Corporate Squid Game

By Alan Tien

Squid Games Executives

October 2021

When I was GM of PayPal China, I gave my mainland Chinese employees one piece of sound advice: “Speak 10 times louder.” Silly, right? I wasn’t exhorting them to work harder, or smarter, but to bluster more when talking to their US colleagues, because unfortunately Americans equate loudness with confidence, and confidence with knowing the winning plan.

My team executed amazingly, slaving away tirelessly to hit the ridiculously high KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) handed down to us — the reward for over-delivering in the previous year. But China only had 1 Director under me, even though we contributed to more than half the revenue of Asia Pacific. PayPal Australia — whose revenue was far less than China’s — had 6 Directors. The Asia Pacific execs put up the facile argument that the AU market was highly regulated and thus required that kind of investment to keep the (low margin) domestic market.

Why would exceptionally smart executives decide to invest more in a low margin, difficult (highly regulated) market over a higher margin, faster growing market? I don’t think it was overt racism, but I do think cultural biases play a role.

I accept some of the blame. Even though I learned that I had to “toot my own horn” in my first formal job review, I have to admit I wasn’t able to trumpet our accomplishments the same way my Aussie peers could. My first year as GM, I was able to secure the coveted “PayPalian Award” for the entire China team, but that pat on the head didn’t translate to promotions and raises. No, I didn’t have the chutzpah to spin minor wins into Goliath victories, to sell TAM (Total Addressable Market) over concrete revenues, to make “internal PR” my number one job. I mistakenly thought our numbers would speak for themselves, be louder than the fanfare, and that at the end of the day, sensible execs would reward those who had actually delivered.

Caution and forbearance, humility and thoughtfulness — virtues of Asian culture — transmuted into corporate sin in Silicon Valley’s growth-at-all-costs mentality. I held my headcount low, responsibly, to minimize churn when the inevitable dip came, instead of hiring headlong when the times were good and firing feverishly on the downturn. I supported, and then defended, the anti-counterfeit team because it was the “right thing to do” even though counterfeits sold like opium to the masses. This insatiable global appetite for fake Nike’s, faux Gucci’s, and fraudulent Callaway’s inflated revenue. My execs encouraged me to turn a blind eye to the hyper-profitable counterfeit business, but I believed there was a difference between “good” and “bad” revenue. However, this distinction didn’t matter during promotion review period.

Corporate America is a game, and we rule-abiding Asian Americans don’t realize the rules of the game are not the ones touted by HR. You can follow all the rules and still not win the game. Because the real game is about relationships, those built over years if not decades of drinking and fraternizing, not in the meeting rooms but at the fraternities, in the bars, on the golf courses, and sometimes in some seedier establishments that you weren’t invited to. You didn’t even know the meetups were happening.

The Axios article Tech’s troubled history with Asian workers shares stats we all knew, even if we didn’t know the exact figures:

Asians make up the majority of Silicon Valley’s tech workforce at roughly 57%, according to MarketWatch. Yet they’re vastly underrepresented at the leadership level: 27% at Apple, 40% at Google and 25% at Facebook.

We all know about the “bamboo ceiling.” We suspect we can’t break through it by just trying harder (see Dave Lu’s excellent essay The Asian American Myth: Effort Leads to Outcomes). We feel there’s an inherent bias though we can’t put our fingers on it.

It’s because the game is rigged. We’re not playing the same game. We can hope that the playing field levels on its own. We can even try to play the game with the unwritten rules. (See Dave Lu’s advice Your Network Determines Success More than You Realize).

Or we can research this phenomenon, understand clearly what we’re up against, and develop a strategy. We need to educate a new batch of Asian American leaders who take this new strategy and rewrite the rules of the game so we can all play fairly.

Let the corporate Squid Game begin.