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China’s internet giants are losing their allure for fresh computer science grads

Written by Caiwei Chen Published on   6 mins read

Navigating work-life balance, geopolitical sensitivities, and career prospects, how do Chinese STEM talents start their careers in tech?

The start of summer marks graduation season. This year, more than 9 million Chinese graduates will look to secure jobs in a viciously competitive job market where the youth unemployment rate for people aged 16 to 24 is over 13.8%, nearly triple the national urban average of 5%. China’s education system produces the most STEM graduates in the world, and a select few exceptional talents are looking to break into China’s mighty internet industry.

Individuals with standout technical proficiency from Chinese universities face competition from students who have studied abroad and returned from overseas. Partly driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of returnees applying for domestic positions in 2020 increased by 33.9% compared to the previous year. Among them, more than 20,000 will join some of China’s largest internet companies, with firms like Tencent, Alibaba, ByteDance, Meituan, and Baidu mentioned as top destinations by prospective applicants.

Yet these famous names that once captivated the ambitions of STEM talents for years are starting to lose some of their luster. An antitrust campaign and new regulations in the tech sector coupled with a toxic culture of overwork are prompting many young applicants to ponder whether a career in China’s internet industry is really worth it.

Chinese grads value a healthy work-life balance

As the ongoing antitrust investigation by the State Administration of Market Regulation rattled the industry, endless news revealed the dire labor conditions young workers face. Since the suspension of Ant Group’s dual IPO, more internet giants, including ride-hailing behemoth Didi Chuxing, social and gaming powerhouse Tencent, and e-commerce titan Alibaba, have all been subject to investigations and fined to varying degrees. In the meantime, the tragic death of Pinduoduo’s young employee amid a culture of overworking triggered widespread rage throughout Chinese society.

The news shook many graduates’ faith in big tech, and the trending term “involution” was at the front of their minds when asked about their approach to job searching. Involution is now the go-to term to describe the phenomenon of putting in maximum effort with little hope of progress. This resonates with burned-out Chinese youth who are growing more aware of the dark side of big tech’s culture that places efficiency and outcomes over all else.

Wang Xinyue, aged 22, is one of them. A fresh computer science graduate from Beijing’s China Agricultural University, Wang finally decided to choose a state-owned enterprise in the communications sector over ByteDance and other big tech companies that enchanted her merely a year ago. In her senior year, Wang interned at ByteDance for six months, contributing to the company’s newly founded education unit. “It was simply too tiring. Employees in my unit would compete with each other to see who would stay at work the latest, and I simply did not have any time for my personal life,” Wang told KrASIA.

China’s internet giants have long been accused of encouraging a toxic hustle culture, which glorifies endless work. The grueling work hours have resulted in a much younger employee demographic compared to the average workplace. Zach Zhang, who works in the HR department for one of China’s biggest internet companies, explained how turning 35 was a key threshold in a coder’s career. “Internet companies, especially promising startups, have a preference for younger candidates because they are more likely to accept longer working hours and could be more easily molded by the company culture,” he said.

Internet companies conduct two large-scale recruitment campaigns each fall and spring targeting fresh talent. The fall cycle usually offers more open positions and takes place almost a year before graduation, giving job-seeking students more flexibility and security. Wang participated in both rounds with a host of internet firms and ended up with offers from ByteDance, NetEase, and Meituan. But ultimately, she turned down those opportunities, yearning for a life free from the tyranny of a “996” office job—nine-to-nine, six days a week. “I felt like it was time for me to have a life. All my life as a Chinese student, I’ve been told to study hard only to enjoy a life ‘later,’ and my intern experience made me realize there might not be a ‘later’ if I settle for a career in big tech,” she said.

Wang’s concern was shared by Yan Buzai, 24, a graduate student who just finished his master’s in engineering at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Yan briefly considered a career in back-end engineering for the financial incentives but soon came to the conclusion that the track is too “involuted” after doing some research. “The era when Chinese internet companies burned big money for rapid growth has passed. Now, the position has an increasingly high bar, even at the entry-level, with a shrinking need for new recruits,” said Yan.

Yan considers personal interests and future prospects as equally important factors in his career decisions. A current intern at Tencent’s early-stage games production studio in Shenzhen, he sees gaming as one of the few fields that promise both significant creative potential and self-fulfillment. “Gaming is the interactive form of entertainment for the future and the best path to combine humanity and technology,” said Yan. He is now seeking opportunities at multiple internet companies that have an established gaming business: Tencent, NetEase, and ByteDance. His dream job is a game producer at Tencent’s Timi studio, which famously made Honor of Kings, China’s enduring MOBA sensation.

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Caught between the bipolarity of global tech

Many Chinese students who previously studied abroad but are now stuck in China because of the COVID-19 pandemic used this time as an opportunity to experience working for China’s internet companies first-hand.

Derek Wang, a data science major at Georgetown University, was among several students who worked as an intern in Chinese tech during the daytime while taking US university classes at night. Wang recently finished his internship at Alibaba Cloud and is planning on applying to intern at Tencent Cloud. “My interest in cloud computing originated from one of my professors at Georgetown who used to work at Amazon Web Services,” Wang said. “I’m interested in the further development of China’s cloud computing market as the development speed of the consumer internet seems to be on the decline.”

Wang’s original career plan was to explore more opportunities in the US, where he is enrolled for school, before deciding where his future career is based. However, as all his coursework transitioned online, Wang found that Georgetown’s career services center became obsolete. As an alternative to Amazon, Wang chose to apply to intern at local internet powerhouses. “Big internet companies are my first choice because they offer the most opportunities for inexperienced young people to learn. While startups might value a candidate’s skills and experience more, big tech firms value the ability to learn while providing a bigger platform for industry newbies to get a sense of what working in cloud architecture is like,” Wang said.

A lack of work-life balance at big tech companies is a key concern for Wang, but he believes the working conditions are not a deal-breaker as he is still young and inexperienced. Huawei, Tencent, and Alibaba are his three “most likely” career destinations, as Wang’s experience interning in China has nearly convinced him to give up pursuing a career in the US. “The Trump era prompted hostile policies and enduring negative perceptions of Chinese STEM students in the American public, and that definitely made me more inclined to return to China after graduation,” he said.

But other young computer science talents are still relatively optimistic about a STEM career in the US. Celia Chen, a recent graduate of Stanford University, decided to stay in the Bay Area after receiving an offer as a software engineer at one of the biggest tech companies in the US. Before onboarding as a formal employee, Chen had already worked on the team as an intern for the past semester. “People and culture are equally important to me when it comes to career choices. I really like my current team for the benign atmosphere and diversity, and think it’s a good landing job,” Chen said.

Chen said the opportunity to “actually innovate” to be a key factor when she evaluates a potential employer, as she has always hoped to be involved in “something bigger” and “somewhat groundbreaking.” Compared with their Chinese counterparts, Chen recognized that American tech giants have a better work-life balance and tend to offer better mentorship and compensation packages for new graduates. However, she is open-minded about her next career move. “I believe the Biden era, overall, will be friendly to STEM H1-B workers, but I will also keep following the development of China’s tech industry for my future moves.”

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