TI China Engineers Straddle Two Different Cultures (part 2)

Travelling the Silicon RoadSHANGHAI – Editor’s Note: Electronic News Senior Editor Jeff Chappell continues to discuss how working for a U.S.-based international chip company means more than straddling geography and time differences with China-based Texas Instruments engineers Tan Hui, a member of the technical staff and an application manger in the industrial and home appliance semiconductor group; Michael Wang, system engineering manager in the portable power management semiconductor group; Eric Braddom, director of DLP products for TI’s Asia semiconductor group; and 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. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

Chappell: How does China’s nascent design and IP business affect a company like TI coming into China to do business?

Braddom: What’s different in China from an IC design perspective is that they are much more welcoming to a complete system solution. Their advantage here is in low-cost manufacturing, so bringing in a whole system solution works here. This is very different in many other places. The converse is also true, here. Because design is not so strong, you may not be able to sell an individual chip here.

Yu: But you have to be careful who you sell that system to. Companies here haven’t learned, as those in the West already have, that you have to concentrate on your core competency. People here haven’t learned that lesson yet. People don’t realize how difficult it is to bring a new product to market from scratch. If you do all the work designing and creating that system, and then the customer’s product isn’t successful, you don’t get any return on your investment.

Wang: There are a lot of small companies here, and they don’t always know what they’re doing – we don’t know who will win. It really is like Taiwan was four or five years ago; the market really hasn’t stabilized yet. Just to give you an example: A year ago there were 400 makers of MP3 players in China, and now there are 200. I’m pretty sure in six months, it will be 100. As a systems provider, how do we deal with this? It’s a very fragmented market here, and everybody wants to do what’s hot.

Yu: Yes, look at automotive electronics. There are more than a thousand automotive electronics company in China, because a few years ago the government decreed that China has to get into auto electronics. We just have to watch and see who emerges, and then do business with the winners.

Chappell: So for you two, Mr. Wang and Mr. Yu, what were the biggest changes that occurred in China while you were in the United States?

Yu: Well for one thing, like I said before, there is guan xi. In business in the U.S., when I know both sides bring value, I know we will have a strong relationship, even without a prior history together. Here, it is different. After having been in the U.S. 14 years, I have a tendency to be too straightforward and blunt. It took me about two and a half years to really understand the internal relationship dynamics with customers.

Wang: I’m not engaged with a lot of local customers here, so I can’t address that. But Shanghai has changed so much, I didn’t recognize it. There are so many skyscrapers here now. A skyscraper is defined as any buildings that extend above an 18th floor; by that definition I read somewhere that there are more here than in New York. It’s really changed. I’m from a town a couple of hours from here by train, Hongzhou. You can put me in the middle of my hometown and tell me it’s a different city, and I wouldn’t know otherwise. It’s so different from when I was growing up, I don’t like going back there now, in a way. Also, having lived and worked in the United States, I found that I didn’t have much in common anymore with friends that I knew when I went to college here.

Yu: I lived in Beijing for 11 years prior to 1989 when I went to live in the United States. … I’m really shocked at how big a change has taken place in the city there. I’m glad that it’s growing, but I one thing I feel strongly about – the environment, the weather and the air, has all deteriorated so much, there is so much dust and smoke and smog. I was just there for a tradeshow, and I had all sorts of problems, I had to take nasal decongestants, and carry a bottle of water with me wherever I went. It was awful. And this season, autumn, is traditionally supposed to be its best season.

Braddom: There is a city in central China – I’m not going to say its name – but it is a very beautiful, historical city. But the air quality there is so bad, the people there say that the dogs start barking when they see blue sky, it’s so rare.

Wang: It’s the big cost for the speed of China’s economic growth.

Yu: It is a very high price.

Chappell: China has come a long way in the past five years in moving toward a market-based economy, and generally opening up. The central government just announced its next five year plan; where do you see China in five years?

Yu: There are certainly a lot of big issues the country is facing right now. At the same time, you can tell the government is trying to fix these things, the gap in economic development between eastern and western China, between urban and rural, and the gap in the standards of living. It’s actually bigger than Westerners tend to believe. Five years from now I hope they will be able to make some progress.

