It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Hongjiang Zhang says the biggest challenge so far has been helping the rush of new hires, many fresh from Chinese universities, fit into the Microsoft culture and development process. An English writer has been hired to proofread important e-mails and documents before they are sent. However, Zhang says, “We quickly realized the communication barrier is beyond just English. It’s really about culture differences. How do you follow up? How do you work with a team that is 16 hours away and follow through on all the deliverables? Or how do you simply say no clear and loud in technical or project discussions and learn not to overcommit?” To help with such issues, the center has created programs to train future managers, and senior managers say they work diligently to share their experiences with new employees.
Dennis Adler, the ATC liaison in Redmond, visits Beijing several times a year and hosts ATC visitors monthly. In addition, he relies on an array of communications tools—e-mail, voice over Internet, instant messaging, videoconferencing—to overcome the time and distance gap between his Beijing colleagues and him. “You just have to work a lot harder to keep the communication up,” says Adler.
And potentially rougher waters lie ahead. Managing the center’s growth will be difficult as it steams past the 200-employee mark sometime this year. “Growing is easy, but to sustain it is hard,” says Bin Lin, ATC’s director of engineering. As more and more employees come on board, it becomes harder to maintain quality and meet deadlines, Lin says, and center leaders risk becoming so preoccupied with managing the here and now that they miss new opportunities.
Another problem facing organizations like ATC is that after a year or so of learning the ropes, their engineers might be lured away by Chinese firms, says Henry Chesbrough of the Center for Open Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Because they are not doing real research, the engineers lack the benefits of a research environment that might entice them to stay, such as freedom from the tight deadlines of product development schedules, Chesbrough says. And because their job trains them to solve product development problems, they have skills that are enormously attractive to other companies.
Hongjiang Zhang is well aware of the potential pitfalls. But he allows himself a little time to bask in the center’s early success. Zhang says he was especially touched when Senior Vice President Rashid told him, “Without ATC, a lot of the things Microsoft should do and wanted to do will never happen.”