Sunday, April 01, 2012

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Working for a Taiwanese IT company

4/01/2012 Taiwan Explorer
A product showcase during Computex, Taiwan IT's most important expo of the year.

My first job in Taiwan was quite an experience, something that opened my eyes in many ways, but also brought me to my own limits. I want to share my experience with you in order to give you an insight into a completely new world - Taiwan's working environment in a medium-sized IT company. I will talk about how it was working with Taiwanese colleagues for the first time, how I faced challenges, how I adapted, how I exceeded my own expectations, and at last left due to mental and physical exhaustion. It was definitely a 1 year long roller coaster ride for me, I learned a lot, but I would not want to go through something like this again.

How it started

When I came to Taiwan, I had no idea what I should do here. I knew, that I wanted to be with my better half, but career-wise, I had no plans. As a linguist and someone who is fluent in multiple European languages, I saw myself in a local company, that's doing business with Europe, where my language skills could be of good use. Other than that, I was pretty flexible. And so it happened, that a young and growing IT company contacted my wife, who published my Chinese resume on 104.com.tw, Taiwan's most popular employment website. An interview was arranged a week later in an industrial area in the outskirts of Taipei. The run down exterior of the building didn't promise anything good and since I was so new, no alarm bells were ringing at that time. The interview started with an IQ test, which I tackled with all seriousness, despite later realizing, that it served no purpose. The sales manager who interviewed me gave me a tour around the cubicles after the talk, and in that moment I felt my chances were looking pretty good. I was right - three days later they called my wife and told her they wanted me. I agreed to (what later turned out to be) a modest salary. But my lack of any experience prevented me from claiming more. At that time I was very eager to work and earn something in order to not depend on my savings. And so I landed in IT, I was in charge of business development and managed accounts in several European countries.

Two divisions

Our company was divided in two business units. I was working for the smaller one, where it was much harder to sell the product, because the niche market was very specific and the competitors from Taiwan, China and Europe were far ahead of us. It was interesting, that our main product was quite famous in certain IT circles around Europe, but our side product was the complete opposite. We were generally known for good quality at a good price, but the product I tried to sell was having quality issues and compared to competition, it was too expensive. Of course it took me a couple of months to realize all this, because I was so new in this field. Nevertheless, I have learned fast. There was no formal training (which is quite common in Taiwanese companies I later realized), but since a few new salespeople joined around the same time as me, we organized ourselves and studied the products together. I was lucky to befriend a very experienced colleague, who later became my best friend. Her over 10 years working experience in IT was a treasure, and her flawless English was a bridge between me and the rest of the company. Most of my colleagues spoke English, because our key markets were in Europe, USA and Japan. However, the joint meetings were usually in Chinese and my best friend translated the most important things for me. Now I understand a lot of spoken Chinese, but in the beginning it was close to zero.

My observations

Keep in mind, that the things I will be mentioning below are specific for the company I have worked for, some of them might be true for other IT companies and have a general quality, but most of them are very particular for my old company, which oftentimes seemed as extremely crazy even by Taiwanese standards.

• Working overtime is normal

It's pretty common in Taiwan's IT to work overtime for no pay, it's a cultural thing (it's called 加班 / jiābān). What an European like me understands as an exploitation of workers, breaking common ethics and laws, a lot of local managers see it as a reasonable expectation. By working overtime for free you show that you care for the company, you show engagement and enthusiasm, that will make your manager appreciate you more. "Working long hours" equals "working hard" in the traditional mindset of Taiwan's managers, who are usually of the older generation. Reality was very different: A lot of my Taiwanese colleagues, who stayed longer in the office, were pretending to work. They were usually on Facebook or chit-chatting with other colleagues on Skype or LINE, they were probably too tired to focus after the 7PM dinner. The productivity in such companies is very low. There are companies in Taiwan, who have unwritten rules that nobody leaves before the manager leaves, as you shall not work "less hard" as someone of higher rank than you (this is of course illegal, but seldom controlled). The law requires 8 hours at work, but people often stay 10-11 hours at the office, because 1 hour is meant as a lunch break and is not paid, and then 1-2 hours of "voluntary" overtime. Add maybe another 1 hour spent commuting and you realize, that on weekdays 12-13 hours a day are being used for your job. After you come home, you are naturally very tired, time for a good quality private life is nearly impossible during the week, unless you posses superhuman powers. Commonly, you will have to appear in your office between 9.00 and 9.30, you will then have the right to leave between 18.00 and 18.30 (right on paper). A lot of Taiwanese move close to their working place, so that they don't need to waste a lot of time commuting (in our company, if you arrived at 9.31, a full hours pay was deducted from your salary). I used to work overtime a lot at first, because I didn't want to stick out as a foreigner, even though I had nothing to do. Later I usually stayed longer, because I was truly busy, and the time difference between Europe and Taiwan affected my working time (for example, when it was time to leave in Taiwan, European business partners just started their day and begun to email various requests to me). I was the busiest between 18h and 20h, at a time where I supposed to be home and taking a rest.

