The home team sits down with Liam Zhao, founder and CEO of Immersive, a startup that gives creators tools to produce engaging virtual content and events. Liam explains how engineering teams in the US and China differ, what it’s like to launch a startup in both San Francisco and Shanghai, and the merit of focusing on incremental innovation rather than massive market disruption. Plus: The incomparable value of good lighting.
Born and raised in China, Liam arrived in the US to attend the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied human-computer interaction. After some initial “culture shock” at the differences between his education in China and the “open and innovative” Berkeley environment, Liam thrived. After graduating, he worked at LinkedIn before returning to China to found a startup called Zaihui, offering ecommerce SaaS solutions for retailers.
Liam describes the still-commonplace 9-9-6 schedule (working from nine in the morning until nine at night, six days a week) and the approach of assigning multiple teams to compete on different visions for the same product.
In Liam’s view, US and Chinese engineering teams take different approaches to work, work-life balance, innovation, and risk. US teams pursue “breakthrough innovations” that impress customers, while “hustling and hardworking” Chinese teams “want to move fast and break things” to copy what works and make it incrementally better.
What would a hybrid of these approaches look like? Liam’s new startup, Immersive, is combining teams from the US and China to find out.
Follow Liam on LinkedIn.
Today’s Lifeboat badge goes to user Abhijit for their answer to the question Set difference versus set subtraction.
[intro music plays]
Ben Popper Tonic.ai’s synthetic data platform equips developers with the data they need to build products effectively while achieving compliance and security. Shorten development cycles, eliminate cumbersome data pipeline overhead, and mathematically guarantee the privacy of your data with Tonic.ai. Please visit tonic.ai/stackoverflow for more information. Head on over to that link and let them know the show sent you.
BP Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk all things software and technology. I am Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow, joined as I often am by my wonderful colleagues and collaborators, Ryan Donovan and Cassidy Williams. Hey, y’all.
Cassidy Williams Hello!
Ryan Donovan Hey!
BP So today's episode is in some ways near and dear to my own heart. We are going to be talking with a great guest, Liam, about his experiences and education in China and the US, and then working in those two countries and then trying to bring the two together. My path to Stack Overflow took me from tech reporting to working at a Chinese company and traveling back and forth between the US and Shenzhen a lot and then to Stack Overflow. So I have a small bit of experience with this, not as much as our guest, but it was fascinating and in a lot of ways sort of awe-inspiring to go to Shenzhen and just see the way they worked there, the way that things were vertically integrated from the engineers and the programmers all the way through to the factories and to their supply chain. And DJI I think is still sort of far and away the leader in its consumer electronics category which is interesting. All right, so without further ado, Liam, welcome to the Stack Overflow Podcast.
Liam Zhao Thank you. Thank you, Benjamin. Thank you, Ryan and Cassidy. I'm Liam. I'm the founder and CEO of Immersive.
BP Yeah, tell us a little bit about who you are and what is Immersive.
LZ Sure. I was born and raised in China and then I went to the US for college. I studied computer science at UC Berkeley and graduated in 2014. After graduation I briefly worked in the US for a year and a little more in Silicon Valley. I worked as an experience designer at LinkedIn and then a product manager at Totango which is an Israeli startup company. Then back in 2015, I came back to China and founded my first company called Zaihui. Last year I left my previously started company and founded my current company, Immersive. We are set to be the livestream design and production tool for the future content creators. Yeah, that's how I spent my past 30 years.
BP Tell us a little bit about what it was like trying to work between those two cultures, for example on the education front. Were there things that you recognized when you got to Berkeley that were familiar or different? Did you have to adapt your style of learning for computer science?
LZ Yeah, so when I came to Berkeley [when I was] 18, I got a very strong culture shock. The way we study in China was very submissive or compliant. We just do homework and try to get a higher grade, but I think Berkeley is a pretty open and innovative place. I got to take many different courses starting my first year and I took more than 20 different courses. And then I focused on the area that I was mostly fascinated in which is human computer interactions. I love design, I love art, and also like studying human minds, which is psychology. But then I thought technology was the future 12 years ago, so I found a great intersection which is human computer interaction that studies all these three areas at the same time. So my major was computer science but my focus is HCI.
