Pride in Samsung

Sejong was a very great king whose benevolence and personal sacrifice for the good of the people were unparalleled. Koreans work very long hours. The famous bell in Gyeongju is the greatest bell in the world, and Koreans invented astronomy. Bowing is important. We expats are agents of change who must learn to conform and adapt. Learn the language. Go out to dinners with the team. Be nice. Be likeable. Be direct and transparent, but be careful not to say anything to anyone about anything in a meeting. Korean is a high-context language. Find allies. Samsung is the best and also hard for everyone.

Above all, be patient.

These were among the things I learned, often repeatedly, during five long and intense days of global newcomer training at Samsung’s residential facility in Yongin, just outside Seoul.

I was skeptical going in — after six months, how much of a newcomer am I really? — but having completed the course, I’m glad I went. If I had to summarize the course content, I would divide it into three main areas:

  1. Samsung is amazing!
  2. How to handle Korean culture/all the things you’re doing wrong
  3. Typical corporate training stuff

Samsung is amazing!

Every morning we watched hokey corporate-boosterish videos with iffy English about Samsung’s mighty history and many divisions. But the thing is, even if you want to be kind of cynical about it, Samsung really is amazing.

The company made some audacious bets and smart moves through the years that transformed Korea: building color TVs before there was any color broadcasting in Korea and exporting them to Panama, then pouncing on the domestic market once color was finally introduced; going into semiconductors with zero infrastructure and clawing its way to first place; deciding to swing from back-of-the-store junk TV maker to design innovator to leap into first place globally. A bunch of my classmates were from Samsung Biologics, which is doing to pharmaceutical manufacture what Samsung did to TVs and semiconductors and smart phones: taking over, basically. And did you know that Samsung built the Burj Khalifa in Dubai? Or that it’s floated the biggest ship hull in the world? I didn’t. (There were also, at times during the course, acknowledgements of failures, as well as of the ways that government and other sources provided support along the way.)

As a survivor of the dot-com boom and seven years at Google, I don’t swallow corporate narratives of glory uncritically. But Samsung, as a leader and driver of Korea, Inc., has really, genuinely done some amazing, audacious stuff.

To see some other sides of Samsung, we spent one afternoon mostly outdoors. First we went to Samsung Guide Dog School, a social responsibility program Samsung introduced into Korea when nothing like it existed. The school breeds labrador retrievers and places the puppies with volunteer families, who socialize them for a year. Then the pups come in for six to eight months of training. Seventy percent wash out and become pets, mostly with their volunteer families. Thirty percent are matched with a vision-impaired person for about ten years of work and companionship. When they retire, they go again to a volunteer family — often the same one as before — and get care for the remainder of their lives. The people who work for the program are dedicated to helping the disabled live full lives, and also to transforming Korea’s relationship with and image around dogs.

From there we headed to the lovely Ho-Am Museum and Hee Won Garden, set up in 1982 by Samsung’s chairman to house his collection of Korean art and reintroduce Korean Confucian garden landscaping to the public at time when little of Korean tradition was publicly celebrated.

How to handle Korean culture/all the things you’re doing wrong

 

I’ve been in professional life long enough to know my strengths and weaknesses pretty well. If colleagues in New York sometimes found me abrasive and aggressive, and if the gentle young Singaporean woman in our training has been called out for being too direct and confrontational, then I must be Bill O’Reilly to the Koreans I work with. It’s not fun to see where you’ve screwed up the social relations that are so important anywhere, but especially in Korea. I realize that I have work to do when I get back to the office on Monday.

But it was also reassuring, in a way, to hear the same experience from everyone — from others in the course, from a panel of expats who’ve re-signed at least once, from an expat success story who’s starting his own spin-off company, from a Korean-American vice president. The Samsung expat narrative is this: I came on too strong, I suffered for it, I learned to be patient and hold back and pick my battles, and I survived.

