Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Huawei Chief Strategy Officer Bryan Che talks the China market and open source


I worked for Bryan Che for my first seven years at Red Hat. We caught up with each other at the Open Source Leadership Summit in Sonoma. Bryan thought it would be interesting to share his observations and experiences on open source adoption in China, the China cloud market and cloud portability, and what it's like living in China. One of the interesting dynamics we discuss is that China is starting afresh in areas such as public clouds where, in the US, patterns were well-established before the current generation of open source software became available. 

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Gordon Haff:  Today I am joined at the Open Source Leadership Summit in Sonoma by Bryan Che. Bryan Che is actually the person who hired me on at Red Hat, about eight years ago.

He is now working at Huawei in ChinaHe's going to give us some insights about the China market, about open source in China, his personal experiences in China, and things in transformation. Welcome, Bryan.

Bryan Che:  Thanks, Gordon. It's great to see you again here, and a lot of old friends from Red Hat, as well as many new friends from the area.

Gordon:  Maybe you can start by introducing yourself, and tell us about your journey.

Bryan:  I'm currently the Chief Strategy Officer at Huawei. I'm working out in their headquarters in Shenzhen, China, which borders with Hong Kong and southern China. I was at Red Hat for 15 years. Before that, straight out of MIT, where I did my bachelor's and master's in computer science. Spent the last 20 odd years in Boston, and never figured I'd move overseas to work.

This was a really interesting opportunity to be able to work in open source software, but also in everything from consumer electronics, to telecommunications and hardware, and also see a lot of the things that were happening on the other side of the world. I'd read about it. I'd visited a few times ‑‑ on business trips and vacations ‑‑ but it's another thing to actually be in the midst of it, day by day.

Gordon:  We were talking the other night about the China market, and how it's so very different from ‑‑ it's probably fair to say ‑‑ every place else in the world. I thought it'd be interesting, now that you've had some time, some perspective...With your work, you've obviously spent a lot of time looking at it in depth.

What is the few‑minute‑or‑so summary of how you see the Chinese market around telecoms, around computing, around consumer apps...all of that kind of stuff?

Bryan:  I think one of the fascinating things for me that I've observed, is that technology space is really booming. A lot of the really high‑level themes are similar to what we've seen in the US, in Europe, and elsewhere. There's a big focus on digital transformation, on machine learning and AI, and IoT.

The way these technologies are evolving and being deployed is very, very different from what I've seen elsewhere. Just as one example in the public cloud space, we've had AWS and a lot of these other public clouds like Google and Microsoft and IBM and so on starting 10, 11 years ago in the US. It's a more recent market in China.

One of the things that's been really interesting for me as I've been working with our cloud business in terms of their public cloud strategy and what we do around open source is that if you had the opportunity to do public cloud again, now with 10 years hindsight and now with all these new open source technologies and architectures and microservices and Kubernetes and OpenStack, what would you do differently?

Being able to have the chance to do that in China where adoption is growing very, very quickly in the public cloud standpoint, but is still relatively new compared to the adoption in the US and other parts, it provides a really fun thought experiment as well as a way to be able to try new things.

On the other hand, we're also seeing because China doesn't have as much incumbent technology, in many cases, it's leapfrogging a lot of the things that I've experienced here in the US.

Just as one example, at Huawei, we've been working with some of the bike sharing companies like Ofo. If you come around Shenzhen or Shanghai or Beijing or any of the major cities around China, you'll see all these bikes everywhere.

They're just parked in the streets and not at a dock. One of the things that has become really popular is you can just pick up a bike, unlock it with your smartphone, ride it to somewhere else and then immediately drop it off there.

If you take a look at what they've had to enable from a digital standpoint to do those kinds of things, first off, they have to be able to track where all the bicycles are and so they built in all these new sensors and chipsets into them. They have to work indoors and congested areas. They've got to be able to work with their phones in an easy way to do mobile payments around that.

Then, you've got to be able to have the logistics necessary to manage OK, if they're not just going from a fixed point A to B, how do you manage all that?

