The Largest Challenge Is Communications
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In this interview Anastasia Kazakova talked to Lenyo Lee, JetBrains Regional Sales Manager in China and the Chinese-speaking market, and also the General Manager of the JetBrains Shanghai office. They discussed her career from developer to regional market manager and the best way to connect European and Chinese cultures.
Anastasia: Hi Lenyo, tell us about your path to JetBrains.
Lenyo: It has been an adventure! When I joined JetBrains in 2014, I was the first regional sales representative, starting as a one-person team and taking care of all kinds of tasks in Greater China, from business development and sales support to marketing activities – you name it. The team has grown over time, and now we have talent who are professionals in each field and take care of our local activities. In 2021, when we established JetBrains Shanghai, my role was further expanded to GM and I started handling business operations, as well.
My education and career path worked out very well and helped me to get here, but it was definitely not planned intentionally. At least for me, it was not possible to plan the path. :)
Nowadays children are growing up with electronic devices and learning programming at a young age. As a small-town girl I did not consider nor ever imagine going into this industry. At age 15, I was interested in foreign languages and had no clue about programming languages. At the time, vocational school was popular and I was keen to join a foreign language program, but fierce competition pushed me to the back of the line. When I was turning in the application, my favorite language school was full and I had to make a decision on the spot. So my parents decided to choose a program that they thought could also lead to a bright future – information management.
Many students from my first class didn’t continue on professional tracks related to their degrees. A lot of self-exploration happens during that age and we only discover our strengths later. Luckily my “math and logic” brain served me well and I took a job as a programmer after I graduated. It was a small company. I was basically doing everything, like focusing on back-end development but also doing some front-end stuff. Bringing together website functionality and designs that will display the final product the way customers desire. I worked for four or five years as a developer like that. That was my first job. I was not expected to express ideas about the customer journey or what the workflow should look like, but I started feeling that it would be better if I were able to do so.
I realized I could continue working as a developer for another five plus years to be able to become a project manager to really lead and design the project. Or I could go and get another degree to gain a deeper understanding and knowledge of this area and have something backing me up, something that can be taken seriously by the management. So I selected an International MBA degree.
I had never lived abroad at that time. And this was an international program, meaning that we have a lot of international students and the school provides exchange programs for you to go abroad to experience life and take some classes. So I did that for about five months. And I went to the Czech Republic, to a small city called Ostrava, and took a few classes and traveled around Europe as much as possible. It definitely broadened my views with cultural experiences.
When I came back, I completed my thesis for the MBA degree. It was a research project about how Facebook influences your decisions or decision-making process. That was quite interesting and also helped me step into the marketing field.
After receiving the MBA, I started my job as a project manager, which lasted for about one year, and working with Chinese customers was a part of my job at the time. With the work experiences and my international MBA degree, I started thinking about other opportunities to continue to broaden my view, and that’s why I looked for jobs in Europe. The Czech Republic was my first option because I was there, I knew the lifestyle, the cost of living, and I had friends there. That’s how I found JetBrains.
Anastasia: That is really an impressive journey! You’ve tried so many things, went through the whole spectrum, learned how all these positions worked, and took the sales role at JetBrains in the end. Why did you select sales? What attracted you to that?
Lenyo: That’s a good point. Speaking of my skills in programming: When doing my Facebook research, I was not writing quality code. I wasn’t trying to improve how I coded, but I was focusing more on the result, which I could analyze and decide how this result might affect our decision-making process and how we could implement a marketing strategy. That was more interesting to me than the joy of coding. And the job at JetBrains was an opportunity to switch more to the marketing and sales sides. It was even more interesting because it was about overall operation strategy. I was like one person covering customer support and planning marketing, as well as going to conferences. So that was a little bit of everything, and I was happy to execute my own version.
But I knew there were professionals who could do a better job in each specific area and I tended to find the right resources to help me execute it properly. A marketing manager joined us, and the whole team continued to grow. And then I moved up to General Manager for China. I’m still doing the same things: focusing on growth, planning the overall strategy, bringing people and resources together, and analyzing the market. I’m looking for opportunities for us to move forward and figuring out what has to be done on the sales and marketing sides to execute those opportunities.
Anastasia: Do you feel that your developer background helps you in your job?
