Working as a Foreigner at Samsung Electronics in South Korea

In 2014, sometime after hopping around the US and East Asia for five months in post-grad school glory, I started at the Device Solutions Research division of Samsung Electronics. Samsung is the largest, most well known, and arguably the most coveted place to work on that tiny densely packed peninsula. Navigating the ins and outs of Korean conglomerate culture would come to be one of the strangest, hardest, and most rewarding periods of my life.

The Good: The people were great. Well known professors were periodically flown in to give talks. Two floors above me sat one of the co-inventors of the USB interface. I shared space with industry experts, professors, and authors of textbooks. The talent in those triple research towers in Hwaseong is deep. I felt dumb often and it is of my opinion that feeling dumb is the sweet spot for growth. It was an engineering candy-land and made the draconian corporate policies palatable.

The Bad: The corporate culture shock was real. Draconian working policies permeate the culture of Samsung Electronics. Strictly enforced weekly working hours with 20 hours of monthly overtime. No personal days or sick days coupled with a meager vacation allowance. Mandatory team building events. Frequent and mandatory boozy team dinners. All of this is pinned together by rigid top-down decision making for an efficient morale crushing machine with alcohol serving as a lubricant.

The Ugly: I recall attending an off campus technical seminar which was followed by a session of heavy drinking that lasted deep into the night. Next morning during the second session of the seminar, a colleague walked straight into the seminar room, placed his notes neatly on the desk, and proceeded to pass out underneath the desk. The first time I experienced this it was actually kind of funny. But as time wore on and I realized I couldn’t escape these kind of antics without being labeled as a social pariah, it became yet another burden.

In the end I don’t regret my time there at all and sometimes wish I never left. It was stressful but it provided context for what I can and should expect in terms of engineering depth in future organizations. My technical acumen grew, I published twice, my Korean improved tremendously, and most importantly I forged meaningful relationships with my teammates who I still keep in touch with. The juice was worth the squeeze.

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