CW That's great that you got to explore a little bit. That was something where when I was in college I was a part of this program to help international students practice their English and get more immersed in everything, and that was a pretty common thing where people said, “I have a lot more creative choices in how I study which I'm not used to.”
LZ Yeah. I was just overwhelmed by so many different choices. I was like, “No, four years is totally not enough. I want five or six years studying all these courses because there's no going back but I can always go forward.” And then in my first year, my English was not that good, so it took me nearly a year to ramp it up.
BP And so from there you went to LinkedIn. What was your experience like working in Silicon Valley? What did you learn from that and what did you find that you were able to take and were there things that you didn't like in particular about some of the Valley culture?
LZ Sure. I think LinkedIn is a very typical large corporation in the Valley. So it's a typical enterprise company, the work-life balance is really good. We got unlimited PTO and important healthcare insurance. The life was pretty laid back. I usually came to the office at 10:00 AM and then I left before 5:00 PM so the hours were perfect. I could spend nearly half a day of my life exploring anything else. So I even started a side project. I couldn't call it a startup, but it's a side project. I did a lot of hiking. The other thing is that I was pretty welcome to work remote. Sometimes I took an overnight flight from California to Hong Kong or to Beijing and the internet over the air was pretty good so I kept working on the plane. And also I think working at LinkedIn or most of the large corporations people follow very rigorous structure and procedure and best practices. So we do a lot of research for our design projects, we try to come up with many solutions to pick before going forward, so the research was very rigorous. And then we do a lot of review sessions for the PRD, for the spec, for the design, even for the code reviews. So when the design got some challenges, they pushed back to take more time to refine it before going forward. And I feel like at LinkedIn we got independent researcher roles that came earlier compared to companies in China. Even very large corporations in China don't have independent researcher roles. So overall, my impression would be a great work-life balance, and very rigorous on all the procedures and practices. I would call it good, but very different from the practices in China.
RD The work-life balance sounds a little different from what I've heard with the 9-9-6 working system.
BP Yeah, we definitely want to get to work-life balance as part of the show, but just to touch on a bit of what you said, my experience with DJI was wonderful in many ways and they did do a lot of research and development, but as you pointed out, that always then ran through sort of the central decision making apparatus of the senior executives and the founder to decide, “Do I like this or not,” and more of their gut feeling and their decision, versus putting it into the hands of independent researchers or user testers before launch.
LZ Yeah. And many of the times the researchers are trying to prove that the bosses are right. It's like internal consulting. Many of the decision making processes are not that transparent and rigorous I would say.
BP So yeah, I guess maybe tell us a little bit about why you made the decision to leave the Valley and to go back home and found a company and what it was like to return there and try to work in that mode.
LZ I would say in 2015, that year there was a boom in the stock market and in the investment sector. So especially the internet companies in China at that time were growing super fast, a lot of new O2O companies and mobile solution companies just started at that time. So I would say I realized that was a perfect time for me to start up a company. And because I was definitely more familiar with the China market and there is way more funding going into the market so it was like a no-brainer for me that I wanted to start up a company. Compared to the US, I would have more resources and more recognitions and even a vacant market at that time. I didn't want to stay with a great work life-balance because I think I was still young. I can try different things and try extreme things and be aggressive in my professional career path. So I wanted to do a startup, and then I felt like China would definitely be a no-brainer because I would have much better arbitrage and value in that market. So then I decided within only one week. I sold my houses and cars and then returned in a week.
BP Yeah, that's interesting. I don't know many people who say “I was done with work-life balance. I was sick of that. I was ready to burnout.” So yeah, I guess maybe tell us a little bit about when you went there and started to found a culture and hire engineers there. What were the things that you were able to rely on to drive that first company through the impressive growth that it had?
