Chinese and US tech giants face off in the war for talent

In the past, China's best and brightest flocked to the US to join world-leading technology companies and research labs. But now Chinese goliaths are proving difficult to resist.

Alibaba’s spectacular debut on the New York Stock Exchange has signalled the coming of age for Chinese technology companies. The e-commerce giant is valued at over $231 billion, more than Facebook or Amazon and eBay combined.

The successful initial public offering puts the US on notice that global tech exists outside Silicon Valley. While American tech analysts and companies will closely watch Alibaba’s next move, there is another war going on between Chinese tech companies and their American competitors: the battle for talent.

Just prior to Alibaba completing the largest tech IPO in US history, one of Microsoft’s top executives in China defected to the country’s top search engine company, Baidu. Zhang Yaqing, a Microsoft veteran for 15 years and the former chairman of its Asian-Pacific research and development group, joined Baidu as the president for new business, reporting directly to chief executive and founder Robin Li.

This is Baidu’s second significant hire after the company lured Andrew Ng, a Stanford computer science professor who headed the Google Brain artificial intelligence project and also co-founded the online education start-up Coursera earlier this year as the company’s chief research scientist.  

Ng told Forbes he left Google for Baidu as the Chinese company offers better resources, organisation nimbleness and Chinese work ethics.  “One thing I’ve learned about Baidu is the incredible degree of nimbleness the organisation has. To give you an example, when Kai Yu [a leading computer scientist], decided to build a graphics processor cluster, he just made a decision and then it happened,” he said.

The company, dubbed ‘China’s Google’ established the Baidu Institute of Deep Learning last year to engage in cutting-edge technological research such as big data analysis, human-computer interaction, 3D vision as well as image recognition.  A distinguished team of mostly ethnic Chinese scientists joined the institute.

New hires including Wei Xu, who was a research scientist at Facebook and was behind the development of a large scale recommendation platform used in various Facebook products, and Ren Wu, the former chief software architect of heterogeneous system architect at AMD, a leading a semi-conductor company that develops processors.

These moves and new hires would be unimaginable just few years ago.  In the past, the best-performing Chinese science and engineering graduates flocked to the US to join American tech companies and leading research laboratories. They still do today but they have another attractive option, their country’s home-grown tech giants such as Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and Huawei, who are taking on their Western incumbents.

These Chinese tech giants are not only targeting scientists and engineers of Chinese background; they are also hiring non-Chinese talents. For example, Xiaomi, a fast-growing Chinese smartphone company hired Google’s vice president for Android, Hugo Barra, last year. The news sent shockwaves through the tech community.

A US tech website wrote at the time: “A Chinese Android start-up has nabbed a key executive from the Android team itself.” The smartphone maker, which was valued at $10 billion during its last round of fund raising, is the world’s fastest growing smartphone maker.

In 2011, Chinese tech giant Huawei hired the British government’s chief information officer John Suffolk to be its first global cyber security officer. The hire was widely seen as an attempt by the company to address growing concerns about cyber-security issues, especially in light of Huawei’s alleged connection to the Chinese government.

However, not all new foreign hires fit into their new environments. Colin Giles, a former Nokia senior executive, lasted less than a year at Huawei as executive president of its Consumer Business Group.  Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei said “I personally approved Colin Giles’ resignation and it was very painful for me. He could not survive here and the conditions were not right and we couldn’t keep him.”

Ren emphasised Huawei must adapt and change itself to be more welcoming of foreign talents. “If we can’t keep the best foreign talent, how can we become the world’s best company,” he said in a rare interview with Chinese media in June.  

Chinese tech giants such as Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba and Huawei want to shed their images as American copycats and are investing heavily in research to develop new cutting-edge technology. Their new hiring sprees of Western scientists and engineers are a strong indicator of their global ambitions.

These companies are not only competing with Western rivals for market share and consumers, but also for global talent. It is time Western companies took notice.