What’s Wrong with China’s Internet Developers?

In the course of my work, I’m often asked, based on my experience living and working in China, “What’s wrong with China’s Internet developers?” Unfortunately, I have never attacked the problem in a systematic way and organized my thoughts, even though I should.

Today, I was visiting the Signals vs. Noise website which is maintained by 37 Signals, who are Ruby developers. David Heinemeer Hansson, who extracted the Ruby on Rails framework works there. He also publishes his own blog, Loud Thinking.

If you have an interest in technology from a technology and/or business viewpoint, you really should read the 37 Signals blog; it’s really excellent.

When I read this posting on “Secrets to Amazon’s Success” , I said to myself “That’s it; that’s exactly what’s wrong with China’s internet developers!”

If Chinese developers just followed what Amazon has done, they would be in a much better place.

Read it and tell me what you think in the comments below.

9 Responses to “What’s Wrong with China’s Internet Developers?”

  1. Calvin Chin says:

    Agree, agree, agree…

    It’s actually a bit depressing to read down that list and realize how little of that spirit and mentality is in the talent pool here. Here’s hoping that those with this vision can spread the ideas and lead the way.

  2. frank says:

    As Chinese developers rush to copy the features and UI of US Web 2.0 sites or online services, they sometimes overlook that culturally and sociologically people in China browse and use the web differently than they do in the US. I guess it would be easier to just backward engineer some features rather than study, analyze and really understand what Chinese users/consumers want online.

    The Chinese game industry probably comes closest to really understanding the market and customers that they serve. It should be no surprise that games and entertainment comprise the #1 source of revenue for online companies in China.

    I’ve seen many companies here in China try to copy that silicon valley feel of open offices and collaborative meeting play/spaces. At the end of the day the nice high ceilings, the foosball/ping pong tables are really just for show and recruiting. Many times the mentality remains very much a sweatshop with more expensive fixtures and the creative open space of modern offices still conceals the hidden walls and hierarchy of a rigid Chinese work space that values hard work and long hours but not real innovation or creative thought.

    One can argue that Chinese creativity and innovation will arrive in China’s digital landscape but it may be so different or so seemingly banal that we may overlook its real impact since the changes and and breakthroughs may be so subtle and understated that we are looking for rocketships when really we should be excited by contact lenses.

  3. Thijs says:

    I’m a foreigner developer working for Tencent and I have to disagree.

    Within Tencent a lot of focus is on Innovation (for example through internal innovation contests, an intranet where you can post any new ideas you have) and on collaboration and ‘wandering’ (for example using TRAC and several custom tools): I can see on the intranet all other projects and what people are currently working on. I can leave them replies and suggestions. We have an internal messenger that integrates with the intranet so you can immediately call or chat to other people about suggestions.

    About some of the other points from the Amazone article:
    We have several very skilled technical people who can mentor and provide guidance to the new developers. We work as much Agile as possible. We do customer testing and keep using the product we are designing and implementing all the time. Opening the service through API’s to the outside is quite new to China, but also in this area there are several developments going on. We regularly try out new features and listen to customer feedback on our BBS and on our labs blogs : .

    All in all : I have to say that from my experience there is nothing wrong with Chinese Internet developers or the management of them. They are learning quickly, applying foreign best practises to the Chinese market and innovating. I’m sure our users will appreciate that.

  4. Alan Tien says:

    Paul – you’ve defined “what’s wrong” by only contrasting to “what’s right” by Amazon. I think that misses a lot of other things.

    First, and perhaps most importantly, the culture looks suspiciously at creativity and innovation, the education system is based on rote-memorization. This does not create highly innovative people. But as Thijs noted, there are exceptions – I believe mostly due to the odds of large numbers. You have enough smart people and some will be creative, even if that’s not how they are trained. Note I distinguish intelligence from creativity.

    Before I came to China, I thought this was a biased perspective, created by Western press who didn’t really understand “my brothers (and sisters)”. But I’ve been in China 2 years now, and despite wanting to believe otherwise, I find the Chinese are not innately creative. They are not naturally rebellious, the way Americans are, and I think constant dissatisfaction AND the self-belief that you can change the status quo are critical elements to innovation. The Chinese complain a lot, but they do not believe they can make a change.