These kinds of things where it's been sort of leading in China as opposed to first coming from the US over to the China market, it's interesting to see how digital technology is really changing a lot of people's lives in ways that are very different compared to other parts of the world.

Gordon:  It seems particularly when you talk about payment methods and things like that, there is a huge amount of inertia and custom and we've always done it this way. I always find it interesting even between countries in Europe, there's very different attitudes towards cash and credit cards and things like that.

Of course, the residents of any given country, whether it's the US or the UK or Sweden, just can't understand how messed up the rest of the world is compared to what's obviously the right thing. China's had an amazing transformation. Just really, I think, totally different from any place else in that regard.

Bryan:  Yeah. Most of the people that I interact with have gone completely cashless in Shenzhen and in Greater China. For example, just to give one story about how mobile payments has totally integrated, when I go to a restaurant, sitting on the restaurant table will be QR codes.

You scan the QR code and up shows the menu on your phone. There'll be pictures of all the dishes. Sometimes, there'll be reviews from other people. You just order the dishes straight from your phone.

Because there's a QR code for every single seat, the restaurant knows where you're sitting so the food just arrives at your table. You pay for the food directly on your phone, so you never have to get a bill and it just goes away.

The entire process of how do you get your food, how do you order it, how do you pay for it is totally streamlined and integrated into your phone. Afterwards, if you want to split the bill with somebody else, you can just send money from your phone to somebody else's.

There's ways to be able to have groups set up so you just automatically send money to everyone at the same time. It's really, really easy to be able to do all these things.

When you think about the US process, typically you pay by credit card, you have to add your tip, you've got to wait for somebody to bring your menu and order for you. It's taken a lot of the friction out of even just how do you sit down and order a meal.

Gordon:  I imagine it must be very frustrating for a lot of Silicon Valley startups because they can do the backend infrastructure for this sort of thing, but people just don't do it because habits are established. Let's switch to you personally.

What's it been like? This was a big change for you from Cambridge Massachusetts and Red Hat right out of school to moving to Hong Kong.

Bryan:  Yeah, it's been really different. It's been really fun. Hong Kong is a world‑class city with tons of food. Everyone who knows me knows that I like to go out and eat and sample things. Then, Shenzhen is a really fascinating city just with all the hyper growth and technology that's going on there.

Working within a Chinese company has also been different. Working in the US, of course, for example, everyone speaks English. All my communications were in English and emails.

Working at a Chinese company, the vast majority of my emails come across in written Chinese. My Mandarin, it's spoken Mandarin. It's not very good. I've actually become super dependent on machine learning and AI.

Huawei has built out its own internal machine learning trained translation tools. Every day, I'm sitting on those tools translating everything back and forth between Mandarin and English. That's been one change.

Other things, obviously, when I go to the company cafeteria, I'm not eating salad bars anymore every day but trying all sorts of other things like that. Some of the other ways that people work over there, the company cultural values I find a little bit different from the US.

Just one thing that really surprised me, in the US, every tech company talks about being customer‑centric. In the US, when we talk about being customer‑centric, that means we build the best product for our customers, we listen to them, we pay attention to them, we provide good customer support.

At Huawei, their number one priority is also being customer‑centric and being dedicated to customers. But when I started learning about what it means to be customer‑centric at Huawei, we have a very different view on that compared to any place I've seen in the US.

For example, all the stories that Huawei has started telling us when I went to orientation about what it means to be customer‑centric is things like during the Ebola crisis in Africa a few years ago, all the Huawei engineers voluntarily stayed behind and didn't evacuate because they wanted to keep the mobile communication infrastructures up and running in Africa.

Or during the tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis in Japan a few years ago, Huawei engineers were the very first ones to go back to Japan and Tokyo and other parts where the radiation was really high in order to reset up their infrastructure.

Huawei is able to be successful because they stick by their customers even at personal costs. It's about know how dedicated are you to your customer and how loyal are you to them when they talk about being customer‑centric.

A very, very different way of looking at the world, which I just found really surprising and fascinating.