Beyond that, we had sessions on bowing and etiquette (don’t stick your spoon in your rice bowl!), videos on Korean history, a chance to try on hanbok. A lot of this, for me, was old hat, but I could see that it meant a lot to my colleagues who are new to Korean culture, and I’m sure it will be helpful to them in getting along here.

Typical corporate training stuff

On top of the Korean culture stuff and the Samsung stuff, we also had some typical corporate stuff: a creative brainstorming workshop, a session devoted to setting out our vision for the next year. I think this sort of training is especially valuable for the younger employees, but I was surprised by just how many of the experienced professionals had never done anything like it. It made me realize how lucky I was to get all the training Google gave me: courses on personal branding and managing my energy and accomplishing my dreams, four days of leadership training in the Santa Cruz Mountains where I learned what color I am (orange), workshops on unconscious bias, a regular process of setting and measuring goals.

It’s more of a challenge to get this sort of enrichment at Samsung, at least in Korea, because so much of it is done in Korean. Even if the material was, for me, a bit of a repetition, it was good to see that Samsung is at least making an attempt to bring professional development to its foreign employees.

Samsung is people

The best part of the course, by far, was the people. I met some amazing people from a bunch of parts of the company I never knew existed — Biologics, Bioepis, Fire and Marine Insurance, Global Strategy Group. I met people from India who live in my building, and people from the US, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Japan, Sweden, Colombia, Iran, Puerto Rico. We ranged from fresh out of college to senior managers with a lot more experience than me. It’s good to have made these new friends. As expats, we can help each other to adjust, stay sane, and understand what’s going on around us.

On Monday I’ll go back to my job and dive right back in, I suppose, but this time with a broader sense of where it fits into the bigger Samsung picture and of what I can do to play my part successfully.

[how not to apply for a job]

The following is an opening paragraph that I won’t be using for a cover letter (for an internal position, peeps — I’m not leaving Google!).

I feel it’s important to write you and express my firm point of view that a sense of humor is not an appropriate job qualification. Those of us who were not blessed with this sixth sense at birth nevertheless deserve to be taken seriously (ever so seriously) as candidates for any and all roles that don’t expressly have ‘comedy’ or ‘comedian’ in the title. I think, for example, that we need more humorless talk show hosts, postal workers, and veterinarians, who could bring the appropriate seriousness to the tasks of celebrity chitchat, mail delivery, and cat-sticking respectively.

Yes, snow does cause brain damage. Why do you ask?

[minor updates on a minor life]

I have been kind of busy and overwhelmed of late — mostly in a good way — but this has meant a dearth of blog posts. Dearth! Dearth dearth dearth ….
Ahem. Excuse me.

So, tidbits:

  • On Saturday I joined New York Sports Clubs, which has gyms near my work and near my home. I have so far worked out twice. This is good: it’s been nearly a year since I’ve regularly exercised.
  • My attempts to cut out caffeine went nowhere. I have, however, cut back to half-caff in the morning, and this has helped my stomach considerably.
  • At work, I was having a conversation with Ken about a document I’m updating, and he pointed out a section that he didn’t like because it was full of redundancies and repeated phrases. “Yeah,” I agreed, “It reads like Chinese philosophy.” Ken reminded me that he does not regularly read Chinese philosophy. Oh, right.
  • In another conversation with Ken, I made the comment that while much at DoubleClick was the same as it had been, that it was no longer the nineties, with everyone zipping around on Razor scooters. He turned around and pointed to the Razor leaning against an office door. Okay, so in DoubleClick it is still 1999. Wanna go see The Blair Witch Project?
  • Is Bay Ridge going hip? The Chipshop has moved in, purveying the finest in British cuisine: fish and chips, Scotch eggs, and of course those decadent deep-fried candy bars. The food makes perfect sense around here, but the punk aesthetic and heavy whiff of irony are innovations. I expect it’ll do fabulously well here, but is it a vanguard or an outlier?

