August 31st, 2019

mom walk

where was i last fortnight?

The last two weeks have been exhausting.

I was really inspired by my onboarding process in the UK, so when the head of engineering education sent out a call for volunteers to help expand the bootcamp program to other offices around the world, i signed up. My expectation was that i would go through a training period of several months before qualifying as a full-fledged educator able to run bootcamps here in China.

That didn't happen.

One of the unusual things about how the Shenzhen office is staffed is its model of calling up employees from our Chinese parent company. This means instead of getting new hires dripping in through the standard interview funnel, we get whole batches of guys airlifted in from Shanghai, usually to serve a 6 or 9 month stint on a single project.

Arguably, this method of staffing undermines the company culture, because these temporary contractors from our parent company do not have the same holiday pay and benefits that we do, and their bonus structure is based on how quickly they deliver features instead of how well they perform in the broad cross-section of competencies we expect from our own engineers.

But then, that's not just a China thing. All the big tech companies hire armies of temps for some reason i have never quite figured out. It probably all comes back to some kind of tax scam or other financial chicanery, because fuck capitalism.

The bright side is that sometimes it can work as a kind of extended trial period. About half of our Shenzhen office is made up of former temps from our parent company who decided to join our company full-time. But up until recently, those hires slipped through the cracks of the onboarding program.

Last week i co-facilitated my first bootcamp with two other colleagues in the Shenzhen office. None of us are trained educators so we are just trying to do our best at following the curriculum and emulating the good example we were set back in London. We are making mistakes, but we are doing our best and trying to improve each time.

What i didn't expect is how much time would be required. Education is hard work. It's not just having to put on a smiling face and be "on" for the entire day, which is exhausting on its own. It's also a lot of admin around organizing speakers for individual sessions, figuring out lunch for the participants, adjusting for session cancellations or other disruption, reflecting on what worked and what didn't, sending feedback to the speakers, reporting back up to the London office and so on. Plus i have to do almost all of it in Chinese. Last weekend i was already spent.

And then some fucking manager in Europe ordered in a new batch of temps and dumped them on our head. So after running one bootcamp, the following week we immediately had to run another one. Due to the rush, there were a lot of administrative fuck-ups. One senior participant spent the whole week thinking he was above it all and decided to take phonecalls and hold meetings inside the training room, during the presentations and lab sessions. We couldn't believe how rude and disrespectful he was, but we did our best to work around it and give the three people who did care a training that was still valuable.

Meanwhile, our managers are blaming us for spending too much time giving trainings instead of writing code. The way our managers have reacted to us volunteering to give these mandatory trainings to our colleagues has really soured me on management here in the China office. Contrary to their own job descriptions, it seems managers here only care about delivering features, and do not place much emphasis on championing the company values or helping employees to grow. That's exactly the sort of mindset we are trying to change by introducing these bootcamps over here! So there's that conflict too.

Then, on Friday, the Chinese government called to fuck everybody in the ass with their unhinged ultra-nationalist bullshit. I will write about that in another post. But, friends, this is why i have been so exhausted for the past few weeks. It's for a good cause, but definitely the highest stress couple of weeks since i started working here.
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mom walk

our geopolitical friday

Normally living in an authoritarian state is "just" mildly inconveniencing. Bylaws and regulations get randomly changed and randomly enforced and people are expected to deal with it.

Suddenly street vendors are not allowed to sell food on my road any more except after 9pm on Friday nights. Why? Who the fuck knows why? Nobody will ever tell you. Perhaps it is because some restaurant owner paid off an official to have the cops kick out their competition. Perhaps it is because a property developer with connections thinks that having "low class" migrant workers milling around will devalue the gated community they are building down the street. Perhaps it is because some drunk party member picked up dumplings on the way home and wanted to punish the vendor for his explosive diarrhea the next day. It doesn't matter why. People grumble and complain and then they comply.

On Thursday night, one of my colleagues who is listed as a technical contact for our website got a call from the Chinese government. He was told that our website was illegal and he was ordered to immediately change all mentions of "Taiwan" to "中国台湾" (Taiwan, China). On Friday morning, we got another call from a more senior official at the government, who harrassed and threatened my colleague and asked why we hadn't fixed it yet. He said we should have fixed it within 10 minutes, and that we were breaking the law and our website would immediately be blocked.

Friends, our "website" is not some little Geocities thing where we just have to upload a new HTML and we are done. Our "website" is a distributed, cloud-based platform that is served up by hundreds of different microservices (back end servers) and hundreds of different microsites (front end pages), each of which have their own data stores and caching policies. Plus there are thousands of bespoke ad campaigns, pages of curated content and SEO sites that are managed by teams outside of engineering. We can't just snap our fingers and magically change everything.

But the Chinese government does not care. They decided that our site was suddenly illegal. So illegal, in fact, that the next stage of threats included a hit to the personal credit scores of our legal representatives. When my colleague tried to explain the challenges, the government agreed to extend the deadline of our looming block till midnight, but only if a senior company official reported in person to confirm their identity and sign paperwork admitting their guilt.

I was outraged, and i think i shared that emotion with a lot of our colleagues, although it was only expressed publicly as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Stephen Colbert and Winnie the Pooh emoji responses to the very long thread about how to resolve this problem. I mean, what can we do? We cannot risk the livelihoods of our employees. Given our parent company is a major Chinese company, we also cannot afford the PR shitstorm that would definitely follow if we (as their subsidiary) did not comply. On the other hand, we earn far more revenue from our Hong Kong and Taiwan customers than from our mainland customers, so kissing the ring of the CPC would definitely hurt our reputation in markets that are much more important to us.

For much of Friday, a good chunk of the company was running around trying to figure out a way to update all references to Taiwan, but only in Simplified Chinese and only in mainland China (since in Singapore - another major revenue source for us - they also use Simplified Chinese). The most annoying part is that we don't even take a political stance in the first place. Our site is deliberately designed to only reference cities and regions - not countries - so that we can avoid this stuff. Oh well. 政府不care.

We got all of the main user flows changed over by 10pm last night. On one hand i am proud of how our company came together to solve this issue so quickly - the emergency team included legal, executive, local management, engineers, PR, regional reps... I was only a small cog - i identified some pages we needed to reindex while eating BBQ on the street - but i still felt like i contributed. I have never had that experience of such a diverse cross-section of a company going all hands on deck to fix a crisis. The sad part is that this was a completely contrived "crisis" and our "fix" is to comply with a ludicrous demand of an authoritarian regime.

I don't understand how they hope to win hearts and minds with this kind of behavior - it only increases fear and resentment. While all this was going on, in Hong Kong they arrested a bunch of youth activists and progressive politicians on trumped-up charges. The last few months has been a fucking garbage fire.