WFH: Chinese Engineers Abroad Come Back
Beijing’s Zhongguancun neighborhood is often called the “Silicon Valley of China,” but seen from street level, the two places are worlds apart.
Silicon Valley’s endless office parks strive for the platonic ideal of workplace productivity: spacious green “campuses,” colorful slides to take you between floors, free in-house massages, and cafeterias serving up grass-fed steak and brain-boosting kale juice. The environment, the companies, and the culture all coddle you.
Zhongguancun smacks you right in the face. Shove your way out of the Zhongguancun (pronounced “jong-gwan-soon”) subway stop at rush hour and you emerge onto a traffic intersection the size of a football field. Twelve lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic on Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road cross under or feed into Zhongguancun Road. At street level, a sea of bikes, tuk-tuks, and electric scooters muscle their way through traffic, and onto sidewalks when the spirit moves them.
Car horns and hawkers of used cell phones compete for the highest decibel count. Offices lining these roads are often cramped and low-lit, smelling of instant noodles, stale cigarettes, and chicken-foot snacks. Like the rest of Beijing, the sky above Zhongguancun is often the same color as the pavement below, and the two are about equally clean.
It’s in this urban Chinese jungle that Li Zhifei is trying to create a Google-inspired oasis, a company that grafts the best of Silicon Valley’s culture onto Chinese markets free for the taking.
Beijing to the Bay Area, and Back Again
I first spoke with Li Zhifei over Skype in early 2014 (surname Li, given name Zhifei, pronounced “Jur-faye”). At the time, the Chinese government’s reluctance to grant me a journalist visa had left me stranded back in my hometown of Palo Alto, California, 6,000 miles away from my adopted home of Beijing. As a China watcher temporarily exiled in Silicon Valley, I began interviewing Chinese coders in the Bay Area, and Li’s name came up in several of those conversations. Those coders often cited him as an inspiration for them to potentially quit their plush jobs in the valley and return to China.
Born and raised in central China, Li did a stint at a Beijing startup in the late ’90s, earned a PhD studying artificial intelligence algorithms at Johns Hopkins University, and spent 2010 to 2012 as a researcher for Google Translate at the company’s Mountain View, California headquarters. But when Li wanted to found his own company, he picked up stakes and headed back to China, splicing what he calls the “Google DNA” into the culture of his own startup: Mobvoi.
The name is a portmanteau of the company’s synergistic focus: “mobile” and “voice.” Observing the rise of voice assistants in the US, Li put his background in artificial intelligence into creating a Mandarin voice assistant, one that could recognize words, parse Chinese speech, and answer basic queries.
Mobvoi first packaged that core technology into a smartphone app, and continued to branch out into other voice-enabled devices: Google Glass, smartwatches, smart home devices, and voice-controlled systems in cars. By 2018, that array of AI-powered devices would land Mobvoi a spot on CB Insight’s list of the top 100 global AI startups.
When Li first returned to China in 2012, he was something of a pioneer. At the time, very few Chinese coders who landed a job in Silicon Valley had any intention of returning home. Compared with the Valley, China’s technology ecosystem still felt relatively backward, packed with cutthroat copycat companies and thin on venture capital or genuine innovation.
But as companies like Alibaba, apps like WeChat, and models like bike-sharing took off, China’s startup scene began to exert a growing pull on overseas Chinese. Not only was the scene dynamic, but it often offered greater opportunities to aspiring Chinese entrepreneurs who lived abroad. In Silicon Valley, these folks must navigate a fraught visa process, pitch to investors in their second language, and build products for customers from a starkly different cultural background. Beyond those logistical advantages, China was also steadily narrowing the information and talent gaps that existed for decades.
“Coming back was the right move,” Li told me in 2014. “Now when something happens in the US we get that information almost immediately. It’s about the speed of information transfer and that pool of people who have come back.”
Li invited me to visit Mobvoi’s headquarters the next time I was in Beijing, and in early 2015 I decided to take him up on that offer.
