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A Decade of Learning

I am the Managing Director of Thoughtworks Singapore. It has been 10 years since I came on board. It was very hard to imagine that a non-English speaking Chinese with no programming skills would join a global IT company back in 2005. And not just join, but thrive.

But I did! I played multiple roles including Head of People, Business Analyst, Program Manager and Office Principal. None of this would have been possible without the great platform that Thoughtworks provided. I wouldn’t have had such an amazing journey. In these 10 years, I’ve learnt that a journey is characterised not just by happiness; struggles and achievements make it more meaningful and memorable. But, what is the key? To challenge yourself to keep moving out of your comfort zone!

First Acquaintance

My introduction to Thoughtworks was at a Christmas party in 2004. My friend Lims came towards me with a tall man and introduced him as Guo Xiao from Thoughtworks, who mentioned that they were based in Chicago and were starting their China branch in Xi’an. Lims also mentioned that L Company (the company he worked at) and Thoughtworks were working together on a digital transformation project for Xi’an Software Park. By way of establishing a connection, he also told Guo Xiao that I was in charge of Human Resources in the Northwestern division of a large ERP software company and that he could rely on me, if necessary, as I knew many people in Xi’an.
I checked out Thoughtworks online and the first item that showed up on Baidu was an introduction on Martin Fowler, his writings and the Agile Manifesto that he co-authored. There were many forums that had posts filled with admiration for this technology giant. As a person without any technical background, I didn’t expect to have any connection with this company. But Guo Xiao called me several times to get my thoughts on various things, ranging from how to interview sales people to where to entertain clients.

Learn to Swim or Sink

Thoughtworks attached great importance to culture adaptability and value alignment when selecting people, even more so when they were looking for their first people manager in China. I was curious about the culture and the flat structure at Thoughtworks and that made me express interest in this position to Guo Xiao. He had known me for a while by then and wasn't worried about these two factors. He was more concerned about my comfort level with communicating in English. However, based on my values and HR experience, they offered me the job. I joined Thoughtworks on Sept. 13, 2005, poor English skills notwithstanding, and took on the role of People Lead, becoming the seventh local employee in China.

The then General Manager of China (Sid Pinney) mentioned that I would report to Guo Xiao and didn't need to worry about my English. I was young and naive and faced difficulty in reading and replying to e-mails in English. The few times that Sid talked with me directly, we had to type out our conversation on Yahoo Messenger to understand each other. It was a painstaking process and I strove to pick up English as quickly as possible. During the first few months, it was not uncommon for me to stay up until 1 or 2 a.m to brush up my English.

Having held positions in administration, finance, operations and ERP implementation in my the first company, and in HR in the second, I adapted to the position of People Lead fairly quickly. Soon, I was given additional responsibility to optimize administration and finance processes and enhance efficiency. At that point, I did everything except coding. This experience of overcoming various difficulties, without training and clear work direction, taught me that I had to 'learn to swim or sink'.

Recruitment got more difficult as the company grew. Without a recognizable brand and being located in Xi’an, the company was often in a stalemate where it couldn’t undertake new projects without hiring more employees. There was a bottleneck until two recruitment specialists were employed, finally helping recruiting catch up with business development. But that was not the end of our troubles. We had to explore new paths as we went along, as there were no clear established guidelines, and we couldn't apply practices from other regions or companies, given our unique culture and requirements. Through all this, I ensured that we kept Thoughtworks' core values and culture at the heart of all decisions we made.

I exchanged notes with colleagues working on the same projects on site and discussed people management methods of other Thoughtworks regions. TW China leaders also created enough opportunities for me to connect with colleagues from other countries. In hindsight, this helped me deepen my understanding of Thoughtworks' culture over the years.

I was lucky to be selected in the first Global Leadership Development Program. My leadership coach Matt Simons, an American, had been working at Thoughtworks for many years across multiple roles. Matt guided me conscientiously - he helped me with strength analysis, with 360° feedback and made me a leadership development plan. He asked senior members from other countries to give me advice, from which I benefited greatly. In order to develop my capabilities further, he suggested that I be a part of the business and interact with clients. I transferred to the position of Business Analyst, then Project Manager and finally Client Principal (CP). Matt said that if I became a successful CP, then together with my operation experience, it would be very beneficial to the company’s development.

