Chinese tech's nickname obsession

Forcing employees to choose an alias breaks down intra-office hierarchies. It may also make it harder to organize.

Chinese tech's nickname obsession

Pictured: Alibaba's headquarters in Hangzhou.

Photo: Qilai Shen/Getty Images

Imagine you work at a high-powered big tech firm in China. You're eager to get promoted, and you take your work seriously. But there's a catch: The colleague sitting to your left calls himself "Yogurt," the manager you report to wants to be referred to as "Genghis Khan," and everyone knows the founder of your company as "Feng Qingyang," a fictional master swordsman from one of China's best kung fu novels.

This is not an edgy startup; it's Alibaba, the Chinese ecommerce titan.

At Alibaba, every employee has a nickname for internal communications. These aliases, called huaming (花名) in Chinese, are unique identifiers that employees at a growing number of major tech companies in China give themselves when they start. It's not just whimsical — it's required. Alibaba promotes nicknames as a tool to break down innate hierarchies and create a more relaxed corporate culture.

Other Chinese tech companies are making similar attempts to flatten office hierarchies. In September 2020, NetEase, a company specializing in gaming and music streaming, decided that every employee needed an alias. Tencent, mimicking workplaces in the West, has always required employees to choose an English first name for internal communications. Tencent's founder and CEO, Ma Huateng, is widely known as Pony Ma. In these companies' internal systems, aliases display alongside employees' real names, so it's an individual choice of which name to use.

Ecommerce heavyweight Pinduoduo has taken the practice to a new extreme: Employees are not even allowed to know each other's real names in work communications, according to Chinese tech news outlet LatePost.

There's a darker interpretation of the corporate motives at play. Observers suspect the aliases are designed to prevent employees from developing real-life friendships and from organizing together. "This is no different from the Foxconn factories in the past," Pun Ngai, a sociology professor at the University of Hong Kong, told LatePost. "At Foxconn, everyone is given an employee ID when they are hired. The day shift workers don't talk to the night shift workers. If anything goes wrong, the employee has to face it alone."

The practice started with Alibaba in 2003 when the company launched Taobao, now a massive ecommerce platform. The complicated evolution of its experience is instructive. An early employee suggested everyone adopt aliases to interact with customers and increase online engagement; founder Jack Ma agreed and chose Feng Qingyang (风清扬), a fictional master swordsman, for himself. All early employees, many of them now in the Alibaba C-suite, also adopted fictional character names.

It's since become a company tradition. According to a book by Zhao Xianchao, a former journalist and now himself an Alibaba employee, about 160,000 aliases had been chosen within the company by 2018.

Because every name has to be unique, literary references soon ran out, and the names have become weirder and more random. There are food names (Soymilk, Yogurt, Fried Eggs), historical figures (Kublai, Li Bai, Du Fu), silly titles (Your Majesty, Old Dog) and many expressions that aren't even names (people have named themselves One Day, Two Days, … all the way through Ten Days).

Last year, Alibaba finally started letting new employees use aliases discarded by ex-employees. Finding the right nickname had become a chore for new hires, who complained they spent hours coming up with an original one.

Alibaba justified all the trouble with its desire to eliminate hierarchy. It's considered rude in China to refer to one's teacher, older relatives or manager by a first name. Most employees default to phrases that combine a person's last name and their title, something like "Boss Ma." When these names are repeated enough, it enforces a rigid system and discourages difficult conversations.

Alibaba has taken other steps to level the playing field. Its internal communications system, DingTalk, used to show everyone's "job levels" via an internal quantified ranking system. It stopped displaying these levels in August.

The aliases give Alibaba a good corporate culture story to tell the public, but its effect is limited.

"When it comes to [Jack Ma], we usually call him Teacher Ma. Few would call him Feng Qingyang," Zhang, an Alibaba employee, told Protocol. Teacher Ma is another common nickname for Jack Ma, partly because of his earlier career as an English teacher. (Zhang asked Protocol to withhold her first name to avoid upsetting her employer.)

When Zhang joined Alibaba, she put a lot of thought into finding an alias. She eventually picked an expression that signals personal growth and sounded similar to a historical figure's name.