Sea Turtles in the Big City
After wading through the chaos of Zhongguancun, I head up an office-park elevator to Mobvoi’s headquarters, where I am greeted by Li and his cofounder, Li Yuanyuan. (We’ll call her by her given name, Yuanyuan.) They walk me across the open office floor, where around 50 employees squint at computer screens or fiddle with gadgets. Google Glass went on sale a year earlier, but with so many Google functions blocked in China, the fancy hardware was severely handicapped. Mobvoi is working to fill that vacuum, creating its own Chinese-language voice recognition software for the Silicon Valley hardware. Li encourages me to try on a pair, and I use a few simple Chinese commands to take a picture of Mobvoi’s coders at work.
Li, Yuanyuan, and I sit down in a glass-walled office in the back. We sip loose-leaf tea while Li shows off the company’s Siri-esque app, Chumenwenwen. (The name roughly translates to “head out, ask around.”) I shoot a series of Chinese questions at the app—Will it rain tomorrow in Beijing? Where’s the nearest Sichuan restaurant?—and mostly get back the answers I am looking for. It isn’t perfect, but neither is Siri, especially when you only speak Chinese.
Putting the app down, we chat about the Zhongguancun startup scene and what Li learned from his time in the Valley. “At Google, to me the most important was the culture: how a high-tech company in Silicon Valley operates, innovates, and competes,” he tells me.
Yuanyuan has headed up the operations and business side since Mobvoi’s founding. She describes the difficulty of recreating that company culture with some programmers who have never experienced it firsthand. As a result, Mobvoi leans heavily on haigui, a Chinese pun on the word for “sea turtle.” Haigui refers to Chinese people who return to China after studying or working overseas, like Li Zhifei. Sea turtles make up much of the senior leadership of Mobvoi, and at times 20 percent of the total staff.
“We love haigui,” she tells me. “We feel that people with a dynamic background work harder. They don’t calculate ‘OK, this is my working hours.’ They treat this as a startup experience, and that’s an experience that they really want to have. Those people are more flexible—they’re problem solvers. They don’t care about ‘What’s my job description?’ They don’t play politics.”
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As I’m getting ready to depart, Yuanyuan invites me to join the team for an offsite event they’re planning: a hackathon designed to build out apps for their smartwatches. The event is going to be held the exact same weekend that the Apple Watch will go on sale for the first time. It sounds like a perfect chance to watch Mobvoi at work, and I tell her that I’m in.
Google Seeds in a Concrete Jungle
On my way out of the office, I notice two plates of colored glass shaped like arrows and built into the floor. One points toward the work space and has the word “California” printed across the arrow. The other arrow reads “Silicon Valley” and points toward a pair of plush red chairs nestled in a corner near the front desk. This little relaxation station is Li’s nod to the nap pods and play areas strewn around Google campuses. A couple of reclining chairs wouldn’t pass muster with employees in Mountain View, but here they at least signal an aspiration. I ask Li what is up with the glass arrows in the floor.
“Ah.” He looks at me with a smile. “They’re supposed to remind our people of the Silicon Valley culture of working hard, and also the California culture of being relaxed and having fun.”
“But why does ‘California’ point toward the desks and ‘Silicon Valley’ toward the comfy chairs?”
“Oh, well, the construction workers who installed them couldn’t understand the English words, and so they accidentally installed them backward.”
Heading out through the building’s glass doors, I plunge back into the current of bodies and bicycles surging north toward the subway. Hawkers, hackers, and pickpockets hunting for iPhones all cram onto the pedestrian sky bridge that spans Zhongguancun Road. It’s almost rush hour, and the subway ride back across town is guaranteed to be a suffocating crush of humanity.
Halfway across the sky bridge, I push sideways through the stream of foot traffic to get to the railing that faces south, toward the heart of Zhongguancun. It’s a far cry from the sunny climes of the San Francisco Bay and the multibillion-dollar companies that treat a talented coder like a firstborn child. In China, Google has been hacked, blocked, and thoroughly bullied. But out here between the smog and the concrete, a seed spliced with Google genes has found fertile soil. And it’s growing.