LZ Yeah. So comparing the engineering cultures in China and the US, I would say Chinese engineers definitely hustle to execute. They do the job very fast without even understanding the context and they don't try to propose any ideas at all. They are super compliant to their product managers so they just do it super fast and super focused. And also I would say they just work harder. They just do a lot for their career acceleration, particularly for promotions like leadership and management. Some of them try to learn English because they are trying to adapt to new technologies. Definitely the 9-9-6 is kind of ordinary, especially for middle management. I’ve heard of people who work until like 11 or 12 every single day for several years, that's normal. And some tech leaders, they don't take any days off even for the weekend. But in some instances I would say Chinese engineers compared to the US are more specialized in some focus than detailed problems because I think US engineers tend to think at a higher and more critical level of the business, the user pain points, the strategy, and the market sizing. So they tend to challenge, they tend to think big, higher. But as a compromise, they tend not to delve into details– the technical details or any sort of details. So that's why you can tell most of China's internet products are very complicated and also powerful because there are tons of people working on very specific different projects all at the same time. And I see many, many Chinese engineers, I wouldn't say it's bad for them when they don't care about the context and business of a product, because they don't want to spend time thinking about that. And instead they want to spend tons of time just studying and researching the very specific technical solutions. So I would say it's kind of a craftsmanship for the details. And there's also a very interesting complication that in the US, as I said before, people tend to do a lot of product research, innovation research, and design research before pushing to the development. Because in the Valley especially, engineers are harder to hire, to find, and to retain, and way more expensive, so they try to restrain the usage of this human resource. But in China there are millions of new grads every single year, so they don't want to do research beforehand but they do extensive A/B tests all the time. So when we have three different solutions we just develop all of them and see how the users react. And due to the huge population in China, you have tons of users all the time so it's easy to see the results when you push all the solutions to production and get a very straightforward answer for that. So that's kind of interesting as well.
CW There's pros and cons to both approaches I feel like. It's interesting to think about, “Well yeah, if I were in China this would happen a lot faster. But then if I were in the US, maybe we would make it work in a certain way sooner because we did that research upfront.” I could see how there's benefits to both styles.
BP Yeah. Again, it takes me back to my time at DJI. They always had a new crop of young engineers. They had their robotics tournament, they would hire 10,000 engineers right out of college every year who were eager and willing to take the place of the people who were moving on or moving up. And then to your point about A/B testing, a lot of times they would release so many products so fast that it was like the only products they were competing with were their own. But as you said, it didn't matter. They were just like, “Let the consumer decide. We'll just keep pushing it out, pushing it out,” very focused on, like you said, the technical specifications just going higher, higher, higher, tuning it higher, higher, higher.
LZ Yes, yes, exactly. And that also enriched to a higher level that in many, many Chinese companies when we try to develop one direction of a product, they have like five teams or ten teams developing the same product at the same time, or at least the same direction at the same time and they want to see which team wins.
BP So I guess now you have a new company. Maybe let's talk a little bit about it and it's near and dear to our hearts, especially Cassidy who does live streaming too. The idea is to create stuff that will help creators doing video and live video build an immersive or personalized sort of streaming platform. Tell us a little about your new company and the idea and then maybe we can talk about how you're trying to bring together the best of both US and Chinese in your hiring and in your company.
LZ Sure, sure. So at Immersive we are trying to develop this live stream design production tool for content creators. And when we say design production, an analogy would be Canva and Figma for live stream. So Canva does a great job democratizing design for nonprofessionals. Professionals use Photoshop and Illustrator. These softwares are super powerful but very hard to learn and these softwares don't inspire people to design. They assume as a designer you know what to design and we give you the tool to make it happen. But Canva provides lots of templates and assets so even if you’re not a designer, if you don't have that taste of design, you can choose from tons of solutions to come up with a not so bad solution very fast. So that's one inspiration. The other one would be Figma. So Figma replaces Sketch and Illustrator in the sense that they can collaborate at the same time. And as we see the live streaming booms keep booming, there are more and more advanced contents coming up and some of the higher level content requires multiple people working at the same time to deliver that quality. One single person cannot drive everything all together. So we are a web-based product so that different people, different producers, and hosts and speakers, different roles can collaborate on the design together. Some of the people are in charge of maybe the audio and some of them are in charge of the layouts and some may take charge of the interaction with the audience. So we're very much like Canva and Figma for live stream for nonprofessionals but people who really care about the quality of their content.
