These are the biggest cultural differences that work at TikTok
- Lucas Ou-Yang is a technical manager at TikTok and has worked as an engineer at Facebook and Snap.
- He says working for a Chinese tech company led to surprising cultural and professional discoveries.
- He breaks down the biggest differences he’s noticed working for TikTok, from optional video meetings to the workforce behind Chinese product development.
As Chinese tech companies become more prominent on the world stage, more and more Americans want to work for them. I have spent the past seven years working for top Silicon Valley companies such as Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook in software engineering. My time in these businesses has focused on building online marketplaces and flows. I helped ship the initial launch of Instagram Stories software in 2016 as well as the initial launch of Snapchat’s content feed.
In early 2021, Bytedance subsidiary Tiktok wanted to hire me to lead engineering efforts in building an online marketplace to connect creators and brands. Shortly after, I joined Bytedance as a technical lead to drive their creator marketplace efforts.
I noticed some surprising differences between working for American tech companies and Chinese tech companies. I was able to pick up on many nuances comparing the two sides due to my time in Silicon Valley and being a 2nd generation Chinese American who understands both cultures.
Here’s my guide to navigating those differences.
Meetings are often more important
Most meetings at ByteDance are larger, often with over 50 people and 2-3 presenters. These broadcast-style meetings are most compatible with the top-down management style of Chinese companies.
The 1:1 meetings or smaller Socratic group chats that American employees take for granted are actually quite rare at companies like ByteDance.
Indeed, Tiktok organizations are larger and less segregated. Some teams have 50 to 200 people reporting to one manager. Most employees regularly need to communicate with 20-30 colleagues across multiple time zones to do their job. These reasons, in addition to the top-down management style, make broadcast-style meetings more common.
These meetings are often multiple time zones spanning many countries and cultures, so we use real-time video translation software. Broadcast-style meetings are more conducive to this.
On the other hand, it also means that you don’t have to enable video during meetings. Chinese colleagues do not like to use real mugshot profile photos, preferring anime, background or cartoon images.
Product development relies more on manpower
Due to the low cost of labor in China, many Chinese Internet companies are more dependent on labor. In contrast, Western tech organizations emphasize a more passive, data-driven approach.
For example, TikTok relies on operations teams to manually bring big influencers and advertising clients to the platform. The company is also spending marketing funds to understand its local markets while simultaneously hiring local employees in all major markets to help internationalize the Tiktok product.
In 2020, TikTok created a $200 million creation fund, a project led by armies of operational teams to give American creators funds to bring them to the growing platform. This fund was unconventional at the time, but Instagram and Youtube quickly followed suit after seeing its success.
This ability to leverage operations is one of the main reasons Chinese tech companies are able to move so quickly and break into new markets, something Western tech companies could learn from.
You may have to work some late nights
Work-life balance is generally worse in China than in America. Chinese employees often subscribe to the motto “996”. You work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
Although US and Singaporean teams aren’t supposed to do 996 – I work during regular US working hours – the reality is that US employees still often attend late-night meetings to collaborate with teams in Asia.
This is different from the traditional working model of multinationals where American colleagues “hand off” work in progress to Chinese, Eastern European or Indian teams strictly at 5 p.m.
But the reality of fast-paced, collaborative multinationals means you need wider work boundaries – a sacrifice expected of an international workforce.
Chinese companies value efficiency and deliverables among other things
Chinese companies also tend to focus less on processes and documentation. How-to documents, or code and product reviews, or crash investigations are often deprioritized over delivering visible, hard results like code, product features, and releases.
This hard-nosed results-oriented approach leads to more efficiency, but the lack of documented institutional knowledge also hinders long-term corporate effectiveness.
The size of your teams will fill football stadiums
Another shocking thing I saw at Tiktok was the organization structure. While Western companies generally recommend teams of 8-9 people, some managers have over 200 direct reports. Due to the flat structure, some of the more junior reports have no contact time with their managers. Some employees will never even know what their managers look like.
ByteDance also keeps its org charts hidden due to the competitive nature of talent poaching in China.
While Western tech companies prefer certain engineers or product managers to own elements of the overall product, Chinese company workers tend to work holistically, breaking down new work, features or product requirements as they arise. they come from management. No one ever becomes an expert in a specific area.
Many of these differences can be boiled down to culture
For example, because I work with colleagues from all over the world and we have fewer cultural similarities, we also chat less. Meetings can open awkwardly with people not knowing what to say to each other.
At the same time, the cultural references are also different. Chinese colleagues have their own “Bible verses” called “Chengyu” 成语 to make jokes or express deep metaphors. Often in meetings they translate these Chengyus into English to express something, but the meaning gets lost.
Asian culture is also very hierarchical. That means refusing meetings with your superiors is often taken more seriously than other Silicon Valley companies I’ve worked at. It also means managers are tasked with driving business results and often provide less support for the career goals of their direct reports.
Your work-life balance may also be different, with many American employees unable to work this late at night.
Working at a Chinese tech company isn’t for everyone
If you’re new to the field or have less than 5 years of experience, I wouldn’t recommend working at a Chinese tech company. The lack of process, mentorship, standardized performance appraisal, and internal documentation means it’s harder to learn best practices and grow in your profession.
But this situation is not so bad for higher level people who know how to execute.
It’s an opportunity to learn new ways, from how Chinese companies design products to how they test and onboard new users through their workforce.
If you’re the adventurous type and don’t mind late meetings, a Chinese company will provide some context on how non-US companies successfully develop products and expand internationally.