Some Advice for the China-Bound Job Seeker

In the Hutong
Blogging as Work Avoidance
1051 hrs.

It is no secret that the economy-class sections of trans-Eurasian and trans-Pacific flights are increasingly filled with refugees from the global financial crisis, people intent on finding new lives and careers in the Wild East.

Aimee Barnes has written a post filled with thoughtful advice for these fortune-seekers (Falling in Love with China, and Your Career), and in the spirit of her exercise I want to add the following, posted on The Old Silicon Hutong in January 2006, but even more relevant today:


It seems like every week or so I get an e-mail from a young person who is interested in finding work in China, and sends me a resume asking for my help. Nearly all of them are well-mannered, articulate, and well-informed about the region. I’m always happy to help.

But what I have discovered is that a large percentage of the class of 2005/2006 [NB: and 2009/2010] are not willing to actually come out here to seek their fortune. They would rather wait for the offer. I once thought that way, and it was the biggest mistake of my career. I’ve discovered since that the right thing to do would have been to get my ass on a plane and come out here – it would have saved me at least two years of scraping by, living in the guest room of a friend’s house, and working in jobs with limited prospects.

I want to help others avoid that, so this is the advice I gave today to one recent correspondent:

Not sure if I ever told you this, but between 1993 and 1995 I spent nearly two years trying to find a job in China from my home in California. I sent out 500 resumes, shook the guanxi tree, even published a quarterly China business newsletter. When I finally got a bite (from a newsletter subscriber), it was enough to get me over to China, but not the ideal job. Once here, however, I’ve never been unemployed for more than 60 days.

The primary reason for this is that most hiring decisions for China and Asia positions – even for multinational companies (PR, advertising, and others) – are made on the ground here in the region. If anything, this is more the case now than it was a decade ago, as most firms have so expanded their operations in the region that the Asia HR function is managed separately.

Because there are a decent number of applicants in the region, companies will only pay your airfare and expenses to come out for interviews under exceptional circumstances. Doing so is an expensive, high-risk proposition, and most companies choose not to take it. What this tends to mean is that if a company has to decide between two candidates, one in the US and one close by, the one already in the region gets picked, even if the one here is slightly less qualified.

On the other hand, executives and HR directors give high regard to someone who has come to Asia under his own steam. They tend to think that it demonstrates a commitment to the region and a high degree of personal initiative. The importance of initiative should be pretty self-evident. The importance of commitment cannot be understated. I can’t tell you the number of young people who get hired, come out to Asia, spend 2-4 years here, then decide “you know, I want to go back to the US and go to graduate school,” or “Asia is just not for me,” or “I’m afraid of being pigeon-holed as a China or Asia person, and the effect that might have on my career.” While understandable (except for the pigeon-hole case), such issues are frustrating for companies who invest heavily into the training and development of a young executive, only to see that individual pack it in and head back to the U.S. at just about the time they are starting to deliver a return on this investment. Commitment, therefore, is increasingly critical.

Trust me, I understand how difficult it can be to leave behind a secure home and 3 squares a day to do something like this. But even if you just manage to line up a couple of weeks of meetings and interviews, the price of a round-trip ticket on Air China or Northwest and a few nights hotel is well-invested. One young lady I now was finishing up at the University of Washington two years ago, and had been working as a waitress and a trainer at a national casual dining chain. She got a couple of weeks off of her job during the vacation, about a month before which she sent out a bunch of resumes, following up to line up meetings. By the time she got here, she had a full card of interviews. We didn’t quite hire her on the spot, but close. She came back, did an internship for 3 months, and we hired her. She was promoted within 18 months, and now heads the research department at B-M China.

Again, my goal is not to lecture, but to help set your expectations and to provide you with how I think you might best go about landing a job here. You may well be successful getting hired from where you sit, but I can say that the percentage of young, non-Chinese entry-level managers who get hired from the U.S. is small compared to those who are hired from here.

I’m not sure how he’ll take that, but I’m hopeful. Because I get a call or email every ten days or so from a friend or acquaintance who is looking to hire people like this.

Four Handhelds, three computers, two email accounts, one little problem

Starbucks Pacific Place

Dreaming in Kodachrome

1412 hours

I’m about to spend a bunch of posts diving into the promise and reality of 3G in China, but before I do, a brief call to all of my friends in the information technology business.

Not Different, Just Extreme

I sit down at a table and lay them out: A Motorola ZN5 (phone and camera); a Blackberry 8707 (email); iPod Touch (PDA/games/vids); iPod Classic (the music monster.) And THEN I reach for one of two laptops in the bag. I’ll admit that I’m hardly typical (I mean, even Steven Lin, aka “Flypig,” calls me “the geekiest geek I’ve ever met.”) But after constant trial-and-error, this is the system that makes me more productive and keeps the information I need close at hand.

Yet I am hardly alone. As I spend chunks of my days watching Beijingers native and naturalized live their digital lives, I’ve found that I’m simply an extreme example of a growing trend. For a lot of people in China, the early promise of convergence – your whole digital life in one device – misses the point.

Blowing Divergence

What we are getting in its stead is something quite different. Sure, some people ARE converging: there are some for whom cramming more and more features into a single device, (the digital Swiss Army Knife), is still a practical idea. But I’m seeing a growing number of people here in China using several complimentary devices. Call it “divergence.”

The gadget and computer industry should be forgiven the error of predicting a single-device future. But now that the future is here, and the one-gadget-fits-all approach is a fit for only a small percentage of people, the hard work begins. The industry needs to help us recognize the challenge of living in a diverged world, and it needs to help us make the most of it.

