China’s digital wolves

China’s tech giants are running in packs looking for employees willing to devour the competition

31 May 2020 | Tas Walter (Image: APAC Digital / Marc-Olivier Jodoin)

Late last year a senior strategist at a Sydney-based media company was approached by recruiters at Chinese tech giant ByteDance, the owner of video app TikTok and, its Chinese version, Douyin.

In a very western way, a video interview was set up at a time convenient to the candidate, which happened to be 5:00am Beijing-time, with her prospective boss already in the office.

As a Chinese-Australian, fluent in Mandarin and highly experienced in cross-cultural marketing, she had every right to approach the interview with confidence.

After some brief preliminaries, the ByteDance manager pounced with a series of technical questions about the company’s platform. These were questions about the internal workings of the company’s technology which only a company insider, or a similarly placed employee in a competitor, should be able to answer.  

These questions were not answered well, the interviewer firing back with, “You don’t seem prepared for a job opportunity you claim to take seriously.”

Her protestation, that he was asking about material that was not in public domain, was met with a sharp rebuke. He quickly Googled ByteDance’s website and challenged why she hadn’t found a particular blog post explained just how a project he was referring to worked.

The recruitment process ended there. Says the candidate, “I asked myself after that first interview: is this the type of company that I want to work for?

“Before the interview, I had accepted that I might have to work gruelling hours, but it was the level of aggression that caught me off guard.”

We’ll call you… whenever we like

More recently another Chinese-Australian returned to China in search of career opportunities in the booming tech sector.

Here excitement at being shortlisted by Alibaba was soon tempered by what she found to be ‘unprofessional behaviour’ after just two preliminary interviews. It turned out, humiliating potential candidates was not just the domain of ByteDance.

This approach is tech industry wide. Unscheduled late-night interview calls, check. Uncomfortable interviews, bordering on rude, check again.

It seems that China’s tech giants are possessed. But by what? When told of these stories, another tech professional in Beijing, wasn’t a bit surprised.

“Wolf mentality” was the phrase she used to describe the cultural norm permeating China’s tech circles. “If you work for one of these firms, you are expected to act like a hungry wolf.”

Be tough, be strong, always demand more, know exactly what you want and go on the attack.

These qualities, which were once discouraged in China’s collective culture, are quietly replacing Confucian ‘doctrine of the mean’, which calls for ‘moderation and rectitude’.

Alibaba founder Jack Ma, in the Hangzhou apartment/office he shared with 17 members of his start-up team in 1999 (Image: Alibaba)

The “996” choice, you’re in or you’re out.

Just like wolves, China’s leading tech giants run in packs. China’s richest individual and Alibaba Group founder, Jack Ma famously coined the phrase “996” and proclaimed that anyone should feel lucky to have the opportunity to work a 9–9–6 schedule.

There is some flexibility for employees, with any hopes of career progression, they don’t have to rigidly follow the 9:00am to 9:00pm six days a week dictum.

The flexibility is that it does not mean starting and finishing at nine – you can start work anytime you like, as long as you do your 12 hours.

When Ma came out of the 996 closet, though its open doors could be seen all his tech friends, and rivals. One reason the gruelling 996 schedule is so hard to escape, is because in China the choice is simple, you’re either in or out.

And there are plenty of good reasons to be ‘in’.

Lucky to get a piece of the action

As one of China’s most innovative and fastest-growing sectors, the tech industry offers the promise of great career prospects, the chance to rub shoulders with the rich and powerful, and not to mention fat paycheques  (if you can stick it out for long enough, that is).

Considering how ultra-competitive China’s labour market is, Jack Ma wasn’t wrong when he said it was only the lucky ones that could get a piece of this action. China’s tech industry is selling like hotcakes. Even 996 cannot deter those eager job seekers who are beating a path to Alibaba’s door.

However, it is naive to assume that the lack of choice is the only reason some of China’s brightest are flocking to companies like Alibaba. The notion of 996 corporate dedication was widely panned outside of China, its reception in China is more of a mixed bag.

The reward trap

One Alibaba marketing executive complains the company has ruined her career, not because of constant travel and projects that can keep her in the office until 3:00am.

“I understand this way of life is not sustainable,” she says. “But I’ll never find a job as rewarding, so where am I going to go after Alibaba?”

Within a few months of joining the company, she’d been exposed to more opportunities and worked on more substantive projects than she’d seen working for years at several other companies.

She mingled with the rich and powerful at company workshops, she learnt about the most advanced tech available in the market, and she started working on global projects.

More importantly, she found real meaning in her work that none of her previous ‘prestigious’ positions could parallel. She can see the critical changes that she’s helping to bring about, from transforming the lives of remote villagers making a great living selling on Taobao, to helping millions of families making through the coronavirus outbreak safely by promoting Alibaba’s no-contact delivery services.

Alibaba also put her on the frontline, witnessing a future being moulded with the help of technology, from tech-enabled crowd-sourcing charity initiatives to the development of futuristic hotels that can forever change the way people travel.

Start with why

British-American author, Simon Sinek ask leaders to ‘start with why’. Alibaba is a living example of how ‘starting with why’ is paying off. For a lot of China’s young working professionals who already live in material comfort, their bigger challenge is a hunger for meaning.

While Alibaba might not win ’employer of the year’ awards, it seems to be delivering on the much-needed ‘why’ for those who seek it.

A few years ago, Jack Ma talked about his conviction in the significance of e-commerce in creating a ‘digital democracy’ in a diverse country that still suffers from high levels of income disparity.

Millions of Chinese people are yet to reach the lifestyle standard enjoyed by residents in larger cities. In that sense, there’s still substantial un-tapped potentials for companies like Alibaba, for whom the race to establish their dominance across this massive market is far from over.

Since Alibaba’s founding in 1999, 420 million people have moved from rural areas into China’s cities.

Last year China’s urbanisation rate rose beyond 60%, by comparison Europe’s urbanisation is around 75%, the USA is at 80% and Australia 85%.

Even by the lower end of developed world standards, China still has another 210 million heading into its cities, in less than ten years time.

Unlike virtually every developed western nation, China has the engineering know-how and track record to relatively easily build infrastructure to support that population shift.

Lean wolves not lone wolves

Despite a massive workload, Alibaba’s marketing executive is not keen to see others join her pack. “We’re growing at an exponential rate,” she says. “Hiring more people would mean diminished competitiveness. To win, we have to stay lean.”

It seems that she’s already been ‘wolfified’.

Not everyone in China is fully convinced about ‘996’ or the ‘wolf mentality’ but both concepts have found fertile ground in China’s tech industry. Present working conditions are far from perfect – and beg for enormous improvement – for now, China’s current workforce is voting with its feet.

*Tas Walter is the pen name of a Chinese-born digital professional who holds degrees in business, economics and marketing from leading universities in the UK and Australia.