Work work work

Before I forget, a caveat for any Chinese readers of the blog (since this is linked from my Messenger account): This is written from an American view, for other Americans. I will write about things that seem amusing to me, and I think to other Americans. That doesn’t make it bad or good–just different. There are a number of things here that are just funny, even though they’re not meant to be. I’m sure when Chinese go to the USA for the first time, they find some things funny too. But I have no ieda what they are! But if anyone wants to write about it, go ahead, I won’t be offended. In fact I’d love to know what they are. 🙂
So what exactly am I doing here? That’s a good question. Aside from just “experiencing China”, what I’m doing for work is the following (cut & pasted from email I just sent answering this). What I’m going in China is basically twofold:
1)     Lead a group of software engineers who create the Business Intelligence ( platform for Windows Live services. Currently this is work that only benefits Microsoft—an internal service. In the future we’re considering making what we do available to the public as well. Microsoft recently bought a company called Deep Metrix, which produces nice business reports, but cannot handle the scale of websites and logs that Microsoft services generate. “Why is this in China?” many people ask. Well, there’s no particular reason it has to be. Which leads us to…
2)     Develop the local talent. China has CS grads by the thousands. Microsoft can hire the best (competing pretty much just with Google), but it doesn’t do any good to have a team full of fresh hires, so the goal here is to the develop the employees so that they can eventually be a self-sufficient development arm of Microsoft, including the leaders.
And since not everyone knows what Windows Live services means: Windows Live services =Hotmail, Messenger, Search, Spaces (hosting this blog), etc. Basically all the stuff you can do online via services Microsoft offers. “Windows Live” is basically a brand name for “free” (at least that’s the trend) online services, as opposed to products that you go buy and install.
This is the first group I’ve been in at Microsoft where the customer is internal business only. Not only that, it’s the first project where the end result is not an application (client or server). Rather, it’s a pipeline: data comes in, gets processed, and goes out. That’s it. But it’s slicing and dicing terabytes of data per day.
I have a team of 6 developers—all recent grads from one of the nearby universities. Our location is strategically placed to attract these students. It’s a nice complex. See picture of building. All speak some degree of English. It’s a requirement of employment. Can you image if a top Chinese company came to the US to hire more employees, but only those who speak Chinese? English truly does have an (unfair) advantage. But none have spent any time living abroad, so their English can, at times, be a challenge to understand, not just the words, but even more so the meaning. But if I can get even a small fraction that level of Chinese while I’m here, I’ll be happy. It kind of makes me feel self-conscious at times when I walk into a meeting that’s being conducted in Chinese, and then all of a sudden they switch on a dime to English just to accommodate me. It’s especially weird to hear two people struggling to talk to each other in English, just because I’m there. Once in a while, if it gets really tough, they break into Chinese, but they usually stick it out in English.
Office life is fairly interesting. Especially compared to Microsoft-Redmond. In Redmond, each kitchen has basically a 7-11 supply of drinks—all varieties of sodas and juices. In Beijing, there is a small fridge, with what looks like a “sampling” of what’s available. Like 3 or different drinks, and just a few of each. When I asked someone about this, apparently is was because there was some concern about the “privilege” getting abused, especially by contractors. Good thing I gave up sodas or I would be going through withdrawal.
There’s a fortune here to be made in affordable paper/plastic products. At least I guess they’re expensive because they’re impossible to find! There are no napkins in the kitchen (nor at most restaurants, which drives me crazy), and the paper cups in the kitchen and at the water jugs (no drinking fountains) are all clearly labeled “for visitors only”. Sometimes I feel like I’d kill for a napkin. So what do they use instead? Tissues (e.g. Kleenex). I brought some western-style pastries one day from the bakery at my apartment, in case some folks had never tried them, and since some were large, I thought maybe I’d get some plates/knives/napkins. None of which I could find in the kitchen. When I asked the group admin about it, she said she’d get some, which she did. Apparently there are some in the kitchen, but they’re kept in a locked cabinet, and you need to know the secret password to ask the maintenance staff (who wonder the building all day doing random things) to unlock it for you. Note that water is also controlled. A lot of people bring in humidifiers. See the picture with the water jub about that.
Speaking of maintenance staff, two of the amusing things they do are: 1) Keep the tea flowing. Most employees have custom standing tea orders, which the “ayis” (literally aunts I think) keep filled throughout the day. They also keep track of meetings scheduled and make sure meeting rooms have fresh tea on hand. It’s interesting how the team has tons of “stuff” in it. It gets filtered when poured. 2) Provide afternoon fruit. Everyday there is some afternoon fruit, ranging from watermelon to banana to cantaloupe. The ayis bring it around to your office. Pretty cool. Ever tried eating watermelon at a desk with a Kleenex?
One noticeable difference in culture is the acceptability of sleep in public. In China, you can sleep wherever you want when you’re tired. Including at your desk in the middle of the day. It’s not uncommon to walk by people’s cubicles and see them completely collapsed asleep. Once I walked up to someone to ask him a question, and before I noticed he was sleeping started talking to him. He woke up, put his glasses back on, and was completely puffy-eyed. I apologized for waking him, and after answering my question, he went right back to sleep. It’s also extremely common to see workers outside sleeping wherever.
The people here are very hardworking. Since they’re mostly young and single, it kind of reminds me of the old days in Redmond, where it’s not uncommon for people to stay until midnight.

About Curt Carpenter

Father of 2, development manager at Microsoft, boardgamer.
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1 Response to Work work work

  1. Richard says:

    You will know more about the funny things in China, as you work here longer 🙂 I was laughing while reading the section of "ayis", although I am a Chinese. Actually hiring them is a part of the so-called "being great citizen" activity which started by Microsoft China to help the local goverment solve different "problems", including reduce the unemployment.
    Anyway, I believe you will have a good time here 🙂 (almost all of my friends come from the states love to living here, think about the non-close bars, thousands of kinds of food and the super low cost living here…)

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