- Lucas Ou-Yang is a tech lead manager at TikTok and has worked as an engineer at Facebook and Snap.
- He says working for a Chinese tech company has led to some surprising cultural and workplace discoveries.
- He breaks down the biggest differences he’s noticed while working for TikTok, from video-optional meetings to the manpower behind Chinese product development.
As Chinese tech companies become increasingly important on the global stage, more Americans are interested in working for them. I spent the past seven years working for Silicon Valley’s biggest companies such as Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook in software engineering. My time at these companies centered around building online marketplaces and feeds. I helped ship the initial software launch of Instagram stories in 2016 as well as the initial launch of Snapchat’s content feed.
In early 2021, Bytedance’s subsidiary Tiktok was interested in hiring me to lead engineering efforts in building an online marketplace to connect creators and brands. Shortly thereafter, I joined Bytedance as a tech lead manager to drive efforts related to their creator marketplace.
I noticed surprising differences between working for US tech companies versus Chinese tech companies. I was able to pick up on a lot of nuances in comparing the two sides due to both my time in Silicon Valley as well as being a 2nd generation Chinese American who has an understanding of both cultures.
Here’s my guide to navigating these differences.
Meetings are often larger
Most meetings at ByteDance are larger, often with 50+ people and 2-3 presenters. These broadcast style meetings are most compatible with Chinese companies top-down management style.
1:1 meetings or smaller Socratic group discussions that American employees take for granted are actually pretty rare at companies like ByteDance.
This is because organizations at Tiktok are larger and less segregated. Some teams have 50-200 people reporting up to one manager. Most employees regularly need to communicate with 20-30 colleagues across multiple time-zones to get the job done. These reasons, in addition to the top-down management style, lead to broadcast style meetings being more common.
These meetings are often multi-time zones spanning many countries and cultures, so we make use of real-time video translation software. Broadcast style meetings are more conducive to this.
On the other hand, this also means you aren’t obligated to turn on video during meetings. Chinese colleagues dislike using real mugshot profile pics, preferring anime, background, or cartoon images.
Product development relies more on manpower
Due to the lower labor cost in China, many Chinese internet companies have a greater reliance on manpower. In contrast, western tech organizations emphasize a more passive and data-driven approach.
For example, TikTok relies on operations teams to manually bring in big influencers and advertising clients on the platform. The company also spends marketing money to understand their local markets while simultaneously hiring local employees in every major market to help internationalize the Tiktok product.
In 2020, TikTok created a $200 million creator fund, a project led by armies of ops teams to give US creators funds to bring them on the growing platform. This fund was unconventional at the time, but Instagram and Youtube quickly followed suit after seeing its success.
This ability to leverage operations is a key reason why Chinese tech firms are able to move so quickly and break into new markets — something western tech companies could learn from.
You might have to work a few late nights
Work life balance is generally worse in China than it is in America. Chinese employees often subscribe to the motto of “996.” You work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week.
Although US and Singapore teams aren’t expected to do 996 — I work normal US working hours — the reality is that US employees still often attend late night meetings to collaborate with teams in Asia.
This is unlike the traditional working model for multinationals where American colleagues ‘hand off’ in-progress work to the Chinese, Eastern European, or Indian teams strictly at 5pm.
But the reality of fast paced collaborative multinationals means you need wider working boundaries — a sacrifice that is expected of an international workforce.
Chinese companies value efficiency and deliverables among all else
Chinese companies also tend to focus less on process and documentation. Documents on how to do things, or code and product reviews, or outage investigations are often deprioritized in comparison to delivering visible concrete output like code, product features and launches.
This ruthless outcome-oriented approach leads to more efficiency, but the lack of documented institutional knowledge also holds back long-term effectiveness of the company.
Your team sizes will fill football stadiums
Another shocking thing I saw at Tiktok was the organization’s structure. While Western firms typically recommend teams consisting of 8-9 people, some managers have over 200 direct reports. Due to the flat structure, some of the more junior reports have zero face time with their managers. Some employees will never even know what their managers look like.
ByteDance also keeps their org charts hidden due to the competitive nature of talent poaching in China.
While Western tech companies prefer certain engineers or product managers to own pieces of the overall product, workers at Chinese companies tend to work across the board, dividing new work, features, or product requirements as they come up from leadership. No one person ever becomes an expert in a specific area.
A lot of these differences can be boiled down to culture
For example, because I work with colleagues across the world and we have less cultural similarities, we also make less small talk. Meetings can open awkwardly with people not knowing what to say to each other.
At the same-time, cultural references are different too. Chinese colleagues have their own “bible verses” called “Chengyu” 成语 to make jokes or express deep metaphors. Oftentimes in meetings they will translate these Chengyus into English to express something, but the meaning gets lost.
Asian culture is also very hierarchical. This means declining meetings with your superiors is often taken more seriously than other Silicon Valley companies I’ve worked at. It also means that managers are tasked with driving business results and oftentimes provide less support to the career goals of their direct reports.
Your work life balance can also be different with many US employees not being able to work as late into the night.
Working at a Chinese tech company isn’t for everyone
If you are new to the field or have fewer than 5 years of experience I wouldn’t recommend working at a Chinese tech company. The lack of process, mentorship, standardized performance review, and internal documentation means that it’s harder to learn best practices and mature in your profession.
But this situation isn’t as bad for senior level later career people who know how to execute.
It’s an opportunity to learn new ways of doing things from how Chinese companies design products to how they test and onboard new users through sheer manpower.
If you are the adventurous type and don’t mind late meetings, a Chinese company will provide context on how non-American companies are successfully developing products and expanding internationally.
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