    Check out this book, Geography of Thought:

    Its contrasting of Eastern and Western thinking is pretty standard stuff, but it backs it up with great experiment examples. It explains how Westerns are very linear in thinking, and thus they strongly believe in cause-and-effect. If I do A, then I can get B to happen. However, Easterners view Westerners as naive. SO many things affect the outcome, how can my doing A really change B? Easterners are much more holistic, but paralyzed by the complexity.

    I have too much to say, so I’ll stop here for now.

  5. Thijs, Alan–

    Thanks for your comments.

    Thijs, I would have to say Tencent is most likely the exception which proves the rule. I’m talking mostly about startups. Even there, I’m sure that there are some very smart developers who are thinking about how to handle load-balancing and other issues. They are not simply hackers. This requires a different mindset which, generally speaking, is in short supply. In China, there is too much of a “me-too” mentality, and too little original thinking and action, even on the management levels.

    Alan, I agree with everything you say. Obviously this is a very broad subject which deserves more than a link to what Amazon did right. I hope that we can fill it out some more in this discussion and following articlesIn t.

    China’s problem has been that there is a talented and educated elite who do know how to ask the basic, big questions. The problem is that most of them have gone to the US and other countries and remained there, where they have made major contributions to their societies. In those environments, they blossomed and flourished.

    Most of those who stay in China and are not quite as tough in their questioning mentality, more often than not, fall into “meibanfa” mode. If there is any challenge to China’s rise, it does not come so much from the US as the inability of many individual Chinese to think creatively and to feel empowered enough to solve problems which have a profound effect on their own lives and the lives of their neighbors.

    Basically, many live in a walled garden, some of which is of their own making.

  6. Tom Wang says:

    Let’s look a little harder into the problem, is it really the Chinese internet developers or is it more of the business minds that’s running these operations? thinking that if they duplicated the same functionality as their foreign twins, they will be able to have their venture acquired.

    I don’t disagree it’s a irrational approach, but I somehow doubt it will work simply the by copying the technology. For example, look at the foreign internet multinationals that have brought over their technology and infrastructure to China, Google, Ebay and Yahoo, all of them have failed miserably. Google china search market share has slipped sharply, Ebay and Yahoo have both exited the China market. For these multinationals, it’s not the lack of funding, it’s the lack of understanding of the culture and preference of the people. With that in mind, simply copying foreign internet ideas just won’t work.

  7. Alex Dong says:

    Wow, this is an interesting thread. Since I’m doing my own startup right now, I do have something to say. Based on my experience, I don’t think we should blame Chinese individual engineers, or even entrepreneurs, but the whole ecosystem.

    Allow me to explain what I mean by “ecosystem”. If we look at internet business as a whole lifecycle or reactor chain, we have
    1) entrepreneurs who starts company,
    2) engineers/marketers/designers/finance people who get hired,
    3) established companies who might buy the small startups and, as a result, providing an exit strategy for investors and the startup companies.
    4) investors who will take the risks by putting their own money into the bowl

    I’d say the the missing piece of a healthy ecosystem lies in two places, 4) and the most important 3). How many small startups in China have been acquired in last 5 years? When has the needs to have an IM tools, do they buy QQ or build their own UC? When wants to catch the blogging bus, do they buy blogchina or do they build their own?

    Without a ‘quick’ and promising exit strategy, smart and experienced investors will hesitate to put their money in. This results in a relatively “tight budget” for entrepreneurs. This goes on to affect the talent they could hire. I’m not saying that China are lack of talent people, but when startups compete with multinational companies, the compensation package just doesn’t look equally attractive.

    Hence a deadloop.

    So how to break this? Easy, start with the investor/entrepreneurs who have western background. This may not fundamentally change the whole thing, but it does help to break the deadlock by bringing fresh blood, which is acquired by foreign company as a vehicle to enter chinese market, into the game.

    And this is exactly what I’m going through. It’s still very tough but at least it might make a big different.


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