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Esther's Story

At SAP, we believe that when you bring everything you are, you can become everything you want.

I see SAP as just like a deep, broad ocean that we have to explore. I keep swimming and I keep exploring. You can search for any kind of opportunities by yourself and there are always all kinds of opportunities for people to find.

Esther Piao

"Are you a spy?"

Those four words left Esther Piao completely nonplussed. But only for a split-second. She regained her composure swiftly.

Listening to her describe the unexpected situation, you understand that one reason for the question might have been that the multilingual Korea-based SAP employee is actually Chinese.

"That moment was really a big challenge for me. The background is that Korea and China are major competitors. I was at a meeting with a Korean client and I had brought in a group of Chinese experts to deliver the services because we didn’t have enough resources here in Korea.

"So picture this. A group of Chinese people are visiting a Korean customer and they keep asking you questions about your system, your business processes, your company, so naturally they felt uncomfortable about this. They just stopped the meeting abruptly and I still remember the words they used. They asked me, ‘Who are you? Are you a spy from China?

"At that time I felt a little bit stuck, but I knew that I was the only person responsible for the project and I was representing SAP Korea anyway, so I just had to stay calm and be totally professional. I tried to remind them that from a policy perspective, we do have the NDA signed before we deliver any service to a customer, so they had nothing to worry about. From the resource perspective, I was very confident about the integrity of my team – they were senior engineers, very experienced and skilled.

"I told the customer that if they insisted, they could replace me if they had any doubts about my motives. I said of course they could replace me with another Korean-speaking colleague if they wanted, but I was confident that because I speak Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and English, I could help them the best to negotiate. I talked to my team and told them to be careful. I said, ‘When you are asking the customer questions and if you sense they are not comfortable with a topic, just stop and let me know.’ I said if that situation arose, I would talk to the customer directly.

"Anyway, the result was really good and the customer was satisfied. That was really cool. I realized that language is really important and also you have to understand the Korean culture before you can understand the people and the customers here.

"I’m originally from Shenyang in the northern part of China. I went to university in another city, Dalian. Although I majored in English and didn’t have any real connection to technology, my first job was an IT company and I worked there until 2006. Then I joined SAP China and worked there for six years. I transferred to SAP Korea in October 2012 mainly because my husband is Korean, but I was also searching for some new opportunities as well. While I’m very interested in new cultures and broadening my own experiences, it was a really hard decision to leave home.

"When I told my parents, they were not happy, especially because I am the only daughter in my family. In China, most families only have one child, so it was a very hard thing for my family to accept. Anyway, they respected my decision. When I moved to Seoul, it was a very difficult day. I cried and I got sick. But my attitude was that I had to try my best and if I didn’t like it, maybe we could go back to China.

"It was such a major step to take, but one big factor was that my husband had done the same thing for me. Earlier, he had abandoned a lot of things in his home country for me. He decided to move to China to live with me for about two years, and that was a time when he had to adapt and learn a lot of Chinese. Then one day he just asked me, ‘Esther, do you want to go with me back to Korea? Maybe we can learn more.’ I was not happy about this at first because it was going to be really new for me. Also, I had heard from a lot of people around me that it’s not easy for a woman to live in Korea. But I thought about what he said and I concluded that I could still manage it. I think it depends and it’s really up to you. I had never been to Korea before so I was a little bit scared, naturally.

"When I came here I realized that Koreans are very polite. One thing that really surprised me when I first came to SAP Korea was that there were not many foreign employees working here. SAP China, on the other hand, has a lot of foreigners. I think I am the first Chinese employee here in Seoul and I think one of the reasons might be the language barrier.

"For the first six or seven months after I first moved it was a disaster, a nightmare for me, very challenging because I used to work in the product support team in China, which is the back office team. But my journey at SAP Korea started with the role of an enterprise support adviser. And then I moved to TQM to support premium engagement customers, so they were both roles that are actually for the front office teams. I had to talk to the customers directly, so you can imagine how tough it was for a foreigner to speak to the Korean customers in Korean, especially when you are not a native speaker. It was really hard for me.

"Naturally, Korea is also a totally different work environment as well. If you only speak English here, you cannot survive. You have to learn to converse in Korean. In my TQM role, my first premium engagement customer was one of the big three shipbuilding companies in South Korea. They had the first HANA implementation project in Korea, but they are located in another city, not in Seoul. I was not familiar with this country, but I had to take a train for maybe three and a half hours to a different place. I worried that maybe I wouldn’t understand them because I had only been here for a year and my grasp of the Korean language was not perfect.

"Around that time, I made a conscious decision to improve not just my verbal Korean skills, but my writing as well. I was really stressed at that time, and to get rid of it I turned to one of my hobbies, which is writing.  I started to write a blog in Korean. There was no other way, so I had to do it. But I found that a lot of people liked my blog posts, which became more and more popular. One of the Korean broadcasting stations invited me to join their radio program in 2014 as a regular guest to talk about Chinese culture and music. This was great for me. By doing this, I learned a lot about Korean culture as well. I found that I actually had the inner potential to get out of my box. At first I had felt really frustrated about myself when I came to Korea, thinking that I cannot do anything here. But gradually I found that ‘Oh I can do it!’

"SAP means a lot to me. In my 13 years with the company, I see it as just like a deep, broad ocean that we have to explore. I keep swimming and I keep exploring. You can search for any kind of opportunity by yourself and there are always all kinds of opportunities for people to find. Technology might sound impersonal, but I think we put some emotion and meaning into technology, making it more user-friendly and relevant. My plan is to one day write a story about an ordinary person who is struggling to learn and grow in an ever-changing IT environment.

"Home for me is an interesting notion. I really have to clarify what home means. I was born in China, so from that perspective my home should be Shenyang but I spent most of my time in Dalian, so I love Dalian a lot. Then again, my husband is Korean, so I have a deep connection here. And while I’ve only been in Seoul for a few years, it’s not that long but for me, it’s really been a fantastic experience and I’ll never forget it. Every place is precious to me and each city makes me who I am."

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