Gordon:  We're at the Open Source Leadership Summit. Let's talk a little more about open source. What's the open source story in China?

Bryan:  Open source has been booming in China. Last year, for example, a lot of the key conferences by Linux Foundation...They started hosting parallel events over in Beijing, in Shanghai, and other places. Really, really, high attendance.

If you look at a lot of the companies, Huawei was one of the very, very early companies in to open source. Now it's amongst the top contributors to all the major projects, like Kubernetes, and OpenStack, and so on.

It's not just Huawei anymore. We're seeing a lot of other companies that are building their businesses using entirely open source technologies. Many of the Chinese companies are also starting to get involved in the open source community.

I know that when I was at Red Hat and working with you, we often met with a lot of different customers who were asking, "How do we get involved in open source? How do we contribute? How do we strategically adopt open source?"

I'm seeing those exact same conversations happening at many of the companies across China. Many of them are now starting to see open source is a very strategic way to build platforms because they're seeing all the innovations that can be possible and what happens as you start to collaborate together.

Gordon:  Do you see differences in the approach to open source? You mentioned earlier about cloud providers may be doing things a bit differently because they didn't have the 10 years of, "This is how we did things in 2006."

There's a lot of legacy carried forward because of that. When it comes to adopting open source, are you seeing different patterns in China compared to the US, given that it's fair to say, a lot of conservative US companies resisted open source for a long time. Some still are.

Bryan:  I actually think you'll see a higher percentage deployment of open source at many of these companies. Just to use public cloud as an example, the public cloud market, as I mentioned, is relatively nascent. There's many, many different companies also competing in the space, all building public clouds.

Unlike the US market, the vast majority of these public clouds are all built on open source, at the core, using OpenStack, for example. Most of the top clouds in China, whether from Huawei or from Tencent, or from China Mobile, and so on, they're all building on top of OpenStack which is not the case in the US where most of the public clouds preexisted, these open source technologies. They all built their own stuff.

That's just one example where you see, because these platforms came along a little bit later. Then when they saw that, "Hey, somebody's already invented this stuff in open source. Let's just take advantage of that, and then go and build the other things that matter to our customers."

You're starting to see default to open source in many of these places where it wasn't possible, markets where you had a longer term of no incumbency.

Gordon:  Of course, the fact that if you're buying proprietary software, you are probably going to have to buy a lot of it from US companies. I imagine that plays a role in open source as well.

Bryan:  Definitely. One of the great benefits of open source is that it puts you in control of your own destiny. Just like all the typical startups today in the US and elsewhere, open source is very natural for them.

It's very much a startup mentality almost, especially in Shenzhen where there's so many new businesses being formed all the time. There's pretty much a maker's mentality in terms of how do you hack hardware, and how do you hack software?

Open source does play along very, very nicely with a lot of that dynamic in terms of what people are trying to do.

Gordon:  You mentioned language, in your case, earlier on. How are you seeing that affecting...There are a variety of reasons why it's probably harder for someone in China or a company in China to fully interact with a number of the open source communities.

How do you see that playing out?

Bryan:  That can be one of the big challenges. I see both language as well as communication medium as one of the challenges. Obviously, English has become the de facto language everyone uses in open source.

If you come across it in China, it's a little bit uneven in terms of how fluent people are, being able to communicate in English, let alone be able to persuade, or evangelize, or say "This is why this commit should be good" or to take some of the leadership positions. The good thing is that the open source communities have, in general, been welcoming.

The other dynamic is a lot of the communication channels that people typically use in China, WeChat is dominant in terms of the major communication channels.

Then some of the other popular forms, like Twitter or Google, are not even accessible in China. It makes "How do you even connect with each other" a little more difficult at times. There's a couple things that have been happening.

One is that you're starting to see many of the open source foundations, like Linux Foundation here, set up. It's supporting infrastructure in China, a greater Asia‑Pacific, and so on to try to foster a lot of the communities.

