How Was it Like Working for a Chinese Internet Company?

Who am I? I’m one of those NorCal software engineers who enjoys a peaceful yet abundant life in Bay Area. You’d see me waiting in the long line of traffic turning into Apple Park in Cupertino before the pandemic. With all the ML/NLP domain PHDs around me, I’m having quite some fun learning and growing in this US based tech giant. On the other hand, I’m one of those mainland Chinese who traveled thousands of miles from the East, pursuing the so-called American dream. I would still be wowed by the Golden Gate Bridge and eat at those foreign small Chinese restaurants. Even after a few years, I’m still curious about this society, and sometimes vice versa, although not always in a positive way. At times people from workplace or from church were asking about how the life was like back in Beijing. Growing up in Beijing since youth time, I spent 10+ years studying, and ~2 years working in tech industry there before coming to the US. For sure the work experience there was memorable, especially during this time when the US and China are becoming increasingly competitive in the tech domain.

Hopefully this will help you understand Chinese tech company and potentially, China more. Since this was 9 years ago, by no means I’m saying this is fully reflecting the current state, as China has been developing quickly in the past few years. Also I’m only speaking from a limited view from 2 years of experience there, so bear with me (and let me know) if you don’t agree with certain things.

I spent most of the year in 2012 interning as a product designer in Baidu, the absolute dominion of the Chinese Internet industry at the time after Google got cracked down by the government.

After that I spent another year working as a product assistant in Sogou Inc., a subdivision of a larger mother company called Sohu. Most of my work experience there was non-tech related but more related to product marketing, UX design and software cycles, with a lot of involvement in communication and human factors. This I believe gave me a better view about the culture of these companies without digging my head into the tech challenges (like what I’ve been doing now).

Workplace was a major part of life

I’m not saying that we spent our life working. It’s more than that. Workplace was more than a building for professionals, but often times feels like a place for life. After working for only 1 year, my best friends were suddenly all the colleagues around me. People who work together would gather for board games after lunch, and go drink beers together after work without families until midnight. Companies have the tradition to host gigantic concert-like ceremonies to celebrate the New Years, and some companies even host weddings for their employees. The circles of workplace just feel like big families sometimes. In return, people in general see work as something very significant in their lives, thus we definitely complained less over heavy workloads. Comparing to what I’ve been seeing and feeling in the Western world, where people generally have clear cuts between work and personal life, the division between work and life in China was really blurry.

Projects were heavily top-down KPI driven

If you think your OKR (Objectives and Key Results) or KPI (Key Performance Indicator) working for a US company is harsh, here’s my story. As a product manager, our KPIs were down to the decimal point, fully quantified, and all your salary raise and bonuses are depending on them. People in general were obsessed with numbers, and would do whatever it took to achieve them. For example, someone from the client software team would define a KPI of x installations by the end of year, and x could be a dramatic number to win in the difficult battlefield. Then soon, on the internet you will see all sorts of installation packages showing up in weird places, as an add-on software that you’d mistakenly install in something else, or as a phishing link on your social network. To some extent I could understand that, because back then the Chinese internet industry was truly a battlefield with malicious competition. If you don’t eat others, you’ll end up being eaten. Pushing hard on numbers give the leadership a lot more comfort to ensure we were the one eating.

Learning from the competitors was a daily norm

It’s hard to blame anyone for this. Back then there was no TikToc, Toutiao was not a thing, and people still liked Renren, which looked like a clone of Facebook. There were really not that many Chinese products who could even take a stand in the international world. As one of the product designers of a new initiative called “Knowledge Cube” at Sogou, which basically is the same concept of knowledge graph from Google, we spent our days doing “competitor analysis”, which is basically copying what competitors were doing. Of course we tried to be creative, but with limited experience and professional training in this domain, we always end up learning from the big players, sometimes within China too. This later became a driving force for me to continue my education in US.

Censorship was part of the key architectural design

I worked at the search department of Sogou, which was the 2nd largest search engine in China, mainly absorbing its users from its webkit-based browser. For many users, what we present is what millions of Chinese users look at when they go for web answers. This has a major risk, when the users became overly curious in such a special political environment. Microsoft for sure learnt the hard lesson not to expose its international content to mainland China. From a perspective of software engineering, when we design a new software, we would typically write down a list non-functional requirements, and these requirements will be the inputs for key architectural decisions. Working on such a product in China, information control was one of the top non-functional requirements. One of them was to be able to bring down a web source from the index of billions of pages within 15 mins, otherwise the government would be able to directly cut off our network and bring down our service. I remember sitting in a meeting where we were launching a new keyword censorship initiative. You’d probably imagine it as in those Hollywood movies where there would be serious Chinese hackers with sunglasses on. But no. People were laughing and smiling, dealing with it just as another project at work. Very few people understood the significance of that. We just wanted to finish it off and move on. Some people liked this idea, because it guarantees the social peace, while others (maybe like me) disliked it, for it hid truth sometimes just for the sake of safety.

Again, I’m definitely not saying that this is the full picture of Chinese internet industry. It may well likely be a tip of the iceberg. It was memorable in many ways, and I felt blessed to be able to make so many friends, and experience these all the way through.

AI/ML engineer in Silicon Valley, Christian, passionate about software and creativity.