Smartwatches and Stinky Tofu
Three weeks later, my stomach is lurching as the bus screams around switchbacks on the way out to Mobvoi’s smartwatch hackathon. The destination is Wulingshan, a resort nestled against a pristine blue lake two hours northeast of Beijing.
The Great Firewall may insulate the Chinese internet, but you’d never know that from the chatter here on the bus. Conversations flow seamlessly between new Facebook features, Chinese smartphone brands, and one programmer’s favorite food: stinky tofu. Coders wear Google hoodies while typing out WeChat messages. They’ve got opinions on the algorithms in Chinese shopping apps, and the best Sichuan food in the Bay Area. Whenever the topic turns to technology or business, Chinese sentences are suddenly peppered with English phrases: “actionable path,” “back end,” and “why not?”
These are the twenty- and thirty-somethings helping drive China’s tech renaissance. Apps and algorithms conceived by these types of coders are fueling a rash of billion-dollar valuations and business-model innovations that have caught the world’s attention. Many haigui on this bus studied at top-notch American universities and worked for the same companies that the national firewall blocks.
Li and Yuanyuan sit up front. Next to them is Mike Lei, a fellow ex-Googler who Li met at Google orientation in 2010. After four years working on voice recognition in Mountain View, Mike moved back to China to join Mobvoi as chief technology officer.
Li, Yuanyuan, and Mike have charted an ambitious agenda for the next 24 hours. They’ve split their coders, designers, and product managers into teams of three or four, each tasked with producing a functioning mock-up of a smartwatch app. These apps will populate the app store for Ticwear, Mobvoi’s smartwatch operating system. The Apple Watch will go on sale at noon today, and Li wants Mobvoi to have a head start on other local startups when it comes to defining the smartwatch ecosystem in China—and eventually around the world.
As Mobvoi employees file off the bus at the resort, it’s time first for a Chinese-style icebreaker: massage trains. Programmers and PR reps array themselves in rows and proceed to squeeze the shoulders, pound the back, and gently rub the earlobes of the person in front of them. Li plants himself right in the middle of the massage train, getting and giving it just like any other member of the team.
Once the massages are finished and the luggage dropped off, everyone heads down to a conference room. Here, Lin Yili, a Harvard Business School grad turned VP of product, delivers a presentation on the goals of the hackathon ahead. Part product analysis and part pep talk, Lin’s presentation breaks down smartwatch competitors and outlines the specific use cases where smartwatches can supplement or replace smartphones.
I’ve sat through many presentations and product unveilings at traditional Chinese companies. My Chinese friends often dismiss these bureaucracy-meets-marketing presentations with a three-word descriptor: jia da kong—“fake, big, empty.” China has spent millennia mastering the art of bureaucratese, a virus that has been transmitted from its political establishment to the leadership of many of its largest companies. Presentations by executives somehow manage to be simultaneously dramatically overhyped, dreadfully boring, and totally devoid of content. It’s the legacy of a system in which success was based less on the strength of one’s ideas and more on access to vast amounts of government-controlled resources: public land, bank loans, foreign currency, etc. The content of these speeches is more a game of abstract signaling than actual transmission or exchange of ideas.
But this is different. When Mobvoi’s leadership talks to employees, they trim the fat. It’s all about user experience, product-market fit, and execution. It’s a leadership style that I’ve only witnessed a handful of times in China, mostly at tech startups and often by those who have spent time outside the country.
Here it seems to hit the mark. When Lin finishes up, Mobvoi employees splinter into their groups and dive into brainstorming sessions for their apps. With the Apple Watch about to debut, engineers in China and the US are still exploring what exactly a smartwatch is good for. Is it a mini-smartphone on your wrist? Or just a more advanced Fitbit to monitor your health? The Mobvoi teams reflect that ambiguity: Some go for straightforward voice-activated push notifications (“Tell me when the Beijing air pollution index goes above 150”), others have the watch extract and analyze data from the user’s body movements and phone calls.