• Communication problems

The biggest problem you can face as a foreigner in a Taiwanese IT company is the communication. If you're not fluent in Chinese, you will need a kind colleague to translate for you the most important things. But even, if you're speaking and understanding Chinese well, communication could still be a problem, because Taiwanese communicate in a very different way. I give you an example: I asked my English speaking colleague to ask our Chinese speaking product manager about whether our product could have a certain feature. The answer is supposed to be either "yes" or "no". But to my surprise, they were talking for 10 minutes, before she came back to me and said: "No, we can't do it." Generally, things were discussed for too long without a real point in my previous company - it looked to me like talking for the sake of talking. This is quite tiring for me, although I understand, that it's a cultural difference. Every week we had 4 to 5 hours long meetings discussing internal issues. It was mostly a complete waste of time, it could be done in less than an hour. Our division boss used to have long incoherent meaningless speeches, full of self praise and unrelated nonsense - he was able to talk for one full hour in one breath. My colleagues and I were sitting there all annoyed and hoping it will end very soon. Few were really listening, most were replying emails or chatting on Skype... And that's how we wasted hours and hours every week, leaving these excruciating meetings exhausted to the bone and usually haven't advanced a bit in regards to solving issues (and there were many). It was generally very tiring for me to observe how much was discussed and how little was made afterwards.

• The cubicle becomes your new home

This is how your working environment most likely will look like | photo source.

Taiwanese IT companies can be very messy sometimes, because a lot of people are placed in one big room. Usually all kinds of stuff is stored or thrown everywhere, products are constantly tested, disassembled and reassembled. In my case, the salespeople, product managers and engineers all sat very close to each other. Everyone had his own cubicle with a phone and laptop. The sound of running servers, the constant mouse-clicking and typing is something very typical for such environment. And there's a big difference between the technical people such as engineers and product managers and the business oriented people such as the sales. A good manager needs to be a bridge between these groups, but unfortunately, I wasn't lucky enough to experience that. It's interesting that a lot of management's offices have transparent walls (usually consisting of glass) and their door is usually open (this is different from my country). I'm not sure, whether this is designed with the intent of intimidating the workers, because they see the boss at all times (and believe me, Taiwanese can be scared around the boss) or is it just a "good feng shui" kinda thing? No idea, but I'm sure it serves a good purpose.

Vocabulary

• CEO (title) | 執行長 | Zhíxíngzhǎng
• GM (title) | 總經理 | Zǒng jīnglǐ
• VP (title) | 副總經理 | Fùzǒng jīnglǐ
• HR manager | 人資 | Rénzī
• PM | 產品經理 | Chǎnpǐn jīnglǐ
• Research & Development | 研發 | Yánfā
• Engineer | 工程師 | Gōngchéngshī
• Salesperson | 業務 | Yèwù
• Sales manager | 業務經理 | Yèwù jīnglǐ
• Sales assistant | 業務助理 | Yèwù zhùlǐ
• To go to work | 上班 | Shàngbān
• Office | 辦公室 | Bàngōngshì
• Cubicle | 位置 | Wèizhi
end of vocabulary
• Of hierarchy and losing face

My Taiwanese colleagues generally didn't dare to challenge or question our manager, even if almost everybody knew, that he is a incompetent and mean-spirited boss, who got the job only, because he had connections. I tried to question some things he was saying in the beginning, because he himself offered us to do so. I thought: "Cool, it's like in Europe, we can discuss openly, argue and clash ideas and find the best solutions!" Unfortunately, I was so wrong and the only one in our team eager to do it - and I was a complete junior. In contrast, all my senior colleagues were quietly nodding. I quickly realized why: Even, if a manager says you can openly discuss or question his ideas, he may not think so! He could mean the opposite, especially if he belongs to the older generation. In my case what he expected was that everybody agrees with what he says without discussing. By asking questions, that would make him appear incompetent or wrong, you would cause him to lose face (丟臉 or diulian), something that has to be avoided in Taiwanese culture at all cost (it's a taboo which I broke). I believe that due to my initial eagerness to discuss and question things, I was quickly marked by him as a potential troublemaker, which resulted in his future taunts, verbal attacks and badmouthing, something that made me eventually leave the company. Meetings in Europe are usually short and concise, openly discussing problems and challenging the boss with good arguments should be more ok (not always, but on average more than in Taiwan). The opposite was true for the company I worked for. Respect for hierarchy, blind subordination and keeping face were the most important aspects of working in that department. It was no wonder, that we had such hard time solving issues, because people fumbled around and never dared to speak out the truth - it was always wrapped in a layer of meaningless verbal cushions meant to soften the message and avoid conflict with the superior. Taiwanese tend to laugh, when they mention a problem in order to create a less tense atmosphere. It was obvious to most of us who's fault it was, but nobody dared to point it out directly, because all of them were the type that would feel they have lost face. And so the problems kept piling up and it's getting worse and worse by the month. I'm very happy I have left at this point. There were some colleagues, which were exceptional and found the courage to speak out directly in recent months, but the effect was still very small. They are among those, who might be the next ones leaving.