Lenyo: It definitely helps, as I understand the pain points of our customers and their day-to-day work. Although technology has evolved and I don’t necessarily use all of our tools, I understand the concept. And a friendly relationship with customers can be easily established when you understand their communication on a fundamental level, when you understand their mindset and speak their language.
Anastasia: You had this diverse education and experience of living in Europe, so you have probably encountered many cultural differences between China and European countries. Do you see this as a benefit and does it help you with your job?
Lenyo: Yes. I became a better communication channel for the two different cultures. And now, when European colleagues come to visit China, I can predict the pain points and address the lifestyle inconsistencies. All the small things that ensure a certain level of comfort for the trip and help the team perform well during the events, customer meetings, and so on.
When defining culture differences, we often describe China as a highly collectivist culture. In practice, this is directly reflected in customer meetings and conferences. Speakers’ ice-breaker questions might need some “arranged responses” to help warm up quickly. Then, normally after the first couple responses, participants will be more relaxed to jump into the discussion and open to making comments.
Sometimes things might seem like common sense, but you don’t want to fail because of the differences between cultures and in how both sides perceive respect. For example, exchanging business cards is still appreciated in a formal meeting with upper management, but not so much in a technical discussion with a development team – they might even forget to introduce themselves. One time we had an online meeting with a group of developers from a large local IT company. During that call we failed to ask the customer to introduce the whole team on their side. We only introduced ourselves. Afterwards, our European team members expressed their frustrations that they didn’t know who they were talking to. And also during the meeting, some parts went on in Chinese, and we weren’t able to translate everything, so our participants on the JetBrains side felt uncomfortable.
Office hours, as a part of work culture, also have a direct impact on meeting arrangements. You might have heard of the long working hours in Chinese IT companies.In such an environment, people often take a much-needed nap during lunch time to recharge. So during lunch time you will see people sleeping on their chairs with their face down on the table, lying on a couch in the public zone, or lying on the meeting room floor. It might be hard to have a productive conversation before 2:30 pm, but you might be able to set up a meeting after 6:00 pm.
Apart from the business side, trip arrangement is also a fun task and requires a lot of attention. Here’s one situation that led to a big culture shock for our European team. After a long day of travels and customer meetings in China, we all wished to have a nice cold beer and relax in a nice hotel, but the hotel staff told us they only had room temperature beers. Apparently, you had to make a specific reservation for your ice cold beer, otherwise, you wouldn’t get one! It is also interesting to see how restaurants in the US always offer you water with ice, whereas hot tea is the standard here in China.
Anastasia: I guess your experience opened many choices for you – you could select a European company or a US company and move over there, or you could stay in Asia. Was your choice to combine a European company with a position responsible for the China region intentional?
Lenyo: My initial idea was that maybe later I would move to Europe, because I like the lifestyle and the working environment there. Then I got an opportunity to work at JetBrains, and despite my original wish, I saw that it would be more beneficial both for the company and for me if I stayed in Asia. So I thought, okay, I can take a step back, as moving to Europe is not my ultimate goal. I started working from home and traveled to mainland China for conferences and for business trips. It does help with business development for sure, because it is easier to visit customers, trips are shorter, and I have the same timezone and so am able to manage customers better. I think I made the right decision to stay in Asia, for my career and for the JetBrains business development, and now I don’t necessarily want to relocate to Europe. JetBrains makes life balance possible, and I really appreciate it.
Looking back, it was never really about choosing to work in a European, US, or Asian company. For me it was always more about relating myself to a company’s core values and believing in what I do. At the time, JetBrains seemed like a cool company, and now I’m proud to be working with a group of cool people doing cool things. :)
Anastasia: What are the challenges for international companies like JetBrains on the Chinese market, and how do you help address them?
Lenyo: One of the challenges is communication and content delivery. You have to use the local channels and speak the local language to make sure you deliver the content in a way people here will accept. We had a good start when I joined, as we already had a local blog. And then the marketing manager joined, and we started running local WeChat accounts, supporting local social media presence and initiating website localization.
Another challenge is that, if you’re not established locally, you have to rely on your third-party partners to operate your resources, like – again – websites and social media. And you really need to have strong and reliable partners to do that. Many software companies, when entering China, work through local distributors covering the region. In return they have to pay high commissions to these distributors to be able to cover all the work that they are delivering. JetBrains’ products are unique and require a lot of resources so we have always been trying to operate and do all the marketing work on our own.