Braddom: In terms of business and the market, you can’t afford not be here. Just look at the size and the growth of the domestic market. There are 300 million people in China right now with cell phones – that’s more than every man, woman and child in the United States. China is already the second largest big screen TV market. Business is exciting here. Yes, there are economic gaps, and there will be fluctuations in growth; things could go awry. But from a business perspective, can you afford not be here?

Yu: In dealing with [Chinese] customers on a day by day basis, and seeing them finish a design and bring it to market … one of the good things I see is that a lot of companies in China are growing up. … They are starting to be able to design products on their own. And in other industries, things are changing. In many markets, foreign companies that have traditionally had a solid lock on a domestic market, a lot of traditional manufacturers are being supplanted by local Chinese companies. It is happening fast.

Braddom: TI China’s managing director, Gerald Kuo, has kind of a famous quote about doing business in China, that I think sums it up nicely: There are three rules to doing business in China: 1) Anything is possible. 2) Everything is difficult. And 3) If someone says it’s no problem, that means it’s a big problem. It’s a great climate for starting a business, I think. But personally, I still have problems mailing a letter or getting money out of a bank.

Yu: Yes, many travelers to China, who are here only for a short time, only see the skyscrapers and fancy airports, and they don’t see all the problems here. What they see is, “Ooh, China is developing rapidly, it’s a threat.”

Braddom: There is another famous quote by a Western ambassador to China, about how it appears very Westernized on the surface, but when you peel back the sheets for a closer look, the truth emerges. There is a big city façade here, that’s true. It’s when you get into the details, this is when you realize things are very different.

Chappell: Are there any other observations about China that you’d care to offer? Anything that Westerners planning to come to China to do live or do business should know?

Braddom: One of the things we did during TI’s cultural training class before coming to China was spending half a day as if we were in a Chinese classroom, as elementary school students. We were treated just like regular students; there was no speaking English. It was very tough; I don’t think I could have hacked it as a student. Heck, I’m not sure I could now. The school system is very different here, and I think it’s important to understand that. A lot of the cultural behavior of engineering students coming out of school here originates within that system. It’s a big part of life here, the education system. The teamwork issue that we face is only one aspect of that.

Yu: There was a study done in the past by U.S. and Chinese educators comparing the U.S. and Chinese schools systems. After studying each other’s educational systems, the Chinese concluded that the U.S. educational system was in complete failure; students didn’t pay attention and there was seemingly no discipline. The U.S. educators, meanwhile, thought that the Chinese had a good system. That was 30 or 40 years ago, I think. Look at what the U.S. education system has generated since then, more Nobel prize winners than any other country.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaIn the Chinese education system, there is a tremendous importance placed on individual high scores and class rankings. It is such that Chinese students tend not to listen to what other students are saying, because only what the teacher says and thinks is important to them; it is the teacher that has the impact on scores and rankings. I believe that in the future if the government does the right things, they can fix the problems that face China. But the school system, that is an issue they don’t know how to fix. There are just so many people here, how do you educate them all?

This article is Part Two of a Q&A session run by Electronic News Senior Editor Jeff Chappell as he traveled the Silicon Road through Shanghai. Click here for part one of his roundtable discussion with Texas Instruments engineers in China.

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.

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.

The Kids Are Alright

Travelling the Silicon RoadSHANGHAI — I spent much of today on the campus of Shanghai Jiao Tong University here, my second campus visit since coming to China. I also hung out for few hours one afternoon and pestered a few students at Tsingua University in Beijing last week.

University campuses in China seem to take after the cities they reside in: huge and sprawling, frequently with new construction going on these days. But aside from that, they look remarkably like their Western counterparts: grassy commons and quads, with students and academic types running hither and yon, in order to get to class on time, or deep in discussion as they stroll along.

One notable exception is the lack of what we call typical college bars in the United States — you know, those dive bars adjacent to campus that we spent so much time in, back when we were students. At least I did.

