Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Paid in Full

Now that I've survived the China trip, and now that graduation is just days away, I thought it was a good idea to actually make my final payment to the University. With a single click of a mouse just minutes ago (made from a coffee shop, no less), I moved tens of thousands of dollars and made my final tuition payment. I am now officially paid in full for my masters degree. Hard to believe. In college, I remember ominous trips to the bursar and/or financial aid office to sign ominous documents pledging my life away (hey, what's the rest of your life when you're 19?), but today it's all so much more disconnected. When you're sitting in oak-paneled offices or facing crabby accountants who take every opportunity to remind you of the gravity of the entanglement you're about to enter into, it's a lot easier to feel like you're parting with something of value. On the Internet, paying electronically, it all seems like a video game. One hella expensive video game, but a game nonetheless.

So here's where we stand a mere 34 days before graduation:

  • Tuition paid: CHECK
  • China trip: CHECK
  • Managed not to go insane while working with crazy virtual teammates in China: CHECK
  • Lectures complete: CHECK
  • Graduation cap and gown in closet at home: CHECK
  • Subtle melancholy of leaving academia beginning to set in: CHECK
  • Feeling a bit like I'm about to get released from a prison where I'm sentenced to do three hours' hard labor every night: CHECK

Now, just one paper and two group presentations left to go. Bring it on, baby!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Re-Entry's a Bitch

It's been almost a week since I returned from my trip to China with the class. Aside from the usual battles upon returning (re-acclimation to the time zone, food, and hectic pace of family life), I've been increasingly unsettled about things that, until this morning, had baffled me. It has to be more than sleep deprivation, I told myself, and this morning in the shower (where so many insights dwell), I finally received the clarity I had been seeking.

First off, it's lousy being back. Sure, I complained last week how much I wanted to get home, how tired I was of eating dim sum and not being able to drink the tap water, and how I was weary of living out of a suitcase. But it was still travel, and I am a traveler at heart. Now that I'm back home, the only thing I want to do is whisk my family back to all the great places I visited (OK, maybe not Guangzhou unless it's after the rainy season) and show them all the amazing things I saw. This feeling is made all the more intense by the fact that almost half my class is still in Asia on many exciting adventures, and every day I see their photos posted to Facebook and other sites, and I think to myself, "I should have extended too." Even though I'm sure that, had I done so, I would be complaining now about the heat or about having to lug 50 pounds of formalwear into the heart of China or Thailand. It's an odd feeling, this schism that has occurred in our class with half of us back home and already complaining about the routines of work life and with the other half of our class still posting pictures from paradise. Eventually they will come home, I keep telling myself, though their photos still look pretty darn spectacular. Another time.

Second, so much mental energy was invested in simply surviving until China-- for almost 20 months, this is what many of us have held up as the mile marker during the darkest times. "If I can just make it to China," many of us have told ourselves, "it will be worth it." Now not only have we made it to China, we've come back. What next? What are we supposed to use as motivation now?

This second point feeds into the third: this wild, crazy, maddening, mind-expanding, wonderful journey of graduate education is rapidly coming to an end. We have just one more class together, April 24, and even that isn't a typical class day because it will consist solely of team presentations. Sometimes I feel like this whole experience went from 100 miles per hour to zero in the space of a few days. Nobody told me it was going to decelerate so quickly. I've written here before about the nagging fears of not having the forced discipline of team projects or looming class deadlines to keep me focused; now I wonder if I've really changed enough of the dusty synapses in my brain to really sustain anything close to my current level of productivity. And what about all the people in class? Part of the magic of this program has been learning from the diverse experiences of so many smart people. In my daily business routine, I don't encounter anywhere close to this diversity of people (though I am fortunate to work with extremely smart people)-- what to do upon departing the company of so many new friends and classmates? We talk about reunions but time will tell how much of that actually transpires. Personally, I hope we do continue to meet at the Corner Bar or some similarly grand locale.

Lastly, I am haunted by all the opportunity I sensed two weeks ago and which I can even now sense fading into the routine of everyday work life. Many of my classmates enjoyed their visit to Asia, still others couldn't wait to get home, and I looked at everything there as a potential job opportunity. "I want to move my family to this country and live here-- how can I make that happen?" was my frame of reference for everything I saw and experienced. That's putting a lot of pressure on yourself, and now that I'm home and have told all my fantastic stories to my family, I think they are ready to move today. Back in the States, though, I'm struggling to keep up my connections and find the time to do new research (jobs, benefits, apartments, cities, expat options, etc.).

All of this will sort itself out, I know. Perhaps what I need to set about doing once I walk across that graduation stage is to attack the expat relocation opportunity with the same rigor as I gave to my studies. If I can do that, we may yet get to live out some of the dreams I saw as possibilities last week. The good thing, at least, is that I have all those places in my mind now as possibilities.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Think You Know China?

So you think you know China? Here are just some of the many amazing facts I've noted this week during our visit to Shanghai.

There are about one hundred country-level international technology parks in China. There are 1,000 additional technology parks in the Country that are at the provincial level.

China is the #1 snack and beverage market in the world.

China is the #3 blog market in the world.

China has 738 million mobile subscribers (55% country penetration), while the U.S has just 234 million.

China has 298 million Internet users, while the U.S. has just 225 million.

There are 100 million online gamers in China, and 75% spend more than three hours per day online.

There are 350 million instant message users in China, almost none of which use Western IM services (China has its own service, called QQ).

Chinese issue 700 million Internet search queries per day, and the Chinese search market is growing at 70% CAGR.

350 million people come from single-child families (due to the country's one-child policy, introduced in 1978). These children have been raised with the best of everything and have typically had focused care from four adults (two parents and two grandparents). Soon these single children will be having their own single-child families. This is what makes the China market different from any market in the world.

