6 Lessons I Learnt as a Foreigner in Shenzhen’s Tech Industry

6 Lessons I Learnt as a Foreigner in Shenzhen’s Tech Industry
May 09, 2019 By Alistair Baker-Brian , eChinacities.com

As someone with a background in ESL, my dream of transitioning to a non-teaching job in China seemed daunting at first. I eventually found my way into Shenzhen’s tech industry despite having no previous tech experience. Five months into the job, it’s fair to say I’ve come across almost as many challenges as positives. In this article, I bring you six lessons I’ve learnt as a foreigner in Shenzhen’s tech industry.

First, here’s some background on Shenzhen:

A modern metropolis unbeknown to many outside China, Shenzhen is a city of around 12 million permanent residents on the border with Hong Kong. A former fishing village, it’s only actually been a city since the economic reforms of Deng Xiao Ping and China’s so-called “opening up”, which began around 1978. Under these measures, Shenzhen was declared a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), providing tax breaks and other benefits to companies and workers in an attempt to attract investment.

Today, the city is home to a vibrant tech economy, hence clichés about Shenzhen being the “Silicon Valley of China” and “the world’s factory”. Major domestic companies like Huawei and Tencent, as well small start-ups, are now headquartered here.

Shenzhen’s SEZ status has produced many opportunities in areas like R&D and engineering. As many products are exported abroad, however, the Chinese companies here also need native speakers of various languages to market and sell their products overseas. This has in turn led to many opportunities for foreigners who want to work in Shenzhen’s tech industry as copywriters, marketers and sales exces.

So on to the things I’ve learnt:

1.You don’t need a tech background to make it in Shenzhen

As someone with a BA in History & Political Science and professional experience mainly centered around teaching English, I knew my options would be limited when trying to break into Shenzhen’s tech industry. Working as a software engineer or in R&D was naturally out of the question, but after acquiring new skills from part-time and freelance writing work, it was possible to make the jump to a copywriting position (more on how I transitioned here).

Writing blog posts part-time for several websites gave me the chance to learn about search engine optimisation (SEO) and gave me an insight into how to write for different audiences — skills that have proved invaluable in my current role. Although lacking full-time work experience, I managed to create a respectable resume and portfolio for which to apply for copywriting and marketing jobs in Shenzhen.

2. A little research goes a long way

During early interviews while trying to break into the tech industry in Shenzhen, I faced many questions focused on SEO and market research. I learnt very quickly that I lacked anything but the most basic knowledge of such concepts, and that familiarising myself further with them would be highly beneficial.

I taught myself more about SEO by using sites like Google Trends and Google Keyword Research. For market research, I simply got myself more familiar with the types of products being manufactured by tech companies in Shenzhen. You don’t need to know how everything works for a marketing or copywriting job, but you do need to know what kind of products are being sold by the company in question and how these products are used by customers.

Most of the jobs I applied for were at consumer electronics companies. Their products invariably included drones, IP cameras, power banks and other similar gadgets. While I was already familiar with products like power banks, which I use on a daily basis, there were others with which I knew little about. I got up to speed by watching YouTube videos and reading articles on tech websites.

This also helped me understand the kind of problems customers faced when using the products, which in turn helped me convince employers that I could write copy that would answer customer questions and ultimately sell more products.

3. An understanding of e-commerce platforms is essential

Companies working in Shenzhen’s tech industry sell most of their products to overseas customers on sites like Amazon, Ebay, Wish and Walmart. Native speakers of English and other languages are therefore often required to write product listings on e-commerce platforms in their native tongue. Selling on Amazon, for example, has become so professionalised that complete E-books have been dedicated to the topic.

I learnt very quickly that understanding the rules and functions of the world’s major e-commerce platforms would stand me in good stead when applying for jobs at tech companies in Shenzhen.

I gave myself an advantage by researching product listings, which invariably include a title, a product description and its unique selling points. This helped prove to employers that I could go straight into the role as I knew how to write for each particular e-commerce site.

After about two months of furiously sending out applications and interviewing, the hard work paid off and I landed a job as a copywriter for a large trading company. My journey into Shenzhen’s tech industry had begun.

4. A salary cut is inevitable when starting out anew

This is something I probably would have learnt as a beginner in any industry. I was starting from the bottom, so had to accept a salary far lower than what I could have got as a teacher. Other benefits that are usually offered to teachers, such as free accommodation, free meals and reimbursement for flights home, were also off the table.  

However, my new job came instead with tax breaks for certain expenses, something employers are obliged by law to offer expat workers in Shenzhen, and performance-related bonuses every three months. And although this was not nearly as much as most teaching job packages, I simply had to accept that this was the price of starting from the bottom in a new industry.

5. My language abilities have limits

It’s no secret that being a native speaker of English has its advantages when applying for jobs in China. This is particularly true in an industry where companies make a lot of money in English-speaking markets.

Speaking Chinese will also of course look good on your resume and help you interact more easily with your Chinese colleagues. I’ve also learnt, however, to know the limits of my Chinese language ability. My HSK level 5 has helped me communicate easily with those in my team and I can even produce simple written instructions in Chinese, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.

For example, I agreed to help a colleague from our sales department translate an English phone conversation on the basis that she briefed me about the topic of conversation beforehand. But when the same colleague asked me to translate a contract, I refused, fundamentally because I’m not a professional translator. Mistakenly translating a contract could have serious legal ramifications.

Now I always tell colleagues who ask me to do any translation work that, while I am able to help with some tasks, I cannot be expected to translate absolutely anything.

6. There are abundant opportunities for foreigners in Shenzhen’s tech industry

A lot of the above information could apply to breaking into the same industry in any country. The main difference about being a foreigner in Shenzhen’s tech industry is that there are a lot of opportunities for those joining at entry level and plenty of scope for fast career progression.

Working in this field has offered me a viable alternative to teaching ESL, which tends to be the mainstay of expat employment in China. So even if you have no Chinese language skills or work experience in tech, I dare say you can easily find a job in this rapidly changing city and industry.

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Keywords: foreigner in Shenzhen’s tech industry

1 Comments

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r_russ
comment|76287|1742317

nice article

Sep 10, 2019 16:18 Report Abuse