German finds his technology niche in city

Sep 12, 2014

HAVING worked for decades as a technical manager in such well-known industrial companies in Germany as Zeiss and Grundig, 68-year-old Siegfried Hoffmann now spends half his time in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, as a product manager of a leading information-storage company.

With high-level knowledge and plentiful research and production experience in fine mechanics, Hoffmann first came to the city in 2007 when his colleague Zhu Ming, a Chinese German, established the Netzon Information Storage Co Ltd in Suzhou.

Hoffmann and Zhu worked together in an optical disc library program in Grundig in the late 1990s. They produced robotic data-storage devices that included mechanical arms that could pick needed discs from drawers and load and unload them from disc drives with robotic control. They also worked on file-system authoring, file tracking and access-control software. One such device alone could provide terabytes and petabytes of storage.

Zhu purchased the project in 2000 to establish his own company, Human Interactive Technologies (HIT), in Germany. As its business expanded more and more to China, Zhu decided to set up a new firm in his homeland in 2007 and move its production sector there. He was attracted by the favorable infrastructure and encouraging policy of the Suzhou National New and Hi-tech Industrial Development Zone, which provided a subsidy of more than 1 million yuan (US$163,124) and a workplace for him to start the business.

As an employee of HIT and product manager for Netzon, Hoffmann began his frequent travels between China and Germany, working in Suzhou for about one month in every two months, apart from his family and pets.

“I came to Suzhou because I’ve been working on the program since 1999 and I’m happy to work with an excellent team to witness fruitful development of the optical disc library industry,” Hoffmann told Shanghai Daily.

He has been responsible for product research and production, as well as overseas business promotion.

“Besides research and development of new products, Hoffmann ... has built up German enterprise culture in this Chinese corporation, which pushes us to make continuous improvements with our products,” said Zhu.

As optical disc libraries, which are more stable and consume less energy than magnetic disks, have become more popular in recent years, Netzon has grown to more than 70 employees, and clients all over the world. Customers include national archives in China and the Czech Republic, as well as banks and social media companies such as Facebook.

Though the largest optical disc library it produces now can hold only 560 slots for discs, each of which can store 100 gigabytes of information, it is designing and testing new products with 1,750 slots and 10,368 slots — an effort led by Hoffmann.

Facebook plans to incorporate the petabyte-level library with 10,368 slots into its future database.

“It would be the most advanced optical disc library, as our competitors are working on devices with 7,000 to 8,000 slots,” said Zhu.

To win the contract with Facebook, Hoffmann said Netzon defeated competitors with its research and development speed and the quality of its products. The two companies signed a strategic cooperation agreement in August last year. After three to four months, Netzon convinced Facebook about its new designs. Facebook announced in January that it will use optical disc libraries for data storage.

While working with the huge social media company, Hoffmann became extremely busy in recent years. Most staff are now working from 8am to 9pm, but he stays in the office even longer, communicating with clients in America and colleagues in Germany.

Though his work pace in Suzhou is much faster than in Germany, Hoffmann is satisfied with his job and life here.

“There are few opportunities nowadays for people to make visible contributions to something that keeps leading an industry,” he said.

“I think Suzhou is an attractive city for foreigners, both for working and living. It’s beautiful and the local government is helpful, with favorable services,” he added.

Although he is not a full-time employee in Suzhou, he still can enjoy special subsidies from the city government. He lives in an apartment complex provided for special professionals, with discounted rental fees paid by Netzon.

He was rated among professionals of the city’s Seagull Project, which supports the introduction of professionals into key and emerging industries. With this honor, he may receive a subsidy of 15 to 25 percent of his salary from the municipal government, while the New and Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone provides him an extra allowance of 30,000 yuan per year.

But there is something imperfect for him. With few Germans living around, he is a little bit lonely sometimes, missing German food with delicious cheese. Fortunately, some of his colleagues would invite him to their home and enjoy local cuisine.

He has been planning to bring his family to Suzhou to see how he is going on in the city, but they never managed to come as his daughter has been busy with her studies and their dogs and cats need caring. But he still hopes that they may come here one day before he is retired.

About the Column

Suzhou Face

This series focuses on individuals who have lived in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province for a while and have a tale that’s worth telling. Age, gender, nationality and race are all unimportant in comparison with what adventures the subject has been up to, the experiences they can recount.

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