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Life At Binance: Real Stories From Behind The Scenes

2021-01-23

What is it like to work for the largest crypto exchange in the world? 

Despite CZ’s tech-savvy appearance, accentuated by frameless glasses and a no-fuss, closely cropped haircut, he only trades a few times a year. Instead, he prefers to call himself a “hodler,” and maintains a sizable trove of BNB and Bitcoin (BTC).  

With a casual demeanor and candid way of speaking, shaped by years of working in the tech industry, CZ would often find himself quarreling with members of the media during Binance’s early days—often unintentionally, as words could be taken out of context on social media. That’s why these days, you’ll find him meticulously preparing for interviews, making sure to memorize the individual names and backgrounds of each journalist, as he recognizes that maintaining open dialogue and engaging in challenging discussions will keep him and the company accountable. 

 “As a CEO coming from a tech background, he’s getting better and better at dealing with the public and media,” said a journalist who covers the crypto industry.

Indeed, CZ used to prefer chit-chatting with team members rather than taking on a more formal leadership approach, but as he shifts his focus from technical details to core strategic issues, he finds that sometimes, formalities help expedite things.

This willingness to grow and self-iterate is shared amongst Binance employees. The team that was able to rapidly scale the business is largely the same one that keeps Binance at the top of the crypto industry. However, in the public sphere, their voices tend to be heard less often. 

Learning never stops: “It would take 588 days to finish reading the recommended books.” 

In 2020, more than 20% of Binance team members opted to take 1 on 1 foreign language classes, a perk offered to all employees. The most popular languages included Chinese, English, Japanese and Arabic. 

One Binance team member, a native Turkish speaker who works in the marketing department, signed up for a Chinese language course that was hosted three times a week. Today, he speaks Chinese fluently, and even gave himself a Chinese name: 睿甫(Rui Pu). During this same period of time, the local Binance TR exchange, which officially launched in 2020, has quickly become one of the top crypto exchanges in Turkey according to market share.

Binance team members have special chat groups dedicated to discussing the latest books. These “book clubs” are popular, and contain over 100 members who routinely share good books they’ve read recently. Last year, there were over 42 recommended books. While most recommendations were centered around tech and business topics, sci-fi novels made an appearance as well, including Fallen Dragon, and Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. For motivated readers who can finish a book in a week or two, it would still take 588 days to complete all the books on the 2020 recommendations list. 

However, the most popular learning medium amongst Binance team members, including CZ, are audiobooks. Team members would find themselves listening to recommended books in audio format—frequently at 1.5x speed, even while showering, walking their dogs, playing sports or during office breaks.

In addition to educational offerings, Binance provides employees with tennis and yoga courses to encourage a healthy work-life balance as well as the freedom to manage personal work schedules.

Facing a fast-growing market with frequent changes, individuals within the Binance team share some common traits: curiosity, a desire for knowledge, and passion for crypto and its freedom-related principles.  

Over the past year, Binance has launched more business lines including mining pool, BSC and Binance Card—all while enhancing existing ones. During the DeFi (decentralized finance) wave this past summer, new business models and technical innovations abounded, as teams worked to bridge the worlds of CeFi (centralized finance) and DeFi.

Before Binance Smart Chain (BSC) launched this past September, Binance’s development, testing and operation teams worked a 14 day sprint and ran code checks over 200 times. The director of the BSC ecosystem recalls, “we worked around the clock because we don’t want to be left behind in this DeFi era.” 

Product and technology breakthroughs were complemented by rapidly evolving marketing and customer service teams.

One Binance PR team member would get up early and spend two hours each morning catching up on learnings, dedicating one hour to news and updates, and another to improving her business logic. “I’m always scared of being left behind,” she confessed, and proactively finds ways to get ahead.

“Sometimes you don’t have time to think. Just bite the bullet and you’ll learn what you need to do by doing it,” said an operations team member who previously worked in the online entertainment industry. She recalled memories of her early days at Binance, “As a novice, I had so many questions to ask my colleagues every day.” It was only after a few weeks on the project that she became more confident. As new business lines rolled out, she found that her fast-learning instincts proved to be a valuable asset.

More direct learning opportunities come in the way of user and community feedback. Most Binance team members interviewed spoke of the necessity of “immersing oneself in the community.”

