Life at Huawei's Shenzhen HQ: In pictures

The Chinese tech giant drafts engineers straight from universities around the country to drive its huge R&D effort. What do they find when they get to Shenzhen - and more to the point, what are the canteens like?
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There's a lot of similarity between Shenzhen, the south China city where Huawei is based, and Silicon Valley in its early days, says 35-year tech veteran Ron Raffensperger. "Everybody's from somewhere else, which is pretty much what Silicon Valley was," notes Raffensperger, Huawei's chief technology officer for IT solutions. "It's all young people, tons of young people — it's just the same."

Like its West Coast counterparts, Huawei is hungry for success. Set up in 1987, it is now second only to Ericsson worldwide as a telecoms gear provider, and claims fifth place in mobile devices — though it is aiming to reach third place within five years. It's also said it wants to triple its annual revenue to $100bn within nine years.

The Chinese tech giant's youthful staff plays a key part in its efforts to fulfill its ambitious plans, and it recruits from all over the country. ZDNet took a look around its Shenzhen headquarters and its manufacturing facility in Songshan Lake to get an idea of what they can expect to find when they turn up for work.

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Huawei is only one of the local IT heavyweights to set up facilities in Shenzhen, which is in Guangdong province, just north of Hong Kong.
Each year, hundreds of people come from all over China to work in the country's tech manufacturing centre, many of them recruited straight from university. They come despite the air pollution, the high rents and expectations of hard, long work.

"The thing that you find here that you don't find in a lot of places in China is that the people feel like they can become anything they want," Raffensperger said.

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The average age of workers at Huawei's headquarters is 29, many of them engineering graduates scouted from China's best universities. "People join young and work hard," says Huawei spokesman Roland Sladek.

Employees often punch in before 8:30am and punch out after 6pm — though they will stay late and also tend to work while mobile, he added.

The well-kept gardens and public spaces of Huawei's two-square-kilometre campus were virtually empty most of the time we were there, apart from at lunchtime, when crowds poured out of offices headed for the company's many canteens. People get one-and-a-half hours for lunch, in two shifts starting at noon and 12:30pm.

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A number of canteens, some of them warehouse-sized, cater to the appetites of the thousands on site. At least two serve up authentic Indian curries to the large South Asian staff, but the largest have a general Chinese menu. There are also specialist canteens for those wanting regional Chinese cuisine.

Meals cost between 10 and 15 rmb (£1-£1.50) on average, and people pay using an Oyster-like micropayment card that they load money onto.

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Huawei has approaching 150,000 staff worldwide, according to Sladek, and up to 70,000 of those work in research and development.

Unlike Foxconn and other of its neighbours, the company focuses on creating products rather than manufacturing them — an approach that fits well with the Chinese government's aim of moving dirtier industries out of Shenzhen into the interior.

"The Shenzen government wants to focus on knowledge-based industries, maybe follow Manhattan into financial via an initiative with Hong Kong," Raffensperger said.

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To keep the research engine turning — especially in mobile devices, where Huawei is making a big push — the company needs to attract the best talent. Victor Zhang, chief executive of Huawei UK, talked about why he chose to join straight after graduation, after doing the milk round in Shenzhen in 1998.

"Huawei actually had one of the best environments," Zhang said. "Everyone was very dedicated, especially since the salaries were higher than others."

Employees can buy the products they work on: there are shops in Huawei's headquarters with handsets on sale, for instance.

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Visitors to Huawei's HQ will mainly meet receptionists dressed in the company's colours of black and white.

However, men in their mid-30s run the key parts of the business, according to Sladek - though this can bring its own pitfalls. "How do you continue to reward success when some of your execs are quite young?" he asked.

One way Huawei does this is through what it calls a share-buying plan. The company is not listed on any stock exchange, though it has recently approached investment banks about an IPO, according to The Wall Street Journal. At the moment, it describes itself as employee-owned, rather than a state-directed business — though there questions about how much the Chinese government influences it.

