(The following article is property of Avenue Code, LLC, and was originally published with permission at Total Retail on November 30, 2020.) Ming Lu, CTO at eBay Classifieds Group Emerging Markets, shares takeaways from his global e-commerce career and explains the people-first philosophy that guides his management style.
Avenue Code: Tell us about your personal career path. How has your global experience impacted your career?
Ming Lu: My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in Computer Science, and I have worked in technology ever since. International collaboration has added a lot of fun and flavor to my career, and it has also given me a broader perspective. For example, when I was at Walmart Global eCommerce, we were researching local grown eCommerce services in the international markets. We discovered that other countries like the UK, Chile, and Mexico already had very sophisticated grocery delivery models; this was one of many experiences that opened my eyes to appreciate international collaboration.
AC: How did working with a global team improve Walmart’s e-commerce platform?
ML: In my view, global collaboration was more instrumental in the journey than in the end product. I helped set up the first overseas development team in China for Walmart.com and then created the first business process off-shore team in China, and I found that off-shore teams provide really good service. If we found an issue late in the day, it would be addressed by the time we came in the next morning.
Another important point is the perspective you gain from international collaboration. In the US, if you need a new website or app, you build it without much concern about internet connectivity, but if you’re developing a product for an emerging market, you have to approach it from a different angle. In Africa, for example, you have to be very sensitive to the bandwidth your website or app takes up. Working with global teams reminds you to ask yourself if you’re looking at your product from a Silicon Valley perspective or if you’re considering the diversity of your customers.
AC: What drew you to joining the eBay Classifieds Group?
ML: eBay Classifieds Group encourages an innovative and Agile culture. Even though eBay is a big company, our team has a lot of autonomy while also benefiting from constant knowledge sharing across teams, even if they’re 10 time zones away. There are a lot of players in the online classifieds space, including Facebook Marketplace, and I believe my team and I can build something potentially groundbreaking to change the entire landscape of the industry.
Ming Lu speaking at the Becoming eBay Summit. Image courtesy of Ming Lu.
AC: What new challenges and opportunities has COVID-19 created for eBay classifieds and e-commerce as a whole?
ML: E-commerce has, of course, expanded significantly. I just looked at my credit card statement from last month, and every item was an online transaction or a grocery delivery charge. The classifieds sector, however, presents a different challenge, because the transaction model entails finding an item for sale online, reaching out to the seller, and vetting the item/exchanging goods in person.
Because of the in-person contact, we initially saw a dip in the vibrancy of classifieds, but now it’s making a comeback. In tough times, people want to buy items at a reasonable price, which often means shopping locally for used items. People are finding creative ways to make this transaction safe. For example, our sellers provide video demos of products, payments are made virtually, and items are picked up with social distancing protocols in place.
From the product perspective, our team is also adding new features that make buying and selling easier. For example, we want to make the platform safer by eliminating potential scammers. We’re trying to add new features that give people a better idea of the products before meeting in person so that we save people time and reduce exposure.
AC: What’s your strategy for managing a new team?
ML: It depends on the state of the team. If the house is “on fire,” I bring about change very quickly. Typically, however, it’s better to be patient so that you can fully understand what state the team is in and how to introduce effective change. I think of it like purchasing a house in winter - the curb appeal may change significantly come spring when the flowers bloom. In the same way, managers should give people time to showcase their skills and processes.
AC: How can executives successfully manage distributed teams during the lockdown?
ML: Because my team was already collaborating with distributed teams in San Francisco, Shanghai, and Cape Town, it was very easy for us to transition to working from home. That said, I now check in with my team more consciously. I set aside time for informal coffee hours where we connect and communicate relationally without a feeling of rank and position.
I also do a lot more skip level meetings to ensure that everyone understands I am available to them. Before the pandemic, executives would run into employees in the office or elevator, but now we don’t have that opportunity. Executives need to make a commitment to their people and make themselves available and approachable. Building relationships with your team is just as important as delighting your customer.
Now more than ever, executives need to focus on empathetic leadership. Sometimes my team members will apologize for the noise from a child or pet in the background, but the truth is that kids are not invading work life - companies are invading home life. People are people, not titles or output. Companies and positions will come and go, but the relationships we foster along the way are what we hold on to.
AC: How would you describe your management philosophy?
ML: I have three objectives for my team. First, I want them to feel like they are learning by working with me. Second, I want them to know that they are part of a team of people they can call friends. Third, I want them to understand the “why” behind the products we’re building. For me personally, it was incredibly important to see the disadvantaged people who are using my app to flip cars for a living in remote cities where the unemployment rate is 33%. The goal of my work is to serve people and to improve their standard of living. I want my team to understand this. Before COVID, I even created an exchange program between offices so that people could learn new languages and cultures as well as new technologies.
AC: What do you enjoy the most in your career?
ML: I love developing solutions that really delight our customers. Technology is about serving people, so you have to ensure that the end result solves problems to take care of users. Technology itself is fascinating and fun, but it’s important not to lose sight of the people who build it and the people who use it.
AC: How do you personally manage so many diverse projects at once? Do you have a methodology that helps you stay on track?
ML: You have to compartmentalize yourself and separate activities so as not to lose sight of the big picture. One of my biggest challenges is keeping good notes from so many diverse meetings. I’ve experimented with note-taking on my laptop and iPad, but I always go back to pen and paper. Writing with a fountain pen allows me to remember my psychological frame of mind during any given meeting based on my handwriting. Technology solves many problems, but we should not forget about the fundamentals.
AC: What has been a highlight for you in the last few years? Was there a moment, either for you personally or for eBay, that you knew you were on the right track?
ML: There is always a little bit of tension between technology and product teams. Tech teams focus on the foundation, the infrastructure, and the functionality. Product teams focus on business initiatives and improving KPIs. In less healthy dynamics, there can be a conflict over whether you’re paying back technical debt or building new products.
My highlight was when I wanted to use the technical debt capacity to build new features and help the product team meet the business goals, and the head of product thanked me but said we couldn’t build new products at the expense of technology. At that moment, I realized we were totally aligned. It was beautiful that we got to a point where we were advocating for each other. If we can see requests from other teams’ perspectives, organizations can fire on all cylinders to achieve more. Organizations should avoid in-fighting at all costs and strive instead for empathy.
AC: Thank you for your time today, Ming! It’s inspiring to hear about the measures you’ve taken to care for your team during this time. We also look forward to hearing about how eBay will continue to evolve the classifieds marketplace!
Anna Vander Wall
Anna Vander Wall is a freelance senior editor and writer in the tech industry and beyond. She particularly enjoys collaborating with Avenue Code’s talented Snippets contributors and whitepaper authors.