• Fake harmony and types of colleagues

In our company there was also a tendency to create something I would call "fake harmony" (called 假和諧 or jia hexie in Chinese). I have to say I had some very good colleagues, who were part of the reason I stayed as long as I did - if it weren't for them, I'd probably leave much faster. They are now my friends and I can trust them blindly. But being the exceptions they are, they only prove, that you better be careful who you trust, if you join a Taiwanese IT company. Rather be overly careful than careless. Everybody is nice at first, but after a while you realize, that they are several types of Taiwanese colleagues, allow me to use animals as an analogy for that:
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  • The sheep

    The sheep is the type of colleague, that is always quiet and avoiding trouble, shying away from taking risks, trying to prevent open arguments. He or she will never complain, never speak out openly, seldom gossip and just let others make big decisions. Sheep are waiting for orders and instructions, have no opinions and like to do routine jobs and follow. Such colleagues will be harmless to you, but most likely not interesting for anything beyond the usual zao an and bye.
  • -
  • The dog

    The dog is the type of colleague, that will always be abused or used by the management or by other colleagues, but not complain, nor fight back. They will be loaded with jobs, working overtime a lot, but not respected. They will never really dare to make a change. I've seen a lot of them in my old company. It was a sad image, because it showed the ugly side of Taiwan's working culture. I usually stay away from these types of people.
  • -
  • The turkey

    The turkey is the type of colleague, that is constantly bitching about how it's so unbearable to work in the company and how they are about to leave. But aside from the never-ending complaints, he or she never does anything and after a while it becomes very tiring to listen to them. Some Taiwanese definitely lack the courage to make a change. It's understandable in many cases, as it's gotten harder and harder to get a decently paid job, nevertheless, it can also be used as an excuse. These types of colleagues are interesting at first, because you can bitch with them, but they can become tiring after a while.
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  • The rat

    The rat is the type of colleague, that will backstab you the moment he can benefit from it. This is the type, that collects information, spreads gossip and tries to be close to the boss, badmouthing you to him and that gives him or her a sense of power. Rats will also do dirty jobs for the boss in order to get credit and appreciation. There are usually very few of such people in every department, everybody knows who they are and what they are doing, but they kinda get away with it. And some people like to be close to the rats, because when they climb up the leather, they can benefit from being their allies. Definitely stay away from such colleagues as far as possible.
  • -
  • The monkey

    The monkey is usually smarter than the boss, but doesn't always show it openly. He or she knows, how to create groups within the department and lead by good example, create trust and teamwork. Monkeys are intelligent, bold, but not confrontational. They work behind the system and solve problems without the management's interference. They don't look for their credit, they find it more rewarding to be respected by colleagues and customers, that's what drives them. But they usually move to other companies very fast, if it becomes unbearable. Be close to these types of colleagues.
Personally, I used to be every type at a certain stage except a rat. During my last weeks I was a monkey.

• Gossip culture

Compared to where I come from, I've noticed that Taiwanese really love to gossip (it's called 八卦 or bagua). Everybody was using Skype during work (which is interestingly in Taiwan pronounced "Skypee"), chatting virtually all the time. Most of it was not related to particular issues at work, it was usually a tool for gossiping and wasting time. I admit I was slowly dragged into this particular aspect of Taiwan's IT work culture and it became part of my daily routine. I have seen first hand how quickly gossip spreads across the departments or even out to ex-colleagues, who are now working for competitors. A lot of false rumors are also part of this, which is sometimes very annoying. Interestingly, my ex-colleagues were also very curious about each other's private matters, sometimes a little bit too nosey for my taste (for example: At one time someone suggested we should all share private pics with each other on a big projector in the meeting room. I didn't partake, but they were pressing me for a few days. I remained firm, though). Of course there are also a lot of colleagues, who seldom chat online and don't care about gossip. Those are usually very busy.

