Jan 3, 2011
I’m heading over to Building 43 at Google’s Mountain View headquarters tomorrow morning. As some of you know, I’ve decided to take on an exciting–and challenging–opportunity to serve as director/head of product management for Greater China, based in Beijing.
In this role, I’ll be leading a small, very-talented team of product managers who are doing two things: (1) launching products and supporting global R&D projects focused on Google’s global markets, and (2) driving a product roadmap serving the domestic Chinese market. I’ll be commuting to China from Mountain View until June or July, at which point my wife, our 3 boys, and some subset of our accumulated “stuff” will lift off from our home near Mountain View and land in a new home somewhere in Beijing. In the meantime, I’ll have plenty of time to rack up frequent flier miles, become “Googly” (aka programmed in the Google global culture) and build important relationships in the global R&D organization at Google which is Mountain-View centric.
If you’re reading this post, you probably already know that I think China is “one of the biggest stories of our time.” Like most of you, I also firmly believe that when the history of our period is written, the internet will be another one of the biggest stories of our time. In this role, I’m excited about the chance to play my part in both of these stories at the same time.
I remember my naive enthusiasm for China back in 2006, when I first got involved in some startup ventures in China as an advisor and micro-sized angel investor. After all, China’s macro numbers feed a typical US tech entrepreneur’s optimistic tendencies. China graduates 500k engineering students annually compared to the US’s 150k students (although the quality of these students are not the same). China overtook Japan as the 2nd largest economy in 2010 and is expected to surpass the US’s economy in 2027, according to Goldman Sachs. The story is the same on the internet and mobile. As of December 2010, China had over 450 mm Internet users, as estimated by the Chinese State Council Information Office, as compared to the US market of 230 mm users. China had 38 mm 3G (smartphone) mobile phone users and a total of 842 mm mobile phone users by Oct 2010, according to Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).
But during the past 5 years, I’ve come to appreciate an apt characterization of China made by James L. McGregor (now on Twitter), former Wall Street Journal bureau chief and Dow Jones China chief executive, who called China “the world’s greatest startup” and “the world’s greatest turnaround.” I now try to understand everything in China in terms of these two faces–or aspects–of China.
Just about one year ago, Google announced it’s new approach to China which some later characterized as “the pullout.” Some others have characterized 2010 as a “bitter winter” for the Chinese internet overall. In fact, according to the saying “guo jin, min tui” the rest of Chinese entrepreneurs and non-state owned businesses also faced a bitter winter of challenges in 2010. Even Jeffrey Immelt went off script to express his frustration.
When I told a few friends that I was considering working for Google in China, some were even surprised that Google still had operations in China! Perhaps they were left with images of an illegal flower tribute which symbolized the end of the story.
For reasons of confidentiality and discretion, I can’t say too much about what makes me excited about joining Google in China. What I can say is that the rumors that “Google has lost all of its good people in China” is just false. No doubt there are some very talented people who left to join the welcoming embrace of some other domestic Internet companies, or decided to pursue their own new startup opportunities, but I was incredibly impressed by the Googlers I met in Shanghai and Beijing in my visit to the Google offices in December, some of which joined Google even before the Kai-fu Lee era. As with any startup, the key to success is always the people, and on that dimension I found myself excited about the prospects of working with the Google China team.
One final comment. With regard to everything related to China, I’ve been inspired by Deng Xiaoping’s saying “tao guang yang hui, you suo zuo wei.” Maybe someday I’ll write some more about why this connects with me on so many levels. But the idea of “keeping a low profile,” “building capabilities,” ”hiding brightness,” and “biding time” is great advice for most companies to follow in the Chinese marketplace, much more so than in the US. And the saying is evocative of a time in China’s history, Reform and Opening, where China’s ascendency was far from assured, and certainly not the conventional wisdom in the West as it is today. So I guess following Deng’s advice means keeping a low profile and making stuff happen rather than creating a lot of hype that you can’t deliver against!
I’m deeply thankful for the support I’ve gotten from my professional community in both China and the US, and I wouldn’t have the confidence to take on this huge challenge without you. Al Gore, in a TED lecture, quoted an African proverb: “If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together.” While he was talking about the climate crisis, I’ll take creative license to apply this toward the global development of the internet and the peaceful rise of China, and where these trends intersect. I’ll expect to travel together with many friends on this journey.
photo: CC courtesy of veen on flickr.