(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.
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.
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.
In the Beginning
In the Beginning
In 2000, I was at a small teachers college in Baotou, Inner Mongolia. The network was very small, three nodes. Everything was shared files over thin coax, and they had one dial-up modem to get to the interweb. My project was to expand the network to 24 nodes with a dedicated server.
I wanted to change from a thin coax backbone to CAT5. Get a high-speed interweb connection, spec out new boxes for the new nodes, and upgrade what I could. This was my first introduction to red envelopes.
China has many different regions. It is a big place. That seems simple enough to understand, but I had no idea how different. IT-wise, I see three regions in China: the Southeast, which includes places like Shanghai, Hangzhou and Shenzhen; Central North, including Baotou, Beijing and Hohhot; then there is everywhere else in China.
In Baotou, I managed to get some prices from local suppliers, get it all written up (my translator really did all the work) and present it all to my boss. He looked it over, then made some telephone calls. For almost an hour, I sat and listened to him talk to maybe 10 people. It was all in Chinese. I had no clue what was happening. Sometimes I would ask my translator what was going on. Every time she just smiled and assured me things were going well.
After the boss finished with all of his calls, he spoke to my translator for about 5 minutes, who told me everything was going well and I could go home. Thats all. Dazed and confused, I did just that. I went to my flat and let all of this soak into my jittery mind. I could not tell if I had done something wrong. The boss seemed agitated at times, happy at times. Always smiling. What was I doing in Inner Mongolia?
Now, stand back for a moment. Put yourself in the same place. You have a relatively simple IT project to complete. Your supervisor does not speak your language, and you dont speak his. He just spent an hour on the phone, sometimes yelling, sometimes speaking quietly. Never looking at you. Never talking to you. He tells you, through a translator, to go home and relax.
There I was relaxing, just like you can imagine, in my flat when I got a telephone call from the translator: “A car will come to pick you up for dinner in 20 minutes.”
A business dinner in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, is a drinking test, with loads of food thrown in. The food was wonderful; the drink was horrid. Rice liquor. If you get a chance, dont try it.
During all this drinking and eating, I noticed some red envelopes being exchanged at the other side of the table. I lived through the dinner, and my boss seemed very pleased. I was still without a clue as to what went on.
The next morning, way too early, my translator rang me up again: “The boss wants to see you.” I speed-shaved and dressed. The car arrived just as I was tying my tie. I got to his office, took the chair offered, tried to get my head to stop pounding out “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” and waited for him to speak.
Through my translator, he told me everything was settled. The things I requested would be delivered that afternoon. I was still dazed and confused, now in shock. What the …?
Later, after I learned some Chinese, I found out about the red envelopes. In China, red envelopes are used to hold “gift” money. Sometimes bribes, but in this case payment for goods. The boss got the things I needed for less than half what I had been quoted. No paperwork, just red envelopes and promises.
In Zhejiang Province, things were different. I still sometimes used a translator to help get bids on parts and services, but I had some Chinese skills, so I could understand most of what was being talked about. Guanshi, connections, are important in the Southeast, but less so than in the Central North.
Negotiation is different here. Present a detailed list of what is needed and expected, then wait for a price. Of course, the first price is the informal price, and a dinner or two is still needed, but far less so a liquid-based dinner. Red envelopes are not exchanged in Southeastern deals (unless there is a serious problem), but who you know is still the key.
Anything you can dream of can be delivered in the Southeast. Prices are good (if you have connections), service is crap. Never expect an authorized technician to know anything. The techs for even the major suppliers have almost no technical skills, and they get paid less than $1 per hour to “help” you.
Transportation is a nightmare, unless you can speak Chinese. Knowing the right people is a big help. No, its not a big help-it is essential if you want to survive. In the Southeast there are so many people trying to get their slice of the pie that any original goal can be quickly lost. The Southeast is the home of the Chinese “new rich,” and it is an impediment to effectual business. Once again, it is not a unique problem, but a matter of scale.
After some success in the Southeast, I got an offer to return to Inner Mongolia. The pay was good enough, and the location was good. Tongliao, Inner Mongolia. The job looked good. Some teaching. Setting up a new server room and network for language labs. Perfect!
In Tongliao, more than 60 percent of the people speak Mongolian. Might be closer to 70 percent. The first thing I decided to do was learn Mongolian. By this time, my Chinese was fair. I agreed to the contract and set off for Tongliao.
My Mongolian teacher (now my wife) introduced me to the right people. My job was to create a system for serving language teaching material for a large university. I had some minor troubles at the start, but things went quite well, all in all. Being able to speak Mongolian helped more than you can imagine. More than you can imagine, because IT there has very little to do with who you are or what you know, but it has everything to do with who you know and your reputation.
It was easier now to get what I needed to do my job. It was easier for a couple of reasons. Things that I needed were on the local market, and bribes didnt need to be paid to the “right people.” I still needed to know the right people to get things done, but I didnt see that as bad. I need your help, I call you. You need my help, you call me.
Now I am back in the Southeast, in Shenzhen, waiting for my next project to start. It is a simple enough project. Language lab servers and some teaching. I have to wait for the semester to start before I can get going. In the meantime? I am making contacts. Having dinners. Making friends. In China, thats the way it is done.
I will go back North to retire when I am finished here. I own a house in Inner Mongolia, and I have a Mongolian wife. Lots of connections there.
Things are better now than they were five years ago. There is still a lot of what you might call corruption, if you dont know about relationships. Red envelopes are important in places, but reputation and who you know are still king here.
My advice? If you are going to try to tap into the worlds fastest-growing economy, learn about Chinese culture. Learn to speak some Chinese. Maybe even learn some Mongolian. Most important, learn to smile.
Doctor John has been in China for the past six years. He has worked in a variety of IT positions worldwide and taught at Baotou Teachers College, Zhejiang University and Inner Mongolia University for Nationalities. Doctor John was born in Spain, studied for his doctorate in the United States and has worked in many places worldwide. He now lives in Guangdong Province, China. Doctor John is a pseudonym.
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