One of the effects of that has been now you're starting to see pockets of projects that are initiated by collections of Chinese companies. Then coming into other parts of the world, instead of everything just happening from US, or Europe, or Latin America, or some other part, and then coming back into China.

I think that's good because now it means that contributions, and innovations, and leadership is coming from everywhere. I still think that there's a lot of things to be figured out in terms of how do you best incorporate people from all over the world into a community when the language, and communication mediums, and other things like that are just barriers.

Gordon:  What do you see ahead? You're doing strategy, without giving away any secrets. What are some of the things related to China broadly that you think people should be thinking about in looking out over the next few years? I'm not sure it makes much sense. In this industry, you don't talk about more than a few years.

Bryan:  Huawei, obviously. We're based in China, so we think a lot about China. Huawei is a very interesting company within there in that the vast majority of its business is actually overseas and not in mainland China, plus when I take a look strategically I think across a few different dimensions.

One is from our overall technology portfolio. How do we make it useful for everyone in the world? Obviously, we take advantage of the fact that a different market dynamics exists, whether in China, the UK, or Brazil, or something like that.

The good thing is that a lot of these macro trends around digital transformation, around technology, is like IoT, or machine learning and cloud computing. Those are the same things that are happening everywhere. It's more about, "What is the actual solution deployment that you get into these other areas?"

Based on that, there's a few things that we look at in terms of, "OK, how do we create a good baseline of technologies, or good platforms, that can support all these different areas?" Some of the principles that we think are very useful to build these generic platforms being open is hugely important.

This is why Huawei has invested so much in open source because if we want to go to these different markets and be able to have it adapt, the only way that's possible is to build on an open foundation, and to make it so that people can do what they want with it in their own individual markets.

We also take a look at how do we take the benefits of one market and bring it to the other. A good example is in public cloud. Huawei operates its own public cloud in China, as I mentioned, for the software built on OpenStack on top of the CMCF Stack, and so on.

Then Huawei also sells an OEM, this exact same technology platform to many of our partners around the world. For example, Deutsche Telecom or France Telecom. Telefonica, China Mobile, and many of these large Telcos around the world. All building the same public clouds and operating them in their local markets.

One of the reasons for this is that if you take a look at a lot of the existing public cloud today. The dominant one is in the US, for example, if you just look at AWS, and Microsoft, and Google. First off, Google's not even present in China.

If you look at Amazon and Microsoft, they're much weaker in the China market. They can't even operate their own data centers there.

What we think is the best approach is to say, "Well, let's let the specialists in their own geographies operate their own leading class, public clouds. Let's figure out a way so that everything works together, so that if you want to buy all your cloud capacity through Deutsche Telecom but you happen to be a multi‑national like Volkswagen.

Also, when you need to deploy into data centers in China, you can take advantage of a first‑class operator like Huawei, a first‑class operator in Germany, like DT, versus a cloud provider that happens to be strong in one market but relatively weak or non‑existent in another.

This is our approach to say, "How do we get the best local experience, but on that same technology platform, whether we operate it ourselves, or we resell it, and OEM it with others." It's using that shared platform, but then offering specialized experience to be able to deliver that in a best in class, local customer experience.

Gordon:  As you well know, that's something we see a lot at Red Hat. A lot of people go, "Oh. The public cloud market, that's AWS, Google, and Microsoft. If they're thinking more internationally, “there's a couple of people in China, too, whose names I forget.”

Obviously, we do a lot of business with regional Telcos, regional cloud providers running portable platforms, like OpenShift and, obviously, Red Hat Enterprise Linux

You do have this portable and transferrable experience among clouds in different regions, different countries, what have you.

Bryan:  Absolutely. This is one of the reasons why Red Hat and Huawei have both been partnering as well. Red Hat's open hybrid cloud strategy and portfolio around it, being able to enable customers to use open source technology so they can run their applications in all these different environments.

That's very consistent at Huawei as well as we're looking to enable these platforms to run workloads like Red Hat and others around the world. We very much believe as well that being open and being able to give customers that flexibility and the best in class experience. However they want to use it, that's the most critical thing.


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