Okay, that’s all for the moment. I’ll try to update a little more often now that I’m settling into new-jobness.

[a clicker’s life]

Yesterday I got lost in Google.

From DoubleClick’s offices on the tenth floor of 111 Eighth Avenue, there’s a back way that lets you out on Ninth Avenue, by Chelsea Market. To get there, you go down a stairway to the eighth floor, where Google has offices and its vaunted Hemispheres Cafe (a sign on the door says “Watch for Tailgaters”), and along a series of hallways to a bank of elevators.

The way down was fine, but on the way back up, I couldn’t remember which stairwell led back to DoubleClick. I tried one and then another, climbing until I was out of breath. Back on the eighth floor, I fell in behind three casually dressed people who were talking about “python code,” hoping they were Clickers, but when they turned into the stairwell, they headed down.

Thoroughly disoriented by now, I decided just to take the elevators to the lobby and walk around the block, and I was about to press the button when around a corner came Chealsea, who used to be a technical writer when I first worked at DoubleClick, from 1998 to 2001, and is now a product manager. She duly guided me back to our offices — “It’s stairwell D for DoubleClick is how I remember it,” she said — and suddenly we were back.

Coming back to DoubleClick after six years away has been something like yesterday’s experience over and over: alternating waves of disorientation, bewilderment and welcome familiarity, garnished with tantalizing glimpses of Google.

Much has changed at DoubleClick since I jumped ship in the early waves of the dot-com collapse, back in September of 2001 (before 9/11). DoubleClick became a highly profitable company in those lean years, but for the technical side of the business, it was a painful period of stagnation. In 2005, DoubleClick was purchased by private equity firm Hellman & Friedman, and its founders, Kevin Ryan and Kevin O’Connor, quietly left the company. The infusion of cash and the new leadership injected new life into the organization, and it was around this time that my former boss, Karen Delfau, began to implement Scrum, an innovative methodology for developing software.

Traditionally, software has been developed according to the waterfall method, in which each phase is completed in its entirety before cascading down to the next: the product managers talk to the clients to find out what’s needed, then they pass on their detailed specifications to the engineers, who work in isolation until they finish and hand everything over to QA for testing. Once the testing is through, the product moves down the line again to customer support, and then out to the clients, and by this time it usually looks nothing like what the clients originally thought they wanted, and anyway it’s now three years later and the clients want something else entirely.

Scrum takes a completely different approach: cross-functional teams of product managers, programmers, testers, interface designers and technical writers work together for “sprints,” which are 30-day efforts to build something. You obviously can’t build a whole new product in 30 days, but you can usually add a button, clean up an interface, smarten up some back-end logic, speed up a process — in other words, produce actual, working business value.

Scrum is a big part of why I decided to come back to DoubleClick. For someone who remembers the old days, when it felt like the tech writers were the only people who ever talked to anyone outside our own group, the idea of getting all these different experts into a room together all at once — daily — is actually pretty thrilling. I’ve started to learn how this new process works, and as good as it is in theory, it’s even more impressive in action. Astoundingly, working software really does get produced every month. Even more astoundingly, the whole process is driven by specific customer demands, and even the engineers seem to have internalized the idea that if the customer doesn’t want it, there’s no point in building it.

Another change — still potential rather than actual — is the purchase of DoubleClick by Google. The Federal Trade Commission has given the merger its blessing, so now the final hurdle is European approval, which looks likely. If the deal goes through, we’ll almost certainly get access to Google’s food (yes, the software industry is at its heart a hungry teenager playing video games at 4 am), and most likely to their other benefits as well, which are legion and legendary, and include things like on-site massages and a philosophy that says workers should devote 20 percent of their time to personal projects.

