Written by Wang Fangqing Thursday, August 25 2011
Snapshot: Xin Xiaowen, CTO, Sifang
SHANGHAI, China – Not many Chinese women love computer science, nor would they become a chief technology officer (CTO) in a technology company, but Xin Xiaowen, a 30-year-old Chinese woman, is an exception.
Not only does Xin hold a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she also is the CTO at sifang.com, a Shanghai-based location-based service provider (LBS) – think of your mobile phone telling you which shoe store is near your current location. Sifang is a mobile platform that allows users to share their location with friends.
Founded in 2009, the website has more than 1 million users, with a series of apps supporting different smart phones, including the iPhone, Android phone, and Blackberry. An app for Windows phones is under development.
Xin went to the United States in 1990 and spent 17 years there. Prior to Sifang, she worked for Microsoft and rPath Inc., a North Carolina-based cloud computing company.
Womenetics: We are really curious about the phones and the apps you are using.
Xin Xiaowen: I only use two phones – an iPhone and an Android phone. I use our own app, “play4f,” or “wan zhuan sifang” in Chinese, a lot, as well as Google Talk and Windows Live Messenger.
Womenetics: It sounds like you are really into social network service (SNS) apps. What could be the next big thing in the industry?
Xin: LBS is a huge field. GPS-based navigation and word-of-mouth referrals are already pretty successful apps. I think we've barely scratched the surface of what can be done.
With the proliferation of smartphones and 3G internet, the market is ripening. The beauty of LBS is that it brings the physical world and the online world together. The fact that it's Saturday afternoon and I'm on a street with a bunch of clothing stores could be used by an LBS app to help me find the best deals on the latest fashion. Along with the knowledge of my past purchases, the app could prioritize its recommendations by the types of stores I prefer.
Recommendations could also be improved based on the habits of people I'm familiar with. An added bonus would be that it could automatically let me know if a few of my best friends are also in the area doing some shopping. While it's at it, in a city like Shanghai, before I even get to the shopping street, the app could implement smart navigation by also leading me toward the closest parking lot that isn't full. The possibilities for bringing the physical and the virtual together through LBS are endless. For us LBS providers, it is still a long way to go to explore all the potential.
Womenetics: Will you provide new services aside from LBS?
Xin: We're focused on the intersection of LBS and social network service or SNS. That means helping mobile phone users have a fantastic experience interacting with other people and with nearby venues and services. That is basically our charter, and our program management team is constantly working on innovative ways of achieving it.
Womenetics: You chose computer science as your major. What is so interesting about it? And if you got the chance to choose again, would you make the same decision?
Xin: I chose computer science because I had been exposed to it through a couple of programming classes in high school and found it fun. If I could go back to college, I'd probably still study computer science, though I'd also put more effort into learning about business and management. I enjoy helping an organization run efficiently, and it's never too early to learn the requisite skills.
Womenetics: How did you become a CTO?
Xin: I got the terrific opportunity because I was recruited by my good friend and former Microsoft coworker to help start this company. So, yes, I’m also one of the founders.
Womenetics: It is so rare to see a female CTO. Does being a woman pose a lot of challenges at your work?
Xin: First of all, I think anyone in this role is mostly judged by the performance rather than gender. But I have to say sometimes it is a little harder for a female senior to establish a business relationship with guys, who like to discuss business over a bottle of beer or something. It may be a little awkward for me to do that one to one with a guy.
Overall though, I feel very comfortable with my job. Ever since I studied computer science at MIT, I've always had more guys than girls around me at school and work.
Womenetics: What are your responsibilities in the company?
Xin: My job basically is to get a product of the highest quality and highest usability out the door in an efficient manner. To achieve this goal, I'm constantly looking for ways to improve the team's communication, processes, and morale. I spend a lot of time recruiting talent and helping people develop their full potential. I'm also involved in a lot of technical discussions, especially ones involving major server infrastructure-level decisions to make sure we're going in the right direction from a technology perspective.
Womenetics: How do you manage to keep up with every trend in the fast-paced technology world?
Xin: I've always liked technology. I like reading about it, and I like going to technology events. While things change a lot in this field, the fundamentals also stay the same.
Womenetics: What do you usually do to release your stress after work?
Xin: Over the weekends, I usually hang out with friends or find interesting events to go to. I recently started playing ultimate Frisbee every week. It's a great workout, which requires a lot of skills. I like the process of learning and getting better at it.
Last, but not least, I like the fact that it's a team sport, so cooperation is key to winning, just like it is in the real world.
Wang Fangqing (Frances Wang) is a freelance reporter based in Shanghai. For the past four years, she has been writing for a variety of English language publications, including Tobacco Journal International, Soap Perfumery & Cosmetics and Securities Industry News, reporting business trends in Asia. A Chinese native speaker, she is also fluent in Japanese and English.