Anastasia: Are local Chinese companies more oriented to the local vendors? How hard is it to persuade them to try tools made by a European company?
Lenyo: For IDEs, there are not so many local alternatives, because our tools are that powerful. But for team tools, there are many local replacements, with localization, good documentation, local sales supply and technical support, which make things much more challenging for us. Chinese users definitely prefer local-made products. So with our team tools, we plan to involve our partners here and work hard on getting these tools adopted here. But on the other hand, if a company already uses JetBrains IDEs, it’s a good chance for us to promote our team tools to them, as well. They are then easier to sell.
Anastasia: As far as I know, the software market in China is suffering from high piracy rates. Do you see this as a challenge and what are you doing about it?
Lenyo: We are doing regular checks on the market to understand what methods are being used to pirate products. If it’s via a crack, we send the information to the product team to verify if it’s a new leak or something we’ve already identified. So this is a continuous communication and improvement channel.
I do see that, for years, the situation with piracy has been improving in China and the country is expressing the need for people to buy licenses and genuine products as it is important for the industry to grow healthily. On the JetBrains side, we are focusing on bringing our values to the developers – not only the product functionality itself, but also good sales support and technical support. And we try to demonstrate that JetBrains is close to local developers. We believe that if we stay close to developers and make direct connections with local communities, they will recognize and appreciate our efforts more.
We take little steps and wait for the overall environment to improve. If a developer is in a group of people cracking the software, then using a legal product is more difficult, and they would be fighting against peer pressure. Our goal is to help. We try to have an influence and make developers comfortable with doing the right thing: supporting the genuine products they use and love. This way, bigger improvements will come sooner.
Anastasia: JetBrains has recently started a local office in Shanghai, China. When was that?
Lenyo: It took us a long time to complete all the paperwork because of the pandemic. And then it took us a few more months to do all the required work for the office, before we could finally move in, in July 2021.
Anastasia: Congratulations! And what are the major goals for the new office?
Lenyo: Both internal and external goals are important here. From the business side, it’s better for sales opportunities and for customers to be able to pay in local currency with a local company without having to go through the international process and payments. The purchase process will be smoother and faster with JetBrains Shanghai.
On the team side, internally, it is also important for us to have more control over our websites and social media without the need to involve a third party.
Hiring local talent is now easier as we have an office in China.
Anastasia: You’ve been to many JetBrains locations around the world. How is the Shanghai office different from the others?
Lenyo: There is no one thing that is completely the same in all the offices. They are all different! Talking about space, for example, I went to the New Jersey office and everyone there has their own room. Whereas in Prague, people share office rooms, and something similar happens in Munich. As for Shanghai, currently we are in a co-working space and we have only two big rooms for everyone, including sales, marketing, technical support, accounting, HR, and legal. We now have around 11 people in the office and 3 people remain remote, but we plan to grow to 20 people by the end of 2022. The team is growing but still too small to make it cost-effective to set up our own office to the JetBrains standard. For now, it makes sense for us to stay in this type of co-working space with a shared lounge area, kitchen, and administration service, similar to the early days of the Amsterdam office, which I also visited. But as we continue expanding our local operations, I’m sure we will reevaluate our office plans at some point.
Anastasia: Have you established some new office traditions already?
Lenyo: It’s common in Chinese culture to go out and have meals together. Our HR manager arranged the first outing last fall and took the team to enjoy seasonal cuisine. We ate Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs, walked around the lake, and watched farmers harvest rice. It was a nice way to experience the seasonal changes. We had an amazing time together, so hopefully we can turn this into a good tradition!
Anastasia: Talking about you, what are your responsibilities as the director of the Shanghai office?
Lenyo: This is a new role for me, so I’m still learning. As I see it, my major goal is to make sure JetBrains Shanghai is a success. We have different phases of our plans. After we successfully transfer the ownership of our social media accounts and establish the local official JetBrains website, the next step would be to get our direct sales working. This will require a finance workflow to be set up, a way for us to issue local invoices, and much more.
Another task is working with our internal development team to establish local CNY pricing and local payment methods on our local official JetBrains website, which is essential for our sales operations.
There are many other small things, as you can imagine, like signing contracts with local suppliers, and other arrangements that guarantee JetBrains Shanghai is fully operational.
Anastasia: Thank you, Lenyo! Congratulations to you and your team on launching JetBrains Shanghai, and hopefully we’ll continue to grow in the region with your assistance!