An executive manager who previously worked in the financial industry found himself in charge of more than 200 Binance user groups. Each time he looked at his phone, he would see thousands of new messages pouring in. Though he was no longer a frontline operator, he kept up a habit of browsing through user messages to answer questions or clarify the company’s position. 

Another product manager would set aside one hour every day to follow community updates, in between a packed schedule of daily meetings. In such a fast-paced industry, he understands when users voice their complaints, saying “No other industry is developing at such a speed. User feedback arrives quickly, and complaints are a natural part of the process.”

Everyone at Binance wants to know, above all, what users really care about.

Oftentimes too busy to approach users, Binance’s mid and back-end teams choose instead to approach those who are “closest to users”—for example, the customer service team.

Monthly internal sharing sessions are held to introduce the team to new businesses, products or industry trends. Once, a 45-minute sharing session was extended to 2 hours because the customer service team raised over 20 questions on behalf of their users. 

At Binance, over 20% of team members work on the customer service team, rotating between three 8-hour shifts to cover all time-zones. They routinely deal with 8-10 cases per hour. If a user reaches out after having sent their tokens to the wrong address, the customer service team will coordinate with tech, security, financial teams or even external partners to provide solutions. Binance is one of the only companies in the industry that is willing to conduct this type of fund recovery for users.

Customer service team members spend over 20 hours each month learning about new businesses—the minimum time required to finish listening to internal training videos.

As Binance rolls out more business lines and financial products, customer service team members must possess a great deal of knowledge on finance and blockchain technologies, which is a significant challenge for newer entrants.

Binance uses a KPI-OKR appraisal system, weighted towards attaining market share growth, increasing the number of active users, and customer satisfaction. These results are analyzed during weekly meetings.

As the market heated up in recent months, Binance saw a massive influx of users, and trading volume skyrocketed. A Binance customer service team executive, in between handling the surge in customer service tickets, took to watching episodes of The Big Bang Theory to take his mind off work during his off-hours.

As customer service wait times increased, users began to voice their concerns in community groups. He Yi, Binance Co-Founder and “Chief Customer Service Officer,” as she’s frequently nicknamed by people within the industry, responded by saying that Binance would employ chat bots to improve response times and the overall customer experience: “We will make sure that users access services more conveniently, and we will get rid of long waiting times.” In addition, Yi emphasizes that all employees should maintain a user-focused mindset and be prepared to lend support on issues that users face. 

An always-ready mindset: “I brought a laptop instead of a bottle of water to a hike.”

A Binance team member who works in the marketing department shared her typical daily schedule: meeting with the Europe and Africa teams in the morning, and the Asia team in the evening. Outside of these collaboration hours, she has the freedom to craft her own schedule, whether it’s resting, walking her dog or meeting up with friends.

However, during the days leading up to the Binance “Off the Charts!” Virtual Conference, a 10-hour dual-stream event stretching across 8 timezones featuring 6 languages, there was little time to spend on much else. At the end of the virtual conference, as members of the diverse and global Binance team appeared on the screen wishing Binance “Happy 3rd birthday,” she felt that the time and energy poured into the project was absolutely worth it.

All told, the marathon event, which featured 165 speakers and reached an audience of over 600,000, became an iconic event of the blockchain and crypto industry in 2020.

For the Binance tech team, who is responsible for keeping Binance’s systems operational, there is often an invisible “red button” to contend with. Severe market volatility could trigger this “button,” drawing the tech team together to engage in real-time monitoring.

When crypto speculators react strongly to market movements, the Binance tech team would often experience the same roller-coaster emotions. But their chief goal is to ensure the smooth operation of Binance’s core systems, either by expanding server capacity or deploying more resources. 

When positive market trends in early 2021 brought in an influx of users to Binance, its machine engine was put to the test. Several exchanges experienced unusual down time, but at Binance, the “red button” hasn’t appeared, thanks in part to the tech team’s due diligence.

Due to the 24/7 nature of the crypto industry, life at Binance often means working days are non-linear, with teams collaborating during common working hours. As one Binance team member puts it, “We are not only working in a distributed mode, but also in an ‘on the move’ mode.”

He Yi often has her schedule filled with meeting blocks from 9 a.m. to 12 a.m. These meetings connected seamlessly, and sometimes even overlapped. “I’m having meetings all the time. It's normal.”

The common credo of “crypto never sleeps” comes into play at Binance. With flexible working hours and a geographically distributed team, some jokingly call Binance “the company on which the sun never sets”.

