When news broke that Zhang Yiming would shift out of the CEO spot at ByteDance, the Chinese tech giant that owns TikTok and a host of other popular apps, some fingers pointed to Beijing. Was Zhang just one more victim of the government's widening crackdown on Big Tech?
Internal messages paint a different picture: Employees have taken the news calmly, and mostly seem to be embracing Zhang's replacement, Liang Rubo.
Liang co-founded the company with Zhang in 2012 and currently heads human resources, a key role as the company swiftly expands. When ByteDance named a new CFO for TikTok, Liang, not Zhang, sent a note out about Shouzi Chew's appointment.
On Thursday, in an internal letter to ByteDance employees, Zhang announced he would transition out of the CEO position by the end of 2021.
Screenshots of conversations on ByteDance's internal forum reviewed by Protocol show a light atmosphere around the leadership change. Many wished Zhang the best of luck while welcoming Liang's leadership with warmth and humor.
One employee wrote of looking forward "to Rubo's first letter addressed to employees as the CEO" but hating "to see Yiming leave." Another believed that Liang "will lead us to a new future."
The new chief's challenges
ByteDance spent 2020 in the center of a U.S. controversy spun up by then-President Donald Trump over TikTok's transfer of American users' data to China. The company hired Disney executive Kevin Mayer to run TikTok, but he quit after four months amid political pressure to spin off TikTok's U.S. arm. India banned TikTok, along with other Chinese apps.
The U.S. spinoff faded after Trump lost the election. And ByteDance seems to be in a better position than other Chinese tech rivals as Beijing pushes an antitrust crackdown, having received only a token fine over one past merger deal. It's pledged to obey China's antitrust regulations.
One way to read Liang's appointment is that Zhang sees ByteDance's future challenges as commercial and technological, not political. Prior to his current role in human resources, Liang was the tech lead on some of ByteDance's most popular products, including Douyin, the Chinese predecessor to TikTok, and Toutiao, the AI-enabled content aggregator that first made ByteDance a household name.
Liang's also a trusted acquaintance of his co-founder. He and Zhang were college roommates back at Nankai University in the early 2000s. The two have been business partners since 2009, when they co-founded the real estate search engine 99fang.com.
Many employees noted their long friendship. One ByteDance employee quipped that Zhang's favorite person is Liang: "On 5/20, I give you the CEO title." In Mandarin, "520" sounds a bit like the phrase "I love you."
Liang has a reputation for strong people skills. A former employee reporting to Liang told a local newspaper in Chengdu that Liang is a skilled technologist and a good boss. "He'd often teach us to write code, and he treated people under him pretty well," the person told Chengdu Business Daily.
"Most colleagues were surprised, but they quickly embraced the change," a ByteDance worker told Protocol. "Quite a few people are inspired by Yiming's move, and they admire him even more now."
Following Zhang's announcement, Liang wrote in an email to employees that the new role is "a huge challenge, a lot of pressure" for him. But, he added, he's confident that the company will "continue to break through and go to the next level."
ByteDance's next steps
In his internal letter, Zhang acknowledged that he is not a conventionally ideal manager and enjoys solitude. Compared with managing people, he's more interested in "analyzing organizational and market principles, and leveraging these theories to further reduce management work." Zhang said in his next role — his new title wasn't clear — he would focus on long-term strategies, corporate culture and social responsibility.
Several ByteDance workers described Zhang to Protocol as a nerdy and genuine person, and a thoughtful leader who's easily approached. Most ByteDance workers address Zhang by his first name, Yiming, instead of his official title, and he's widely beloved, they said.
Unlike other Chinese tech behemoths that have top-down management and hierarchical corporate structures, 9-year-old ByteDance has a relatively flat organizational structure and a democratic culture. "Yiming wants everyone to feel empowered to express their thoughts," another ByteDance employee told Protocol.
Other Chinese tech giants and their CEOs have come under the spotlight for misogynist cultures marked by inappropriate remarks and even accusations of sexual assault. In stark contrast, under Zhang's helm, ByteDance has become a rare Chinese tech company that is known for its inclusion and diversity.
In a society where the majority of people hold conservative views about sexual orientations and gender identities, ByteDance is the first Chinese tech firm that openly supports the LGBTQ+ community, according to Chinese media. Many employees are drawn to ByteDance for its open culture and its mission.
The one downside: Workers are expected to work a "996" schedule — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for six days — once every other week.