These differences from the DoubleClick of yore are balanced by the many things that have stayed the same. My cubicle is right outside Karen’s office, bringing back memories of my awkward early days with the company, when I tended to fool around too much, and Karen moved me close so she could keep an eye on me. This is decidedly not why I’m sitting there now, and it’s actually nice to be able to talk to her regularly. When I moved in, Karen gave me back my old name-plate, which she’d kept all these years. And when I logged into the employee intranet, I found my performance review from 2000.

In fact, a lot of people I used to know are now vice presidents like Karen, or running various departments. At first I worried that this would be awkward — that they would see me as beneath them now — but in fact it has turned out to be a great asset, and I find that I have sources of information and assistance available to me that are hard to come by for some of the other writers.

The culture, too, remains much as it was. I wore a suit my first day, and was told by several people not to do anything like that again. Karen told me her New Year’s resolution was to wear jeans to work more often, and my manager, David, claims that one of the best things about his job is not having to shave every day. On the weekend before the Superbowl, I asked Ken, my other manager (he’s transitioning out), if I could come in a bit late on Monday. “You remember what it’s like here on Mondays,” he said. “Nobody’s here.” People come in when they come in, leave when they leave, and often work from home. There’s still a game room, now outfitted with a Wii, an Xbox 360 and a PS3 (a full Rock Band kit is available and frequently in use), along with the more analog pleasures of ping pong, foozball and billiards. There is a meditation group that meets daily for 15 minutes at noon in a conference room. There is pizza on “Two-Slice Tuesdays” and bagels on Friday mornings, and other food regularly appears and then quickly disappears. This afternoon, admittedly a Friday, my conversation with Ken about the ad-serving methodolgy white paper was interrupted by a remote-controlled helicopter, which came crashing down in the next cubicle over.

DoubleClick is still ethnically diverse, with a particularly high number of Indians and Chinese. We have our Indian parterns in Pune on the phone each morning at our daily scrum meeting, and I was tickled to hear one of our own engineers here in New York refer to “257,000” as “two lakh fifty-seven,” in a meeting (no one seemed to notice). One group that is notably scarce is Koreans, although a Korean-American user interface designer spotted my name and title written in Korean on the whiteboard in my cubicle and has begun to ask me the occasional question in Korean.

Along with the culture, there are continuities in the documentation that are both pleasing and a bit daunting. To get myself reacquainted with DoubleClick’s software, I went to the customer support website and began reading through the white papers — only to discover that they’re still largely as I wrote them six or seven years ago. The style guide and procedure manual is still the one I wrote, and still in use. I’ll admit to feeling flattered that my writing was good enough for DoubleClick to coast on for all this time, but it also suggests a certain laxity in the update cycle.

These continuities make my return to DoubleClick feel like a homecoming of sorts — one of my former colleagues even scheduled in Outlook a “Fatted Calf Lunch: Return of the Prodigal.” Indeed, I am coming to realize just how foreign the environment was at the South Korean Permanent Mission to the UN. The daily effort of cultural translation had become so ingrained that I had lost sight of the energy it took, and of the ways in which it was isolating. It’s nice to be back among people who are my peers, not only professionally but socially. Example: I had some dealings with a guy in internal support who was wearing a sparkly storm trooper shirt and has “THERE IS NO TRY” scrawled on his whiteboard. When I brought him my inherited laptop to be wiped clean, I asked him to take this R2 unit down to Anchorhead and have its memory flushed, and he knew what I was talking about!

I have really, really needed this. I have needed an environment where there is flux, possibility and challenge, where there are lots of interesting new people to meet, where there’s room to be ambitious and to grow. I’m still finding my feet, but I’m excited and interested and happy. It’s good. I’ll keep you posted.

[zen and the art of office drudgery]

I don’t like my job, but there are days when I find it tolerable and days when it makes me want to rip the heads off of cute furry things and scream like Howard Dean after a bad caucus. Today was one of those days.