Some Binance team members recall moments when spontaneous work sessions arose unexpectedly. There were calls fielded during hot pot dinners, Thai massages, deep sea fishing trips over the Pacific Ocean, and bumpy coach bus rides in South America.

One time, a European member of the tech team was taking vacation in China. Just as he ordered some stinky tofu and kebabs at a street food booth, an issue came up and he had to pull out his laptop in the middle of the sidewalk. When he finally returned to his food, it was already cold, and the booth was closing. He took the food back to his hotel and reheated it in the microwave, but it never tasted the same. Even today, he still laments the “legendary Chinese stinky tofu that I failed to enjoy.”

Another time, at the first showing of Avengers: Endgame, a Binance community manager was sitting in the cinema with her friends, holding popcorn in her hands and feeling lucky about winning the ticket lottery. However, when midnight struck, she was informed that a planned product launch was moved forward, and she and her colleagues had to take out their laptops and start preparing for it. Onscreen, Iron Man was enjoying time with his daughter. 

As audience members complained about the light from their laptop screens, they were forced to turn down the screen brightness and complete their work outside of the theater. When they came back to the movie, it had ended…  

Or, how about the time when one team member found himself working at the highest altitude. As he drove to a hiking spot, a tech upgrade request came up. He had to open his laptop and start working at 4,000m sea level. People teased him, saying “this guy brought a Macbook instead of a bottle of water to his hike.”

One example of a true labor of love occurred during the 2020 Spring Festival. The Binance marketing department created a task force dedicated to donating global goods in support of Binance Charity’s efforts in Wuhan. Despite not having any specialized knowledge of medical equipment, procurement or logistics, they sent requests to every single hospital, supplier and logistics company—searching all over the world for medical supplies. Eventually, they accomplished many things that initially seemed impossible, including sending 2,300 PPE items from Israel – items that were initially designed to protect wearers from Ebola – to hospitals in Wuhan.

Binance Charity ultimately donated more than 250,000 medical items worth over $1.5M USD to 124 hospitals and 74 medical teams in Wuhan during its most critical time of need.

The last example was on December 31st, 2020, when team members were preparing to launch a New Year’s “Year in Review” feature. Though the product manager in charge of the project was on his way to a movie, he received a request from the community to update the feature and immediately turned around and went home.

At the same time, a developer in Southeast Asia was at a party celebrating his birthday, but left the champagne and cake to jump on the project; another developer was spending New Year’s Eve with his family at a hot spring resort in the mountains of Taiwan. There was no Internet in his room, so he worked out of the cold lobby.  

As the team met virtually to discuss the project, they celebrated their colleague’s birthday from around the world and rang in the New Year.

Freedom and determination: “The company that defies expectations and shows a willingness to invest in the future.”

So, what motivates people at Binance?

When asked what’s the most attractive quality about Binance, most would mention the word “freedom.” It’s this feeling of freedom that makes them feel like it’s their “mission” to take up the cause.

Each team member subscribes to their own definition of freedom.

Beyond the freedom to set their own schedules–many love the flexibility of non-linear work schedules–there is the freedom to work on anything they want.

What surprised one team member was that the whole team, from the manager to individual contributors, were supportive of technical innovations, regardless of money, time and cost. They were willing to try new structures and solutions, and would not be content resting on past achievements.

“CZ wouldn’t reprimand because you wrote a wrong line of code. The most important thing is that we learn from our mistakes,” said an employee who previously worked for a large multinational tech company. 

Another product manager felt like they had the freedom to take on crossover roles. At Binance, team members are always encouraged to expand their abilities. This product manager took on the task of spearheading a key marketing activity, and now dedicates their time to designing activities with robust reward mechanisms for users. “There are no restrictions within the company. The executive team at Binance is willing to invest in the future.”

“Yi and other team members have been lending us support ever since we started the initial concepting stages of a new business line,” said a former business line director.

This type of free-form, tolerant environment could explain why Binance was able to create innovative and interesting products and offerings like IEOs via Launchpad, Launchpool and Liquid Swap.

In addition to new technologies and products, many new business lines at Binance have also emerged from team members who raise their hands and say, “I have an idea.”

For example, the Binance Pool lead previously worked in the marketing department. Within half a year after pivoting to build the business unit from the ground up, Binance Pool became the 2nd largest mining pool by hashrate. Many members of the Binance P2P business line also came from other departments, including the project lead. In 2020, the P2P platform saw trading volumes totalling over $900B USD, and now supports 51 fiat currencies.