With the change in position, came its own challenges. It was extremely difficult for me to give up a familiar role to learn software development from scratch. Once again, I spent most of my personal time reading and learning. Giving up meant admitting failure, so I decided to keep pressing on. Two months later, I got an opportunity in a project. At that time, I had already learned how to analyze business requirements, write user stories, draw mock-ups and manage release plans, which indicated that I had crossed the first hurdle. Eight months later, I was a part of a real client project as BA first, and PM later.

Shoulder the Extra Work

As the number of Thoughtworkers in China increased, it became difficult to keep up effective communication. It was suggested that a group be set up to facilitate effective communication amongst Thoughtworkers, to share and interpret important issues from Guo Xiao and the Thoughtworks Global teams.

Thus 3C (China Consultant Council) was established, comprising of a dozen motivated members from our project teams, who were in sync with Thoughtworks’ culture and values. The members took charge in turns, collecting, prioritizing and discussing problems that were encountered in operations and researching solutions. Just like that, we became a part of management in China.

Move Out of your Comfort Zone

When you stay for long in your comfort zone, your productivity decreases gradually, for there is no growth in an environment of high pressure and expectations. We must move forward to break out of the comfort zone.

My co-worker Xiao Ran and I were selected as Office Principals of the Beijing office at a time when both of us were extremely busy with the biggest projects of the office. However, years of development had helped me stay at the growth zone and challenge the panic zone, so I took on the work easily. In the first 10 months, I found it easy to manage because there were fewer projects and we had expert guidance from our experienced MD. But as business became more complicated and larger in scale, he had to turn his focus on global operations. We agreed on a solution where Xiao Ran took care of projects and I was responsible for office operations.

We encountered thorny issues one after another. After Xiao Ran left the company (he returned eight months later), I had to take over responsibility of project management as well, while managing the Beijing office. There were problems on a daily basis; I was on the verge of a collapse every day.

I cannot remember how long I stayed in the panic zone, maybe a few months. But once I crossed that, I no longer worked very late at night, and the emergencies also reduced gradually. Looking around, there were capable colleagues who helped with team building and managing client relationships, all the while conscientiously performing their duties. Gradually, I got back into the growth zone and began to manage my time better. This experience helped me improve my skills, to get out of difficult situations and to advance from passively solving problems to actively steering the company ahead. The secret is to cultivate a team with members who are as strong or even stronger, to fight along with you. Many times, even though I felt weighed down, I mustered up enthusiasm to encourage and drive others to get out of their comfort zone.

The busier you are, the more you need to train your successors. I’ve found that this is the very solution to get out of a difficult situation. You should identify the people to be trained, for not all are willing to bear the pressure and frustration that is brought on by the growth and panic zones.

Confidence, Courage and Resilience

The biggest lesson that Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, taught me is two-fold: one, fake confidence till you have it and two, don't hope everyone will like you all the time, as this will hinder your progress.

With regard to self-confidence, it comes from knowledge, experience and exposure. For example, if you are going to interpret a solution in front of a dozen of your senior clients and you have never experienced such a situation before, you are prone to anxiety and lack of confidence. Knowledge and experience are the only ways to make yourself feel more confident. On the other hand, modesty may lead to diffidence. I’ve always found that over-modesty of fellow Chinese, hinders them from revealing their strengths and makes them miss opportunities that they could otherwise get, compared to their colleagues from other countries. Therefore, if you are apprehensive of taking on a task, but believe you can finish it by sheer hard work, then you should strive for the opportunity. Once you get it, finish the task to the best of your abilities. In a flat-structured and fast-growing organization such as Thoughtworks, opportunities are everywhere, as long as you are ready for them.

At a leadership meeting in May 2013, each participant was asked to take five minutes to share their leadership development story over the last six months. I selected three words to describe mine: Confidence, Courage and Resilience. Problems related to confidence are easy to overcome, but courage and resilience are hard to put into practice. The role of a leader gives me influence, but also consumes my popularity. I have had hard talks with colleagues about performance improvement, let go of colleagues who have under performed,  pushed them to move out of their comfort zone and made decisions that would have made some people unhappy. In March 2013, I became the Head of China Operations and was given responsibility for the operational efficiency of the China region. I still have some way to go in building my resilience -  I need to muster up my courage, recover my fighting will and do what is right, without caring about being liked or disliked.

A Decade of Thoughtworks

For a whole decade, I have managed to thrive, as I have embraced change. We have united in a concerted effort, braved the wind and the rain, and blazed through all obstacles, even as the China team grew from just a few members to a large group of over 600. We have had many happy days, and have cherished memories, both good and bad, of our achievements and struggles.  

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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