The problem comes down to the fact that I have three bosses. There is the Director of Marketing (we’ll call her Boss #1); then there’s the man who hired me (Boss #2), who is nebulously in charge of the marketing department, but less in charge than Boss #1. And then there’s the woman they hired (Boss #3) who is in charge of my little subgroup within marketing, and who is theoretically the person I report to. (There’s also a Senior Vice-President of Marketing, but she just gives me restaurant tips.) Having one boss is bad enough, as those of you lucky enough to be employed already know. Having three bosses who don’t talk to each other enough is like living one of those nightmares where you can’t find the bus to the airport.

So for the last, oh, three months or so, I’ve been hard at work (between bouts of web-surfing, granted, but still) developing a style guide for the marketing department. It’s been a complex process, but at last it was nearing completion. Two weeks ago I had a draft ready, which I handed out to all of the people in my subgroup, as well as to each of my three bosses, and then I went to work incorporating the edits they gave me.

Then on Thursday afternoon Boss #3 shows up at my desk and asks me how the Style Guide is going. I make the mistake of telling her it’s basically done, which leads into my suddenly needing to print the 200-page fucker and get our production department to make 20 copies for mailing to all marketing staff nationwide on Friday. I spent the rest of the evening and most of this morning in a pitched battle with Microsoft Word, struggling to the death over the matter of cross-references in the headers. But at last Demon Word was vanquished, the document was printed, the copies were made, the envelopes addressed and handed over to the mail room.

Five minutes later I’m paged by Boss #1, who has decided that the Style Guide can’t go out because half of it isn’t a style guide at all, but rather a procedure manual. And we wouldn’t want to mix up our styles with our procedures, would we? Because after all, Boss #1, in her copious spare time, is developing her own Procedure Manual. This has apparently been the case for as long as anyone can remember, though no one has ever seen a draft of this manual. Which is why Boss #2 (remember him?) was pushing throughout this process to get all this procedure stuff in there. (The fine distinction is one I’m still trying to work out, and will probably spend the next six weeks exploring to nightmarish depth.)

And so I rush to the mail room and retrieve the copies.

Then Boss #3 spends an hour in Boss #1’s office trying to figure out what should be in the Style Guide and what shouldn’t. Neither Boss asks me to sit in. Instead, I then spend another hour sitting with Boss #3, going page by page through the Style Guide and deciding what to keep and what to cut. Like all conversations with Boss #3, this one winds up with me questioning her logic and finding out she hasn’t really got any. Still, I’ll give her credit for going in to Boss #1 and taking the blame for having directed my project into a black hole of obliteration. (Okay, a gray hole of 50% obliteration, but still.)

When I started this job, which mostly involves editing engineers’ resumes so they can be added to proposals no one reads, I remember thinking that it was a perfect example of Marx’s paradigm of alienating labor, where the worker is completely isolated from the product. But somehow this particular project has managed to go vastly beyond mere alienation and into the realm of meta-uselessness. I have now spent two months developing guidelines for writing the proposals no one reads, and then it turns out that these guidelines can’t be used because they’re part of a different book that doesn’t exist.

It makes me miss the solid reality of the the dot-coms.

[hot, hot, hot!]

 Today is hot, well up over 90, but somehow it doesn’t have that pounding force that New York heat sometimes gets — what I think of as murderous heat, of the kind depicted in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, the kind of heat that makes New Yorkers riot. No, today it just seems to have driven New Yorkers to go out in skimpy outfits, which I can’t say I disapprove of. I suppose that’s probably because of the cold, drippy rainy weather we’ve been having for so long. Murderous heat usually builds up slowly over time, and you only go really psycho when it’s been like this for a month.

In any case, today I went out in a wool suit, no less, for a job interview with DE Shaw. I signed a confidentiality agreement, and anyway I’m tired, so I’m not going to say terribly much about it except that it sounds fantastic and I hope I get it and I hope I never wear a wool suit ever again on a day that hits 90. Still, for all the hot hot heat, I can honestly say that it’s not as bad as it was in South India — and that was in the middle of winter!