Marketing is not going to be enough. Nor, for that matter, is complying with a handful of software and hardware standards like USB, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.

Harmonize my Gadgets…please

Instead, the industry needs to stop selling us “THE” device, and start showing us how these devices can fit into our lives and our personal information environments, and then giving us simple and workable building blocks so that we can store our digital stuff in different places and machines, and access all of it whenever and wherever we want to, and we want to do it without having to scratch our heads, much less read an instruction sheet.

(And before you roll out my beloved Apple as an example of a company that is making the personal information ecosystem a reality, I have one word: MobileMe. Serving to prove that enabling a personal information ecosystem is so hard that even Apple has a hard time doing it.)

Don’t tell me my phone is a computer. Tell me what it can do better than my computer, or tell me what it can do that my laptop cannot.

Don’t tell me your online document service can replace Microsoft Office. Tell me how well it works as an extension of my desktop software.

Don’t sell me a platform of one-size-fits-all online services. You have no idea what I need.

And take a lesson from companies like Evernote, who simply offer an online/offline application that is so mind-bogglingly useful that people will look for new ways to use it.

That process will be hard. It will be messy. And in China it will be especially difficult, because most of the country is still figuring out how to get on the information bus, making the place a moving target.

But it is the standard by which the information industry is going to be judged. If you want credibility, stop promising us info-nirvana and start delivering ways to let us design our own information ecosystems.

Stepping off soapbox.

The Financial News Sidestep

In the Hutong

Timing intervals twixt interruptions

1211 hrs.

Last year, the Chinese government, in an effort to further formalize the status of foreign financial information providers (i.e., Bloomberg, Dow Jones, Thompson/Reuters, etc) operating in the PRC, assigned the group a regulator: Xinhua, The New China News Agency.

The SCIO Bomb

The foreign financial information providers (FFIPs, or “fips”), understandably upset that an ambitious local competitor was going to serve as their regulator, cried foul, and the United States, the European Union, and Canada all protested to the WTO. Thus forced to concede that having the local champion serve as regulator carried the faint smell of protectionism, China agreed in a settlement to have the State Council Information Office (SCIO) serve as regulator.

Interestingly, the settlement also accepted a fairly broad definition of financial information, going beyond just prices and data and including news and other information. But more on that in a minute.

Congratulating themselves on a fairly satisfying and sagely compromise, the FFIPs returned to business.

Until yesterday.

Before heading off for the three-day May Day weekend, the SCIO published the regulation that formalized the agreement. Then, it noted that the FFIPs, while allowed to sell their business and corporate information services in China, would not be permitted to conduct news gathering activities.

And You Thought the WTO Was the Last Word

Speculation reported in the Financial Times suggested that the restriction on news gathering might have been inserted as a fillip to Xinhua. That may be the case, but I think there is a larger issue at stake for the Chinese government.

PRC law and long-standing policy prohibits foreign ownership of domestic news outlets. Nothing in the terms and conditions surrounding China’s accession to the WTO is going to compel the government to change this. And the FFIPs know this.

And getting all of the countries involved in last year’s WTO settlement to agree that “financial information,” broadly defined, included news probably sounded to the FFIPs that they had made a huge step forward. As it turns out, that may have opened a door allowing the government to ignore the distinction between an financial information provider and a news organization and roup the FFIPs in with the news business.

“Hey, What’s That Camel’s Nose Doing in Here?”

Because what I believe has happened in this case is that someone suggested to the SCIO that any organization capable of both gathering news inside China and of distributing news inside China is, effectively, a domestic news outlet. As financial information now includes news under the terms of an international agreement, that meant that Xinhua and its allies in government and the Party could make a good case that now Thompson/Reuters, Dow Jones, and Bloomberg were operating as de-facto domestic news outlets.

Confronted with that rationale, the Chinese government only has two choices: a) ban the FFIPs from distributing in China, which wouldn’t work because the WTO case would reopen and Chinese financial institutions would suffer for the lack of critical timely information; or b), prohibit FFIPs from engaging in news gathering, a restriction that is much more difficult for international organizations to challenge and ensures international financial information flows to domestic institutions.

So SCIO chose the latter. And now the ball is back in the court of the FFIPs in terms of how they want to play this.

Get Me Rewrite!

There has already been some outrage online and in the news, but if I may make a suggestion to my friends in the Fourth Estate, this would be a very good time to keep cool heads about this.

First, as with any regulation in China, the time delay between promulgation and enforcement is often long enough to allow for some discussion. Rather than make a formal case and get governments publicly involved, it is time to start tapping your sources of information, having quiet, off-the-record discussions with the people you know in government – as many as possible – and learning why this happened.

Second, we need to recognize that this could get a lot worse. Given that the wall between what is “news” and what is “financial information” has been destroyed by international legal agreement, Xinhua’s next move could be to declare that any financial information developed in China is the same as news, thus prohibiting the FFIPs from distributing so much as quotes from the Shanghai Stock Exchange within China. We don’t want to go there, now, do we? And Xinhua would love to have a captive market in the PRC for its real-time financial information service.

Third, remember that the FFIPs have natural allies in China that have helped them before. It is time to call upon those allies again. But that is not enough – you have gone back to that well too often – it is time to get more allies, and that means going public. Stop positioning yourselves as news companies (at least in China) and start making a public effort to demonstrate that you offer a service that is essential to the future of the Chinese nation and to its role as an emerging financial power.