• Lunch box culture

It's common in Taiwan's IT companies to order lunch boxes or 便當 (biandang, bendon) together. There are services, that will deliver it to the company, if a certain minimum order quantity is reached. A popular website is Din Ben Don. Biendang is also commonly ordered in the evening, so that people don't need to leave office for dinner. Some companies treat the employees with free ones, if they stay at work over a certain time. I will never forget that smell of warm rice at around 6 pm every day, that filled the whole office. That must be a smell common for many companies in Taiwan. It's also common to order drinks together in the afternoon, such as bubble tea, which is then delivered to the office. Another thing I've noticed, is that Taiwanese colleagues like to bring some cookies or pastry and share them among coworkers, especially after returning from personal or business trips. It's one of those things that are supposed to make the working environment pleasant.

• Birthdays, weddings, babies and farewell gatherings

There are certain standardized customs in Taiwan's working environment, that you might need to follow. For example: If a colleague was having birthday, people are usually ordering a cake. In our case we went to the meeting room, sing a happy birthday song while clapping, and then ate it together and chatted a little. When a female colleague had a baby, we went to visit her in the hospital to see her with the newborn, and also bought her gifts where everybody chipped in. When a colleague was leaving the company, a farewell lunch is organized for them, usually in a Chinese restaurant with round tables, where food is passed around among people who shared them. If a colleague is senior and well-respected, dinner in a hotpot restaurant or a karaoke party might be organized for him. The trickiest part is the wedding banquet. Weddings are very important in Taiwanese culture, but it's kind of tricky to decide, who of your colleagues you would like to invite to join your wedding banquet. In my case, I only chose the ones I felt the closest with, but I made sure, that others didn't know. I felt my wedding is my private matter and I won't invite whole department including people I don't know and people I don't like (such as my boss). Some do tell the boss, even invite them and get a big hong bao or red envelope with money. But in exchange it might mean that the boss is sitting at the main table with them and even having a speech (that would be in my case a big nightmare). But if the boss is treating you well and your colleagues are very nice as well, go and invite them to your banquet. You'll gain face (有面子 or yǒu miènzi) and respect among them.

Of being a white foreigner

Being a white foreigner in a Taiwanese IT company is of course a very different experience from your native Taiwanese colleagues and often different from people of other ethnicities. You will most likely get a better salary (薪水 or xinshui) for the same position than a Taiwanese person, so my advice is to never discuss the salary you get, never mention any numbers (among Taiwanese it's taboo), even if people ask you directly. In the first few days, maybe even weeks, you will most likely be the gossip of the day and before your Taiwanese colleagues ask you directly where you were coming from, if you were married and where are you living, they will discuss every detail about you on- and offline and may spread a few false rumors along the way. But don't share too much of yourself in the beginning, it's safer for your long term survival. Once you answer all questions, work will become a routine and you will slowly figure out who is good to be close with and who not, who is to be trusted and who not. In my ex-company it turned out, that they later on didn't really bother to inform us foreigners about many things - I was lucky to have a network of Taiwanese colleagues, who supplied me with information, so that I was up to date about what was going on. I suggest you to do the same: Be nice to everybody from the beginning, go to joint lunches for a while and find out as much as possible about how the company is ticking. After few months slowly prioritize and create your own network of trustworthy coworkers from various departments.

Promises and reality

The difference between what I was told during the interview and how reality looked like after I joined my old company was pretty big. Therefore I give you a tip: Always research the company you're interested to join with a help of a local and go through various Taiwanese forums, read what ex-employees say. Also research the markets and the foreign media and try to figure out, whether the product is good or lousy. Every company will claim to be in great shape, very organized and treating employees well, but not all of them are. Once you establish contacts in the industry and get insider information, finding a better job will then be much easier.

In conclusion

I hope that I've given you enough information and tips about how it is to work in a medium-sized Taiwanese IT company. Despite having a tough time, I have learned a lot, not only in relation to the product and the market I was in charge of. My Chinese language understanding increased significantly and in addition, I learned about Taiwanese people from a completely different perspective, I feel like I'm an insider now. No doubt, the IT industry is very competitive and challenging, but I would not discourage people from working in Taiwan's IT. You can learn a lot in a very short time, even if at first you sacrifice your private life and sometimes even health. In the end it's up to you to evaluate, if this would be something for you. It is possible to advance and earn more, but nobody's giving you anything for free - you have to work hard, swallow many bitter pills along the way, and then you might have a decent career.