TI China Engineers Straddle Two Different Cultures (part 1)

Travelling the Silicon RoadSHANGHAI – Editor’s Note: At the behest of Texas Instruments Corp.’s Jeff Smith, deputy director of Asia Semiconductor Communications, as well as worldwide manager for analog media/analyst relations, four TI China engineers sat down with Electronic News Senior Editor Jeff Chappell to talk for an afternoon, but not about TI or its latest products. Rather, they discussed the experience of being an engineer and working for a U.S.-based, global company doing business in China.

The four engineers — three of them Chinese — are a microcosm of what you find in a large foreign tech company doing business here. One, Tan Hui, has only been out of graduate school six years, and has worked for TI in China since graduation. He is currently a member of the technical staff and an application manager in the industrial and home appliance semiconductor group here.

Another, Michael Wang, grew up in a city not far from Shanghai, and is currently a system engineering manager in the portable power management semiconductor group here. While he has worked for TI for several years, he came back to China a year ago after spending two years at TI headquarters in Dallas.

Eric Braddom is director of DLP products for TI’s Asia semiconductor group. A U.S native, he has spent the last two years in Beijing with TI; prior to that he was with the company and also stationed in Dallas.

The fourth member of the group was Yu Zhen Yu, a senior member of the tech staff and director of the industrial and home appliance group and China application and development center in TI’s semiconductor group here in Shanghai. He came back to China two and a half years ago after living some 14 years in the United States; prior that he was based in Houston, Texas.

During the afternoon, the four provided insights that can only come from living and working in China, and in some cases only having been a native who has lived abroad and come back. The following are excerpts from the conversation.

Chappell: First off, tell me what is it like working for a large American chip company here in Shanghai?

Tan: I have no experience working with a domestic company, but one big difference I’ve noticed, since I started with the company in technical support … I think working for a large international company enhances our ability with teamwork. If you want to be successful, you have to have technical expertise, but it’s not the only thing. You need a team, a system to support you. TI has done a good job along these lines. I’ve talked with friends I went to school with who work for domestic companies, and they say it’s not like that. Domestic engineers concentrate on their own work. It’s a big difference.

Braddom: It’s definitely a challenge working with and managing Chinese employees also. They have many strengths and are very strong technically, but cooperation is often a weakness. In the U.S. we’re taught early, we’re forced to do things as a team. That is a management challenge. Chinese students just haven’t had that [teamwork] experience.

Wang: China produces more engineering graduates than the United States or Germany, but the pool accessible to a large international company like TI is relatively very small. They are often not qualified because of one, language, and two, teamwork. Language is a big thing, I think. Just look at the way I work in TI — we have almost daily contact with the mother team back in the United States, and knowing English is essential.

Chappell: What’s the converse? What’s it like for the large American company to come here?

Braddom: One thing about the Chinese workforce, is it produces a real good chance to have diversity. China is a very diverse country, and it’s really nice to have engineers that can converse with customers in their own local dialects. Furthermore, in China I get a lot of strong resumes from women. I’d say about half of our staff are women; in the U.S. it would be a much lower number. There are many opportunities to achieve diversity in China, from a management perspective. I’m not sure it’s valued by everyone, but it’s a good opportunity for us.

Yu: One big problem, however, for Western companies doing business here is motivation of local, native employees. There is often a historical and cultural gap between them and management, who tend to be expatriates, or from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Often employees come to work here or at other large international companies to get exposure, but after a couple of years they get fed up and leave. They don’t have the same feeling the U.S. and European employees have with regard to how they feel about the company.

Braddom: I’ve found that some Chinese employees though do respond to Western style management — it’s an opportunity to achieve that closeness on the staff.

Yu: I think the problem is that companies fall into the same cycle; there are so many managers that are not local — they miss the opportunity to groom local employees for management and leadership positions.

Braddom: Teamwork is not taught in schools here, but there is a strong focus on family and relationships. Even on my team, some of the employees use the [familiar Chinese titles] of older sister or younger brother. Then there is the concept of face. It’s kind of like a bank account. I’ve seen it both demonstrated and used in business here, and it can be quite effective. It really does exist and it’s important to understand. Companies here are just now learning the concepts behind intellectual property laws and merger laws. They recognize that it is important if China is going to do business globally. But it’s more important to have the relationships in place when dealing with Chinese people in business, not just the signed legal documents. You have to know the concept of guan xi.

Yu: That’s very true. After 14 years in the U.S., it is something I had to adjust to again. In the U.S., if you dealt with a colleague and had met each other’s business needs, you were done. But here in China, it’s much more than that. Sometimes, even though you both realize that it’s not a personal relationship, you have to make it feel like a personal relationship.

Braddom: It’s really nothing more different than realizing that people have personal and professional objectives, and can use your help to achieve them. It’s not just going out do dinner together or having drinks together, it’s actually helping one another.

Wang: In my mind, though, I would like to emphasize that compared to other Asian countries, China and the U.S. are not all that dissimilar. Taiwan and China are much more open to Western culture.

Yu: That’s very true. We’re much more open to Western ways of doing business and Western ways of thinking.

Tan: You have to remember, when an Eastern businessman looks at a business deal or opportunity, he sees that there are always reasons for and against it. That’s why the relationship beyond the deal is so important.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaYu: People do emphasize relationships a lot. Let’s say you are trying to gain 10 different customers, in the end, it’s the ones that really benefit from what you have to offer that become successful. And that’s when, in turn, the relationship becomes stronger. But fundamentally, you do have to bring value to the table. It’s not just guan xi.

Wang: I think this idea that relationships are so important originates from dealing with the government. I don’t always see it at my level.

Braddom: For my part, I’ve have seen it used it myself.

Return to Traveling the Silicon Road tomorrow for the second part of this article.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

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