Red Envelopes: An Insiders View of IT in China

Doctor John describes the challenges he's faced over the past six years as a foreigner in the IT trenches in China.

(Editors Note: I first became aware of Doctor John when he wrote a series of articles for U.K.-based The Register about one year ago. His dispatches from the far regions of China and Mongolia were funny, intelligent and reminiscent of when IT managers carried crimping tools and tool kits to actually do some work rather than wallow in meetings, RFPs and ROI analyses. After a few weeks of tracking him down via e-mail messages, we finally connected. What follows is an inside view on IT in China. Doctor John is a pseudonym requested by the writer, as full disclosure would make further employment an uncertain prospect.-Eric Lundquist)

China will soon be a full World Trade Organization member, and everybody reads the headlines about the rapid sustained growth in the Chinese economy, but what is the real story? How does someone on the ground here see development and changes in the IT sector?

Over the past six years I have been working and living in the middle kingdom: China. My work has involved a spectrum of IT duties, and a range of equipment, duties and supply issues that most people in the Western IT world would not encounter on such a scale during these same six years.

Most of this time I have not been in the major population centers of China. I chose the path less traveled and wound up mostly in North China. Inner Mongolia. From Baotou to Tongliao, and a few dirt-road villages in between.

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Education support is my gig. I started out supporting a very small network that had a single dial-up modem connecting to the interweb and have done everything from small network design and Web pages to design, installation and management of server centers for multiple language labs, always including desktop support and lots of patient explaining, and usually involving begging for funds and equipment to get things going.


The IT role here can be unique, and often is. Most of the places I have been had no infrastructure in place. If they did have something, it was mostly based on old, odd and unavailable technology. Add to this a real frightful bundle of communication issues. Not too many Western IT managers find themselves in a position where they feel a need to learn Chinese and Mongolian to do their job.

Everybody has to deal with some of the problems, like massive virus attacks and every form of interweb nasty you can imagine; here it is a matter of scale. I have written about some of these problems-as well as the solutions or, sometimes, the lack of solutions to these problems-in other places.

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I have written about often encountered problems with access to simple hardware and tools, and how these problems were solved or worked around-sometimes in less than elegant ways, but always with my goal in mind. In all of these situations and exotic-sounding locales, I had unique motivation. I promised something, and I delivered because that is what I do. Contractual in the sense of a written and signed agreement, or a verbal guarantee, no matter. My word is what makes me a living.

So, what changes are taking place in the Chinese IT sector? I can call it like I see it over the past few years, and thats what Ill do. My opinion is that of a simple grunt-one foreigner on the ground, in the trenches. I am not writing about opening and operating a fab plant or making branded components in a Chinese factory. I am writing about getting IT done right in China.

Next Page: In the beginning.