2023.08.06

The Interview – Fabien Loudet

Written & Edited by:
Nil Larom, President, French Tech Beijing
Jesua Epequin, Secretary General, French Tech Beijing

 

The French Tech Beijing team sat with Fabien Loudet a French Senior Operations Engineer at Duolingo.

 

 

01

What is your personal and professional background, and what brought you to China?

 

My personal and professional background is quite diverse. I have been in China for 14 years, and during this time, I have worked for various companies and pursued my studies in different places. Let me list them for you:

I started out in France as an IT technician, working full-time for a company, but then decided to further my education and enrolled in a Master of Science in Computer Science program. I studied at a private school called Supinfo which had a good reputation for teaching practical skills that are relevant in corporate environments.

As part of my master’s degree, I had the opportunity to study in China thanks to Supinfo’s partnership with Chinese universities. Despite an initial rejection, I convinced the person in charge to accept me, and that’s how I ended up in China.

I’ve always been interested in Asia and its culture. When I arrived here, I quickly realized that it was the place to be in. In 2009, right after the Beijing Olympics, China was the new El Dorado, and many foreign companies were investing here.

While studying in China, I got an internship at a French company called Auralog, which provided online language learning solutions. After my internship, I was offered a full-time position, and I continued working for the company, which was later rebranded as Tell Me More and acquired by Rosetta Stone. Currently, I am working for Duolingo, an American company that produces the world’s most popular language learning app.

Regarding my work experience, I have primarily worked for foreign companies in China, such as Auralog/Tell Me More and now Duolingo ; these companies value hiring people with international mindsets. I have not had direct experience working for purely Chinese companies. However, I have observed that the work culture in China, especially in the tech industry, involves longer working hours and a strong emphasis on dedication and hard work.

 

 

02

What are your thoughts about the importance of Mandarin in the work environment? How has this evolved since you arrived in China 14 years ago?

 

I would advise professionals coming to work in China to learn the language; it will help you to not only communicate, but also to better understand and adapt to the working culture. I saw this to be true ever since I arrived in China 14 years ago; it opened up new opportunities for me to communicate effectively with colleagues and business partners. I started learning Chinese shortly after arriving in China, using a combination of self-learning and online resources. It took me around five to six years to reach a decent level that I can use in most situations. I even took the HSK Level 4 & 5 exams to assess my proficiency; Mandarin for work purposes was a bit more challenging and I learned technical vocabulary in order to reach a level where I could actively participate in engineering discussions and office meetings. 

With China’s growing influence and the increasing number of foreign companies investing here over the years, demand for Mandarin-speaking professionals has also increased. Companies are looking for employees who can bridge the cultural and language gap and effectively communicate with both local and international teams. Additionally, the rise of technology and digitalization has made it easier to learn and practice Mandarin through online resources and language learning platforms that provide interactive an increasingly immersive learning experiences.

 

 

03

What can you tell us about cultural particularities of working in China, as well as characteristics of operating projects cross-border in a cross-cultural company?

 

One of the contrasts to other countries that I’ve noticed is the “grind” mindset in China, where people are used to putting in extra hours. This can be challenging at times, especially when coordinating projects with teams in different time zones.

In terms of operating cross-border projects in a cross-cultural company, I have mainly worked for foreign companies in China, so I can’t speak for the typical Chinese work environment.

From the perspective of project coordination between the China team and teams in other countries, we have found ways to leverage the time zone differences to our advantage. We primarily communicate in Chinese within the Beijing office, while written communication is conducted in English due to Duolingo’s presence across various offices globally. We altogether have 24-hour coverage, which has been beneficial for project coordination. The Beijing office, being the first international office outside of the US, has gained a reputation for efficiently delivering high-quality output. Our cohesive culture is what visitors have noticed and praised the most..

A reason we can work effectively with teams abroad is our company culture and diligent hiring process ; the bar is set very high to join Duolingo. There is a special care put into getting people with the right skill set, including interpersonal skills.

 

 

04

What are your thoughts with regards to work cultures in American, European and Chinese companies and ecosystems?

 

When it comes to work cultures in American, European, and Chinese companies and ecosystems, I can only speak from the perspective of a foreign company in China.

Interestingly, I found it more challenging to adapt to the work culture of American companies than to work with Chinese colleagues in China. This may be because I assumed that the work cultures in Europe and America were more similar; I quickly realized that there are significant differences between these two, and it took me some time to navigate and understand these differences.

When Auralog was acquired by Rosetta Stone, I learned a lot about corporate culture and the challenges of integrating a new company. I believe that my current position at Duolingo is a testament to the skills and knowledge I gained from working in American companies. As an American company, Duolingo values employees with international mindsets. Most -if not all- of the people in the Beijing office have experience working abroad, and my previous experience with American companies played a role in securing my position here. 

Duolingo places a strong emphasis on passion and mission. It is important for employees to genuinely believe in the company’s mission of providing affordable education to as many people as possible. Our CEO knows the difference education can make in improving people’s lives. This shared mindset is a reason why people are happy to work for this company, and the source of our cohesive and dedicated nature as a whole. The open-mindedness and international experience among employees brings about a positive work culture.

Comparing the work culture in China and other countries, one sees locals are accustomed to working longer hours than I have experienced in France or during my business trips to other countries. However, within Duolingo, the work culture is driven by passion and a shared mission, regardless of the geographical location.

 

05

Let’s talk about the impact of AI tools on your organizations and customers. 

How has Github Copilot impacted productivity at Duolingo? 

How has your partnership with OpenAI affected the Duolingo app user experience?

 

Duolingo has been proactive in adopting and investing in novel tools. We recognized the importance of going mobile early on and expanded our platform to include mobile apps. Currently, we are fully investing in AI to enhance the learning experience for our users and improve productivity internally.

Internally, engineers at Duolingo have access to AI-powered tools like GitHub Copilot, which have significantly boosted productivity. It provides suggestions and snippets when writing new code; this save time and make coding more efficient. Additionally, Copilot learns from the engineer’s habits and improves its suggestions over time, tailoring itself to suit the engineer’s style; Copilot’s learning aspect is particularly impressive!

Externally, Duolingo’s partnership with OpenAI has allowed us to introduce a new AI-powered subscription grade called Duolingo Max. This partnership has allowed Duolingo to offer new features and benefits to its users such as “Explain My Answer”, where AI provides detailed explanations for mistakes made by users. Another feature is RolePlay, which allows learners to practice conversation skills in an interactive AI chatbot experience.

These AI-powered features really enhance the value and learning experience for Duolingo’s users. These tools and features demonstrate our commitment to leveraging AI to deliver better education and language learning opportunities to as many people as possible.

While there are those who are concerned about AI replacing jobs such as engineering, I believe that AI can enhance the work of engineers and make them more efficient, rather than replacing them entirely.