CW That's awesome. I would love to play with it. Anything to make this kind of stuff easier to do because there's so many softwares out there but it's challenging and there's a big learning curve and there's so many people I know who want to start live streaming but have no idea where to start because the tools are so difficult to use.
BP Yeah, we can definitely feel the pain point. Every time I look at Cassidy set up with her great camera and her lights I wish there was a tool that made it easy for me to look half as good. So, yeah, one of the things we talked about before, Liam, is that you're hiring on both sides. You're trying to run a remote first company. So talk to us a little bit about hiring engineers, both from the US and China, maybe from other countries as well since it's remote, and the way you're trying to marry these two in some ways very disparate, very different engineering cultures.
LZ So we're trying to combine the pros of both China and US practices to form this kind of crazy hybrid. We think the best practices in the US would be breakthrough innovation. I think people in the US, especially in the Valley, when they start a company they want to make a 10x better innovative idea. If it's not 10x better they won't even try to start this company. They don't want a very simple copycat, they want a breakthrough innovation. But in China, I would say most people try to just do a copycat and like a 1.5x better, slightly better and more integrations, stuff like that. So I would say if I want to go global, I would definitely embrace this sort of innovation. And especially, I feel like consumers in the US appreciate innovative new products a lot more than users in China. I had this sort of pain back in 2015. We developed a very innovative product in China at that time but our customers were restaurant owners. They just wanted to pick cheaper products, even if it's very hard to use, even if it looks ugly. They don't really care. I think everything they're trying to make a decision on would be the first, price. The second would be all in one, even if they are a small business they say, “Okay, I cannot use your product along with another product at the same time. I want one product that does everything.” So it's not really friendly for startups as well. But I would say for global markets, for developing a best of the breed product, you definitely need 10x better aggressive innovation, so that's something we are trying to learn from the US practices. So everybody is trying to be more innovative, more creative, more critical, and try to challenge each other more to generate absurd ideas and maybe one of them will work. But for the Chinese practices, I'll definitely pick the hustling and hardworking practices. We want to move fast and break things. I think that's one of the few advantages that Chinese companies and Chinese engineers still keep. We are probably within the same size, about 10 to 20 engineers, but we are trying to shift things maybe two times faster than our competitors. So it's kind of interesting, how can you innovate long with fast building? That's the problem we're trying to solve. So far it looks fine, we found a balance. We're not practicing 9-9-6, that's crazy. You don't have any time to retrospect, to think through, to create, but still we work more hours than most people in the US, therefore we do have some buffer to innovate, to create, and to be inspired.
BP All right, everybody. It is that time of the show. I'm going to shout out the winner of a lifeboat badge, someone who came on Stack Overflow and helped to save a question from the dustbin of history and spread a little knowledge around the community. Awarded yesterday to Abhijit, not going to try to pronounce that, “Set difference versus set subtraction.” All right, if you're curious, we have an answer for you in the show notes. I am Ben Popper. I'm the Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper. Email us with questions or suggestions, email@example.com. And if you enjoy the show, leave us a rating and a review. It really helps.
RD I'm Ryan Donovan. I edit the blog here at Stack Overflow. You can find me on Twitter @RThorDonovan. And if you have a great idea for a blog post, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CW I'm Cassidy Williams. I'm Head of Developer Experience and Education at Remote. You can find me @Cassidoo on most things.
LZ Hi, I'm Liam Zhao. I'm the CEO and Founder of Immersive. You can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter, search Liam Zhao. LinkedIn would be the best place to find me and talk to me. Thank you.
BP All right, everybody. Thanks so much for listening and we will talk to you soon.
[outro music plays]