Back in my college days, when I wasn’t cramming for a midterm or in the library trying to finish one or more term papers on the weekend before they were due, or chasing a story for a journalism class or my part time job on the local alternative rag, I frequented places with names like MacSweeney’s Tavern of Love, the West End Tavern, Tony’s and Lucky’s Downstairs — I had my own stool, at Lucky’s, basically.

Yes, drinking doesn’t seem to be as large a part of the curriculum here as it is at schools in the U.S. and Europe; students here even have curfews to contend with. This I found hard to believe; no way college students could be that rigid, I don’t care what nationality you are, or where your country lies on the ideology spectrum.

Fortunately, Alma Wang, one of my colleagues from EB China, filled me in and assured that the curfew is often flaunted. I figured as much. Kids will be kids.

That’s Capitalism With a Big “C”

But aside from having to put up with a little more authority than we have — and looking back I could probably have benefited from a little more authority and a little less freedom in college, quite frankly, God knows my liver could have — the students of East and West aren’t all that much different. Students here wonder about the same things as students do there: get a job, or continue with post graduate work? Get my masters here or study abroad?

Here, China is cranking out so many EEs nowadays, some students worry about being able to get a job — back when everything was state-owned and run, the job market was a little more stable; nowadays competition for jobs is high. Welcome to a market economy and capitalism, boys and girls.

In the long run, the students here also want the same things American students want: a stable job and a career, making enough money to afford a car, and a house, not to mention to raise a family. Some students I talked to dream about starting their own business. Looks like their might be some trademark infringement problems between The American Dream and The Chinese Dream.

But one thing that is different with today’s Chinese student from that of years past is their faith in the future. It’s an ongoing story in China right now: graduates returning from abroad to work and start businesses in China. And many students here today, even among those who plan to get their master’s degrees abroad, plan to come back to China.

As Zhen Yexiu and Fu Zhenjia, two electrical engineering undergraduates here at Jiao Tong University observed, things are much better now than in the past, in terms of future job possibilities in electrical engineering. Both plan to get their masters outside of the Chinese mainland, Zhen in the United States and Fu in Hong Kong, and both plan on returning to China. Fu wants to be a teacher; Zhen’s interests lie in MEMS applications.

Ten years ago, they likely would have chosen to remain abroad, but not so today.

And in addition to universities partnering with foreign chipmakers and other technology companies to expose engineering students to the equipment and methodologies they will have to be familiar with in the job market, educators here are also trying to teach engineering students how to work in teams — how to take a group approach to tackling a project.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaAs members of the faculty here explained, it’s not something that Chinese universities have traditionally taught; rather, in the past they have emphasized individual achievements. But that approach doesn’t really prepare students to work in today’s chip industry, and if China as a nation is going to become competitive in a global sense, that needs to change, they acknowledged.

Yes, I think the Chinese kids are alright. When people talk about China as a competitive threat, I think education is one area where it might actually prove to be true.


Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.

Foreign Companies, Chinese Universities: a Win-Win

Travelling the Silicon RoadSHANGHAI — Relationships are paramount in Chinese culture, and in business as well as education the phrase “win-win” is often heard here.

And China is doing its best to get up to speed with the rest of the globe when it comes to technology. And the chip industry is excited about the burgeoning domestic market here.

So it is no surprise that foreign companies, including U.S. chipmakers and test and measurement suppliers, as well as European chipmakers, are partnering with universities here and throughout China as often as they are partnering with their Chinese business counterparts. Today Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) formally signed agreements with and unveiled engineering labs sponsored in part by Altera, STMicroelectronics, National Instruments (NI) and Embest Info &Tech, a Chinese company.

SJTU, first founded in 1896, is one of the oldest universities in the country, and considered one of China’s the premier schools for electrical engineering and electronics.

The aforementioned tech companies supplied state-of-the-art software and hardware for newly christened labs here in the School of Electronic Information and Electrical Engineering at SJTU. The companies, the students and professors agreed that it is a coveted win-win situation for all involved.