According to Sladek, 65,000 employees own shares in the business and have voting rights. Everyone at Huawei gets the right to buy stock once they've been in the job for two years — if they're Chinese, that is, as foreigners don't get the right. The amount they can buy varies, depending on seniority, performance and their place in the hierarchy — execs will get more than cleaners, for example. It all adds up to hundreds of millions of shares, Sladek said.

The biggest shareholder is Huawei president Ren Zhengfei, who was a civil engineer in the People's Liberation Army before he founded the company in 1987, and who owns 1.4 percent.

Another thing keeping down the average age at Huawei — and perhaps clearing the way for promotions — is that staff can retire at 45. If they've spent eight years at the company, they can hang onto their shares and reap the dividends, though they lose their voting rights.

Huawei is led by a board of directors, who are voted in every five years by a group of 60 representatives chosen by shareholders.

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The clipped greenery and low-rise buildings in Huawei's grounds in the suburb of Bantian are a contrast to Shenzhen city centre, a busy urban area packed with tall blocks, electronics stores and traffic. On the local highways, Huawei is big enough to have its own traffic signs.

The move to the city could be tricky for recruits from other parts of China. But in the heart of its campus, Huawei has built accommodation blocks for young workers who have just started with the company.

Rents are cheap: just 800 rmb (£80) a month, though the maximum stay is six months. However, each of the 3,000 or so inhabitants only have about 30 square metres of space each, meaning "it is a little crowded" and a bit like student halls, according to Sladek.

Still, there is an open-air cinema close to hand, as well as a swimming pool, and there are basketball courts, ping-pong tables and football pitches dotted around for Huawei-ites to use. There's even an old steam train, put to use in the past as a restaurant.

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Also on campus is the New World Cafe, a coffee shop that echoes Starbucks with its olive-and-brown decor and designer lampshades.

On the menu are cappucinos and iced lattes at about 25 rmb (£2.50) a pop — though, as everywhere on site, the place was deserted when we visited. It doesn't mean the cafe isn't busy — employees can order and get drinks delivered to their desks.

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Just under an hour's drive from Shenzen is Huawei's manufacturing centre at Songshan Lake. Again, it's massive — 600,000 square metres — but modern, as it was only finished two years ago, and young trees are dotted everywhere.

Inside the plant, workers wear colour-coded hats to indicate their role: blue is for technical jobs, while pink is for quality control, for example. On the shop floor, there are whiteboards with photos of each member of staff, showing pie charts and other data on their performance. And each day, workers stick a smiley on other whiteboards to let their colleagues know what mood they're in — happy, normal or unhappy.

While the company is R&D-focused, it's trying to keep 30 percent of its manufacturing within the company, according to Gabor Schreck, director at the site. "We didn't have the capabilities in-house, and we're just building those now," he said. "We see manufacturing as a strategic value."

A recent restructuring at Huawei moved manufacturing from all of its divisions — carrier, enterprise, consumer and emerging business — to this site, where access is tightly restricted. "We didn't do devices here till very recently," Schreck said. The company plans to double the size of the facility and has started building on adjacent land.

About 10,000 people work here, in two shifts per day, and the company puts on about 15 buses to run people back to headquarters where necessary. "We don't expect a big jump in head count" with expansion, Schreck said, but noted that Huawei does take on agency staff to meet demand.

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Huawei also takes care of career development at its headquarters, where there is a 50,000-square-metre training centre (shown).

On top of this, Huawei is in 150 markets around the world — it has worked on 38 of the 80 LTE networks in service, it says. This means that there are a number of opportunities for its workforce to see the world — something that helps with recruiting, according to Sladek.

"An attraction is that they can work abroad," he said. "They can spend five years in Ghana as an engineer, for example."

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International tensions between China and other nations — as seen in this recent demonstration in Shenzhen over a territorial dispute with Japan — can be a stumbling block to Huawei's ambitions, though.

In the US and Australia, it has run into opposition from the authorities in its attempts to get involved in building broadband infrastructure, for example.

In the UK, however, it has got around concerns that its equipment may have secret backdoors accessible by foreign agents by putting itself under the scrutiny of government intelligence agency GCHQ. In September, Huawei announced plans to double its staff in the UK from 800 to 1,500 over the next five years, as part of a £1.3bn investment in its local operations.

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