presence of the CEO. In general, employees felt worried about their reputation and job security, leading to a lack of initiative in the company as a whole.
My time at iDreamSky was exciting for the first few weeks, and then started to become a drag. If I could prepare my past self to work for a Chinese company, I'd share some of these cultural and logistical challenges:
Timezones The timezone difference was brutal. The company does not have much of a remote or self-driven culture, and insisted that all employees work in-sync for work hours. I thought I could manage, but my days started to feel miserable when I missed the best parts the sunny day to work at night (8pm to 4am). I also couldn't spend my evenings cooking and socializing with others at the house.
Work hours iDreamSky tried to be concious of this for foreign workers, but I still felt a pressure to constantly be on-call for 10 hours each day. There's this "996" Chinese work culture, where employees are expected to work from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. There was definitely no clear work-life seperation, let alone social and down time at the company.
Culture shock I spoke exculsively Chinese at home and I thought I would be better geared to adapt to the Chinese work culture. I wasn't at all - my Western values clearly contrasted with the Eastern culture at the company. Though the company was extremely accomodating to foreigners like me, I started to realize that others were a bit uncomfortable when I addressed higher-ups directly, or tried to initiate non-work talk with other employees.
Language barriers iDreamSky really emphasized that language barriers would be of problem to me because they used Lark (Chinese Slack) which had an auto-translate feature. People turned out to be much less receptive to my translated messages, and I had to resort to writing Chinese sentences manually. Also, a lot of technical jargon and figures of speech get lost in translation, and I had to clarify a lot.
I learned about the language and cultural barriers first hand through two funny (in hindsight) situations.
The first one was something that kept on happening for the duration of my contract. Whenever I asked someone a clarifying question, I would get non-answers. Outside of the corporate fear culture, the main reason was actually that the Chinese engineers had trouble telling that I was asking a question in the first place.
I quickly realised that even with the help of Google translate, a lot of the linguistic hints that we'd take for granted wouldn't really make sense in Chinese. Questions like "I'm wondering if I should ..." and "What do you think about ..." and "Would you like me to A or B" start feeling like non-questions. The solution was to bluntly and clearly ask yes-no questions. It's not rude because it would only be rude if you did that to native English speakers.
By the third week, I was starting to feel frustrated about my compensation. The company gave me no clear answer about my pay structure, or any hint about when my cheques would come in. Some off-putting remarks like "We'll pay you once everything is done" and "Don't worry, we'll give you a fair amount" rang alarm bells for me.
I decided that I would stop my work until all this got sorted out. The next week, my supervisor reached out to me, and I flatly told him my feeling about the situation. Internally, things escalated quite quickly after that. I assume a bunch of people had emergency meetings, and then Henry called me late at night, his voice full of worry, asking me what iDreamSky has done to make me "take such drastic measures".
After a bit of clarification we realized that a miscommunication happened thanks to a translation error. In my message to my supervisor, I used 赔偿 as the term for compensation. But this actually means something more like the reparations one would seek for some wrongdoing. I basically said that I was going to come after iDreamSky for the damages they have caused me. The term I should have used would be something more like 回报.
We laughed it off, and the money problem was later solved when the wire came through.
I came out of my contract with a bit of a better idea of what working in Chinese tech would feel like. I admit I only have one data point, and it by no means represents the diverse Chinese tech scene, but I think that having a real experience is better than reading about what it's like online.
After seeing this contrast, I know have a better idea of the parts of Western tech that I'd broadly prefer and I'm grateful to have access to. By no means is the Chinese scene and culture objectively worse - it's just that as someone rasied with Western values, I would find it a lot harder to find enjoyment in this work experience and environment. As for which system would prove to be more effective, we can watch how that will play out in the decades to come.