Apple, Mobvoi, and Market Education
While the teams huddle in the lobby and hotel rooms, Mobvoi management gathers around a MacBook in the conference room. The Apple Watch has just gone on sale, and Yuanyuan is refreshing the purchase page on Apple’s site, trying to get through and buy a few different versions for Mobvoi’s engineers to experiment with.
“Wow … only that gaudy gold version has sold out here in China?” she says with a groan. “That’s kind of terrifying.”
Chinese conspicuous consumption aside, Li thinks the debut of the Apple Watch will be a boost for his own efforts. Mobvoi has already created its own operating system for smartwatches, and it’s knee-deep in a secret design process for its own smartwatch, Ticwatch, which will debut later this year.
“Apple is incredibly good at market education,” he tells me as Yuanyuan clicks Purchase on a few watches. “It’s creating the market, and that’s a really good thing. If it sells well that’s going to be good for us. If the market isn’t big enough, then there’s no use in us having a large market share.”
I head back upstairs to type up my notes and take in the view. The hackathon is being held in a luxurious resort, the kind of place that wealthy Chinese come to escape the constant fight-or-flight mind-set imposed by life in Beijing. The view from the hotel's balconies is a full panorama of blue water, rugged mountains, and blue skies. Gazing out at the lake and thinking of the coding blitz that lies ahead, one of the engineers quietly grumbles: “Such a nice hotel, such a nice room, and we can’t even sleep in it.”
As the hackathon drags into the evening, teams hole themselves up in their rooms, breaking only to boil water for instant noodles and coffee. I leave them to it, crashing for the night while most of the apps are still just flowcharts on pads of paper. When I head down to the dining hall the next morning, most teams are either working through breakfast or asleep at the table.
“Opened Up the Space for Us to Imagine”
Li comes down and joins me for a plate of boiled vegetables and fried rice. He’s less tired but just as anxious as the coders that surround him. He invites me to take a walk with him by the lake while we wait for the final presentations.
As we stroll along the water, Li begins to question whether Mobvoi has really been able to imprint that Google DNA into the team he’s building. Comparing Chinese-trained coders and his colleagues at Google, he sees a gap.
“They’re still far behind. It’s because of Chinese university education. Classes are still taught in that broadcast method, with the teacher standing at the front and lecturing. If you look at Stanford computer science classes, a lot of their projects are just like the hackathon we’re doing now.”
Shelving that bit of self-doubt, Li heads back inside for the presentations. The Mobvoi leadership team array themselves in the front row as judges. First up is a team that lost its main engineer to a night of drinking. The presentation is a train wreck—a sketch of an idea for an app, no more developed than what you’d come up with over a round of beers with friends. A few pointed questions from the judges knock the legs out from under the idea, and the team is dismissed from the stage. The judges clearly are not happy with the results.
But from there on, the ideas quickly improve. One group presents a smartwatch companion for PowerPoint presentations, giving presenters a timer and outline of their talk on the watch face, and the ability to change slides with a flick of the wrist. Another group turned the watch faces into chameleon-like glow sticks that change color when the user dances in the dark. Winning some of the highest marks from the judges is a simple cosmetic function: an app that changes your watch face to the album cover of whatever song you’re listening to. Nothing built overnight is quite ready for prime time, but as we pour out of the conference room the judges are clearly excited by the foundations their teams laid down.
“These really opened up the space for us to imagine what a smartwatch can do,” CTO Mike Lei says to me.
Relieved and a little delirious from sleep deprivation, everyone grabs their luggage and piles back onto the bus. We head to a nearby village for a celebratory barbecue of Chinese favorites: lamb skewers, grilled eggplant, and chicken hearts. Yili works the grill while Li surveys his troops. He’s wearing a jacket given to him by his former employer, with the green Android robot logo stitched into the fabric over his heart. After half an hour, a spring rain sends everyone clambering back onto the bus, and we nap all the way back to Beijing.
Adapted and excerpted from The Transpacific Experiment: How China and California Collaborate and Compete for Our Future, copyright © 2019 by Matt Sheehan. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.