Early this month, Axon Active had pleasure to host Sacha Benz, a student from Switzerland coming over to observe and learn the real working environment in a global technology company. Through his connection with Daniel Gauch, VP at Axon Ivy, Sacha arrived at Axon Active with excitement. He spent a week observing the way Agile development teams work, joining the cross-continental conferences, and enjoyed the Vietnamese culture that he only had heard about.
A summary of my stay in Vietnam
I am a Swiss student. In Nov 2016, I had 1 week to stay with my job-shadower – a Product Owner – in the office of Axon Active Vietnam. During that time, I was able to see inside the work of the very motivated teams and got the chance to experience the differences of culture.
At the lunchtime of my third day in HCMC, I decided to get some “Phở bò”, which is a traditional Vietnamese dish. It is a noodle soup with beef and some bean sprouts and other delicious herbs.
The female chef also served me some kind of pastry with it. I did not know what exactly to do with it as the soup was very delicious already. So I just bit some off and thought it was a little tasteless.
She passed by my table two times and was shaking her head. At the third time I guess she couldn’t take it anymore and came to me and broke the pastry into small pieces and put them into my soup and was talking something really fast in Vietnamese. I guess it could have been something like: ” I don’t know how you can eat that just like this… Isn’t it obvious that this stuff needs to go into the soup?”. But I’ll probably never know. In the end I have to agree that it tasted much better within the soup than on its own and was a perfect fit.
As it was still raining after my lunch I decided to find a nice coffee place where I could also do some studying.
Vietnamese coffee is the best I have ever tasted in my life and I have been to quite some places mentioned in the above graph or have at least had some coffee from those countries. But it is not only the taste of the coffee which makes it so special. It is the whole culture around it.
In Switzerland it would be obvious that you’d go to Starbucks if you need Wi-Fi, a proper table and a nice atmosphere. On the other hand, Ho-Chi-Minh City (and also other places throughout Vietnam) are crowded with coffee shops. Within the city you could get a coffee every 50 meters. These places almost always provide a good Wi-Fi (which is by the way available almost everywhere for free even in the smallest soup restaurants where they have only two or three tables), very friendly staff, and a cozy environment which no Starbucks I’ve ever been was able to provide. If you order a “cà phê sữa đá” you will get an iced coffee with condensed milk which gives the coffee a very sweet taste. If you are more of a “I don’t like sugar” person you can also order it black (have a look at the breakfast picture) or if you ask for, in any other form that Starbucks would also serve you. Furthermore, you will always get served some tea (without sugar) to satisfy your thirst.
It was very entertaining that every 5 minutes we rose our glasses and shouted the typical “Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo” just as Vietnamese people do when they are drinking and spending an enjoyable evening with friends.
It was raining like there is no tomorrow. Someone here once told me that they sometimes drive to work by motorbike in the morning, and in the evening when they want to get home… well, they have to swim. I thought he was joking but I know better after today. Even though the statement might have been a little exaggerated, if the rain is as strong as it was today, it won’t drain off the streets if it continues for a long time. For me, however, the rainy weather was a good excuse to really catch up with some studying.
Crossing the street
Another nice experience was to cross the street. Sounds like easy as pie but this might just be the case in Switzerland where crosswalks actually mean something to the traffic participants. In Vietnam you’d just start to walk onto the street at a constant pace and never get the idea to stop or start to walk faster as the traffic is navigating around you which would be quite difficult for the people if you suddenly stop or move much faster. In my opinion, the safest way to cross a street or to participate in the traffic respectively, would be to drive a motorbike yourself and just go with the flow. But for today walking works just fine for me.
The working culture
As for working in Vietnam, my impression from this one week’s visit is, that work itself stays work and it doesn’t really matter where in the world one is located. What is different, however, is everything around the working time. For example, instead of having your coffee in the office or in a cantina you can have the after lunch coffee at one of the various coffee shops and sit outside with nice, hot temperatures.
Also, the little pleasures like getting some street food on the way home or having a beer with the dinner were maybe a little more frequent then they are in Switzerland.
What is also different from Switzerland, is the whole working culture. People are not complaining at all about work, like (some) people in Switzerland do. Maybe, this is also because I wouldn’t have understood it if they had complained in Vietnamese but my impression was really, that the people at Axon Active Vietnam are proud to be a part of the organization.
Are Swiss happier than Vietnamese?
One morning, I checked out of the hotel and then went to the office. In the parking lot I gave some chocolate to the nice security guy who was always up for a talk and to the lovely woman who sell coffee there. The security guy can speak some English and was translating some burning questions for one of the woman about Switzerland.