In the past, professors and instructors in the EE program at the school always relied on traditional engineering methods and testing techniques in their classes. With high-tech companies donating advanced technology, it gives instructors a chance to expose students to different methods, technologies and equipment, explained Shu Guo Hua, dean of the engineering labs at the school.

For example, with NI providing data acquisition boards as well as its flagship software LabVIEW, it gives professors and students alike exposure to virtual instrumentation, a relatively new concept for the Chinese electronics engineer, Shu said.

Furthermore, it gives the students a chance to work with equipment and practice applications that they will encounter in their professional lives once they leave SJTU, noted Professor Zhang Zhi Gang. It may even help bridge the gap between laboratory research and commercial applications, a problem that has plagued the country in the past and something it still grapples with today as it pursues economic reform.

“For a lot of young, smart students in China, this is a chance to know what a real company in the industry is doing,” Zhang said. “The advanced equipment also gives them a chance to realize their own ideas and projects, developing original intellectual property. “They can realize their imaginations on a state-of-the-art kit,” he added.

“This is great experience for when we graduate from here,” agreed Zheng Yexiu, an engineering student here. He plans to attend graduate school in the U.S. before returning to China, and he feels the new engineering labs at SJTU will give him a leg up in his graduate school applications.

Getting Into the Heads of Future Engineers

San Jose-based Altera Corp., through a Taiwanese partner, Terasic Technologies, supplied Cyclone II FPGAs and Nios II embedded processors for the development kits used in one lab here. Terasic in turn built and configured the kit’s board so that it could be used to expose students to multimedia technology, such as might be found in a set-top box or DVD player, explained CEO Sean Peng.

“In the past students didn’t have very good access to this type of technology,” Peng said. “Our goal is to give the students tools so that when they graduate, they know what to do.”

Similarly, France’s STMicroelectronics supplied Arm-based 32-bit STR7 MCUs, built into a development board kit by Shenzen, China-based company Embest, for yet another development lab at SJTU’s engineering school.

For the foreign companies involved, the motivations for participating in the programs and the benefits reaped, both tangible and intangible, are obvious.

As the university’s Shu observed, virtual instrumentation, which NI pioneered with its engineering software, is just in the beginning phase of adoption here in China. “We like to see more and more students familiar with the technology,” said Eric Xiang, an NI sales manager for Eastern China.

By cooperating in these joint programs, companies like NI, Altera and STMicro not only help encourage the development of qualified engineers – future prospective employees, even – but perhaps more directly, they see those engineers graduate with intimate knowledge of their respective companies’ methodologies, hardware and software.

Certainly a good idea; the students today at universities like SJTU will be tomorrow’s engineers and executives tasked with helping to meet China’s exploding demand for electronics. NI, which pursues a number of educational programs in the United States and elsewhere, is particularly active in China, said Xiang – it has similar program at Tsingua University in Beijing.

For programmable logic maker Altera, by cooperating with SJTU it is encouraging future system designers that will be familiar with its silicon. “I think this gives you an opportunity … to do complex system design,” Robert Blake, VP of product planning, said of the Altera-based development kits now at SJTU. It’s particularly important, because the functions of DSPs, MCUs and the like are converging at the system level, he suggested.

Arnaud Julienne, STMicro’s senior manager for its MCU segment in the Asia/Pacific region, offered similar logic for his company’s participation. While China is using primarily 8-bit MCUs in its domestic hardware right now, 32-bit chips, once the realm of high-end applications, are coming down in price, and a shift to 32-bit is coming, he said.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaWhile 8-bit won’t go away by any means, many cost-sensitive applications that were once the exclusive province of 8-bit technology will soon be able to use cost-effective 32-bit chips, he said. Certainly many 16-bit applications will see a conversion to 32-bit MCUs, he added.

That’s why STMicro donated the use of the STR7 in the lab development kits. It will be introducing tomorrow’s engineers to 32-bit technology while still in school. The program with SJTU is the first such program for STMicro in China, but not the last. “We’ll be doing more,” Julienne added.

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.