But most people still call Zhang by her real name. "My real name is quite catchy, so people just refer to me by that, and it feels more intimate too," she said. "But I use my aliases in all work documents and email sign-offs."

"To be honest," Zhang added, "the Chinese tradition of seniority and the reverence that comes with it will always exist. It won't be changed by one or two corporate culture innovations."

A visitor plays a game using Microsoft's Xbox controller at a flagship store of SK Telecom in Seoul on November 10, 2020. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

On this episode of the Source Code podcast: Nick Statt joins the show to discuss Microsoft’s $68.7 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard, and what it means for the tech and game industries. Then, Issie Lapowsky talks about a big week in antitrust reform, and whether real progress is being made in the U.S. Finally, Hirsh Chitkara explains why AT&T, Verizon, the FAA and airlines have been fighting for months about 5G coverage.

For more on the topics in this episode:

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

COVID-19 accelerated what many CEOs and CTOs have struggled to do for the past decade: It forced organizations to be agile and adjust quickly to change. For all the talk about digital transformation over the past decade, when push came to shove, many organizations realized they had made far less progress than they thought.

Now with the genie of rapid change out of the bottle, we will never go back to accepting slow and steady progress from our organizations. To survive and thrive in times of disruption, you need to build a resilient, adaptable business with systems and processes that will keep you nimble for years to come. An essential part of business agility is responding to change by quickly developing new applications and adapting old ones. IT faces an unprecedented demand for new applications. According to IDC, by 2023, more than 500 million digital applications and services will be developed and deployed — the same number of apps that were developed in the last 40 years.[1]

Keep Reading Show less
Denise Broady, CMO, Appian
Denise oversees the Marketing and Communications organization where she is responsible for accelerating the marketing strategy and brand recognition across the globe. Denise has over 24+ years of experience as a change agent scaling businesses from startups, turnarounds and complex software companies. Prior to Appian, Denise worked at SAP, WorkForce Software, TopTier and Clarkston Group. She is also a two-time published author of “GRC for Dummies” and “Driven to Perform.” Denise holds a double degree in marketing and production and operations from Virginia Tech.

Congress’ antitrust push has a hate speech problem

Sen. Klobuchar’s antitrust bill is supposed to promote competition. So why are advocates afraid it could also promote extremists?

The bill as written could make it a lot riskier for large tech companies to deplatform or demote companies that violate their rules.

Photo: Photo by Elizabeth Frantz-Pool/Getty Images

The antitrust bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday and is now headed to the Senate floor is, at its core, an attempt to prevent the likes of Apple, Amazon and Google from boosting their own products and services on the marketplaces and platforms they own.

But upon closer inspection, some experts say, the bill as written could make it a lot riskier for large tech companies to deplatform or demote companies that violate their rules.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.


Ask a tech worker: How many of your colleagues have caught omicron?

Millions of workers called in sick in recent weeks. How is tech handling it?

A record number of Americans called in sick with COVID-19 in recent weeks. Even with high vaccination rates, tech companies aren’t immune.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Welcome back to Ask a Tech Worker! For this recurring feature, I’ve been roaming downtown San Francisco at lunchtime to ask tech employees about how the workplace is changing. This week, I caught up with tech workers about what their companies are doing to avoid omicron outbreaks, and whether many of their colleagues had been out sick lately. Got an idea for a future topic? Email me.

Omicron stops for no one, it seems. Between Dec. 29 and Jan. 10, 8.8 million Americans missed work to either recover from COVID-19 or care for someone who was recovering, according to the Census Bureau. That number crushed the previous record of 6.6 million from last January, and tripled the numbers from early last month.

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

The fast-growing paychecks of Big Tech’s biggest names

Tech giants had a huge pandemic, and their execs are getting paid.

TIm Cook received $82 million in stock awards on top of his $3 million salary as Apple's CEO.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Tech leaders are making more than ever.

As tech giants thrive amid the pandemic, companies like Meta, Alphabet and Microsoft have continued to pay their leaders accordingly: Big Tech CEO pay is higher than ever. In the coming months, we’ll begin seeing a lot of companies release their executive compensation from the past year as fiscal 2022 begins.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht
Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.
Latest Stories