Since they are single children, Chinese kids have made 50% of their friends online.

Even the smaller cities in China have populations of 3-5 million people each.

Best Buy China is able to have a new private-label product designed, manufactured, and on store shelves in just three weeks.

Local automakers in China are still growing at 14% annually, serving just the China market.

A site that was farmland five years ago now hosts a technology park with 4,000 companies and 12,000 employees. Space will open in 2012 for another sixty thousand employees.

70-80% of companies in Shanghai are now focused primarily on R&D and sales to the internal Chinese market, not on exports.

Last year, U.S. ports were not able to keep up with materials and goods being shipped from Shanghai. Goods often needed to be re-routed through Canada and then shipped by train or truck back into the U.S.

The Shanghai region, about the size of Montana, has 100 million residents (inclduing 2.5 million university students).

Ten years ago, China had just 10 MBA programs. Today there are over 100 MBA programs, and 20,000 MBA's graduate in China every year.

Most Chinese multinational companies now say their primary competition is internal Chinese start-up companies, not Western firms.

Welcome to the Future

Greetings from Shanghai, China. Hard to believe that all the classes, homework, and pressure has led up to this moment. I'm sitting in the St. Regis Hotel overlooking the city skyline (including the tallest building in the world), and we depart early tomorrow morning for the next leg on our journey: Guangzhou. We left Minneapolis five days ago and so much has changed in that time. I didn't bring a PC with me (hard to believe, I know) so I haven't been able to get much access to a decent computer until tonight (having borrowed the netbook of my classmate Michael), so this is likely to be a long post.

Where to begin? Let's start with sheer scope. There are 22 million people in this city-- that's almost 10% of the entire population of the U.S. So think about how to house, transport, feed, and entertain all those people-- that will give you some sense of the infrastructure that exists here. But it doesn't really scratch the surface in terms of what China means to the rest of the world. I came here with many preconceptions, formed in part from negative impressions from last year's Olympic Games and also from my more recent (and disappointing) work with my Chinese cohort as part of our virtual team project. So I didn't really expect to be blown away by this city in less than a day. Right away, very little was as I'd imagined. There is so much progress here, and the spirit of the people is very akin to the U.S. spirit of colonial or pioneer days. The people here simply believe that anything is possible, and more and more of them are able to see those types of changes in their everyday life. Buildings sprout up literally overnight, and it's obvious that the landscape of this city is changing by the day. They are working now to get ready for the Expo 2010 international event with a dizzying amount of road and other infrastructure construction. And because all of it is funded by the government, you just know it will happen and be ready to dazzle the world when the Expo opens next year. I have to laugh at this unabashed forward push when we are debating so much over marginal infrastructure investments in the U.S. It would take decades to accomplish what is already happening in Shanghai, and that has profound implications.

I came here believing China was the manufacturing center for the world, working harder and cheaper than anyone else to execute on American orders. In the company meetings we've had over the last few days, I now see that Chinese companies are exporting not only products, but also innovation, back to the U.S. (innovation that China owns and which is also being sent to countries other than the U.S.). I came here believing China was getting hit by the global economic downturn; I now see that orders are already ramping back up for many Chinese firms, due in no small part to the fact that the economy inside China is still growing. I came here believing China's core competency was exporting things to U.S. companies; this week I have seen companies growing by leaps and bounds just to meet internal Chinese market demand. Soon they won't even need U.S. orders to keep their businesses growing. I came here believing Chinese companies worked to help U.S. companies maintain their competitive edge; I have seen this week how Chinese companies now consider internal Chinese start-ups to be more of a threat to their business than multinationals. I came here believing the Chinese government made everything happen in Chinese industry, that Chinese industry in essence had no life apart from government support. This week I have heard stories about private ventures cropping up everywhere (solar-powered water heaters being one of them) as models that the Chinese government is now analyzing to see how to better execute in the future.

I have seen entire cities where there was only farmland 15 years ago. I have gone to the top of the tallest building in the world, looked across the street and seen what was formerly the tallest building in the world, and looked the other way across the street and seen what will soon become the new tallest building in the world. I have ridden the fastest train in the world, a maglev train that covers 30km in under eight minutes. I have visited a corporate office park where 4,000 high-tech companies have set up shop-- and where farmland dominated just five years ago. I have toured phase 2 of this office park with its 12,000 resident employees, man-made lakes and parks, and beautiful condos. And I have seen plans for phase 3 of this development, which will add houses, offices, parks, schools, shops, and railroad lines for another sixty thousand people.

And while I have experienced firsthand Shanghai, a city of 22 million people, I have also listened to a lecture on how best to ramp up manufacturing capacity in a remote Western Chinese city-- a city that itself has one hundred millionresidents.

This is China: so much bigger than you can imagine. Growing so much faster than you can imagine. Dealing with (and solving) challenges on a scale you cannot imagine. So much more innovative and leading edge than you can imagine. So much more embracing of change and of the future than you can imagine (and, dare I say so much more than even my country). So well-equipped to meet the challenges of tomorrow. So enabled by its central government (which isn't anywhere as draconian as you think) to execute on any initiative worthy of development (did I mention the country is designing its own aircraft and plans to manufacture 2,500 of them-- one of the largest aircraft manufacturing assemblies in human history?). So ready to surprise everyone who lives elsewhere and thinks they know China.

I've told people back home that I truly feel I have traveled into the future by coming here. I am seeing things this week that I only dreamed about prior, and I am seeing them on a scale that I never could even conceive of. Most surprising? The Chinese, justifiably proud of their achievement, talk about all of these things with a sense of certainty and acceptance to make you think they are as common as the sun rising in the morning. I am simply blown away. Blown away, and also completely enticed.