She wanted to know whether it is true that in Switzerland everybody is rich and happy. I told her that most people in Switzerland usually do quite have some money but that everything is also much more expensive than compared to Vietnam. About the happiness, (and I had this discussion hundreds of times in other countries) I told her, that Swiss people are usually not so happy. Or at least most of them do not make the impression of being happy when you see them walking on the streets.
She nodded her head and made a really funny move! She said: “Vietnam” and started to dance and then said “Switzerland” and sat on a chair. Somehow I was surprised how fast she got the point. Of course, I know that it is in everybody’s own responsibility to have a good and happy life but I think a culture of a country or even a region may strongly influence how one encounters life. But I don’t want to go into some Buddhist maxims right now.
The planning meeting with team Pixels’ and Alexandra Reich
I attended the planning meeting (the one with the poker cards explained in day 5) with team Pixels’ and the PO, Alexandra Reich (Alex). In the beginning, Alex introduced the different Personas relevant for the User Stories so everybody knew the target user who was finally working with the program. During this meeting, I learned just how important the role of the Scrum Master is. Huy, the Scrum Master was always reflecting the stories introduced by Alex very carefully in order to make sure, he and the team understood everything right. His calm, reasoned and competent comments to the topics made it quite obvious that he has great experience in his job.
Alex always stated that she is also always open for other ways to solve a problem than proposed by her. This, once more showed me that the teams are really able to give their own inputs and that the POs are doing a great job by giving them the freedom necessary to come up with solutions which could be some “out the of the box” thinking.
At one particular story, the team was very divided in their views about how many Story Points should be awarded. After a very long discussion between Alex and Huy, Huy looked at the team and asked: ” What about you team? What do you think?”. When nobody really said something, he added: “Are you scared?”. I had to laugh but was pretty much the only one so I shut up again
The meeting, once more confirmed my impression that the way of how things are done and communicated by the POs, the Scrum Masters, and the teams are leading to an open communication and a very creative problem-solving approach which is highly valuable for all people involved in the projects.
During the meeting with Markus (CEO of Axon Active Vietnam), we of course also got into the topic of differences between the Vietnamese and Swiss culture. He then gave me a very nice example of a wedding in Vietnam compared to Switzerland.
In Switzerland, I think all my Swiss readers would agree, you’d communicate the date of the wedding as early as possible in order to make sure that the majority of the people is able to visit the day of your life. This is quite different in Vietnam. He told me, that if you would invite the people even just 3 weeks before the wedding you’d probably have no visitors at the wedding because they would already have forgotten it again. This is why, in Vietnam an invitation to a wedding is communicated somewhat 5 to 7 days before the actual event takes place in order to make sure that someone even shows up.
The instant culture
Another example of cultural differences may be the fact, that most of the people cook with gas in Vietnam. But… NOBODY has a second gas bottle at home. This would not be imaginable in Switzerland. So if you run out of gas you’d just call the “gas delivery service” (even though it might be 2 a.m. on a Monday morning) and have your gas delivered.
Markus made a very true statement I think when he said:” Vietnam is an instant culture”. Planning a long time in advance is not something which is done here and it also doesn’t need to be done because everything works somehow out.
This reminds me of another story about the instant culture. Sebastian (CIO of the company) told me, that on a Sunday evening, around 10 p.m. he had a problem with his motorbike. In Switzerland it would be quite difficult to find someone fixing your bike at such a time. Well, in Vietnam he just drove to the official representative of his motorbike brand and got the bike fixed immediately.
The speed of lunch
Lunch was as delicious as it was fast. After just 10, or a maximum of 15 minutes everybody got up from the table again and left.
So let me give a quick side remark to my friend Nicholas from Switzerland who will visit Vietnam as an exchange student next year and is one of the slowest eaters I’ve ever met. ” You better learn to eat fast dude!”
The facemask, or the kindness of Vietnamese employees
During the meeting there were some people wearing face masks as the people here usually do on the motorbike. While it makes sense to me to wear such a mask on a motorbike to protect yourself from the dust it seemed a little odd to wear it during a meeting. Daniel, however, told me afterwards that they were not protecting themselves from something but that they were actually not feeling well and protecting the other employees from getting sick as well. After this explanation I have to admit that this would also make sense in Switzerland. People often go to work when they are not feeling well and then, week after week some other person gets sick and needs to stay home. If this could be avoided so easily it seems to be a very, very valid approach. Therefore, if I will visit a next lecture with a mask, don’t give me some puzzled looks but thank me for my thoughtful behavior!