A PR team member said she would never define herself as a “worker,” because there are so many things she could do outside her position—many of which were tasks she cherished.  

“Perhaps we are the trailblazers of a new era. But a real transformation may come in the near future.”

Company values are mixed with those of its employees, contributing to a sense of freedom, ambition and mission—that together have combined to make Binance what it is today. This is not only manifested in the work that’s done, but also in the private lives of its team members.

A favorite sport amongst Binance team members is skiing, which requires both courage and a tolerance for speed. 

CZ himself is fond of snowboarding. He even told his founding partners in the early days that he would take them skiing and snowboarding once the company found success.

As the story goes, Binance became the largest crypto exchange in the world in just 3 months. Within 3 years, it became a top player in the industry, boasting a diverse ecosystem of offerings. 

Skiing has since become a routine team building event every year, and employees also organize ski trips from time to time. Though it is said that only 1% of first-time skiers can turn it into a long-term hobby, during a team-building trip in Japan, a skilled snowboarder found that many first-timers weren’t afraid at all. “I found that many team members weren’t afraid of falling at all. They would stand up and try again.” Some even challenged themselves with intermediate level slopes right after they learned the ropes. “That was really impressive,” she recalled.

It’s hard to tell whether these driven qualities were in their genes or shaped by the organization’s culture.

 “I do feel that there’s an ambitious quality in the Binance employees I know,” said a crypto investor.  

However, in their private lives, Binance employees sometimes reveal different qualities.

During a small gathering, before the era of COVID-19 and social distancing, a member of the security team started rapping and beat-boxing. He changed the lyrics and sang in front of his boss and colleagues, “I’m that kick-ass programmer, working for Binance to make ends meet…” As a soft-spoken person whose daily tasks involve preventing hacking attempts, he and others showed a different side of themselves at that event.

Adapting to transformation: “Communication and coordination takes up 60% of my work”

To further explain the culture of freedom at Binance, it is important to note that Binance has a decentralized organization structure.

Currently, there are no internal-facing titles that are shown at Binance, as titles are not as important as business results. From the very beginning, Binance has adopted a rigorous recruitment process: candidates go through at least 5 rounds of interviews with team members from varying backgrounds and levels of seniority, including a cross-departmental bar-raiser round. Each interviewer has the power to veto the candidate.

When it comes to KPI assessments, every member of the organization is asked to review each other openly or anonymously, and these reviews will be closely referenced in the final assessment. Cross-team collaboration is encouraged, as are cross-team assessments.

Binance maintains a high level of internal transparency. CZ hosts company-wide meetings via conference calls every 1-2 months, and shares Binance’s strategic goals with team members, including the challenges and problems that the company is facing. There’s also additional time at the end for CZ to field 10-20 questions from individual team members.

During one of the meetings this past summer, one team member asked “Why were our bonuses from last quarter distributed late?”

CZ explained in detail and emphasized that “this won’t happen again.”

Binance also encourages team members to speak with CZ, He Yi or anyone within the company on a one to one basis. The only condition is that they schedule the meeting beforehand and bring an agenda, whether it be a question, proposal, issue (and proposed solution), or other. 

One tech employee who previously worked for a tech giant was not so accustomed to this type of decentralized organizational structure. Once, he sent his tech question to the group, and received a reply from CZ asking, “what can I do for you?”

During a meeting for the 3rd anniversary event, a designer argued with Yi on the design of a trophy. They had several rounds of debate before He Yi elected to respect the designer’s choice.

Generally speaking, the decentralized structure makes Binance less prone to internal politics, allowing it to instead be a more free and innovative company.

As a decentralized and geographically distributed team, team members could point out any problem or requirement in a large working group, while tagging related departments. Then, these people will create a smaller working group to discuss the issue in detail. All team members interviewed have experienced moments of surprise when they’re added to a new chat group.

Usually, the project initiator will prepare and share a document that includes background information, a to-do list, and a list of support that’s required. Normally a meeting would follow within 4 hours of everyone receiving the document, though this could be adjusted depending on the urgency of the project. The parties would then discuss the issue, add supplemental information, and confirm their share of the work, ensuring results would be delivered ahead of deadlines.

The time it takes from proposal to implementation is fast at Binance, and there’s limited approval procedures that get in the way. “Decentralized working does not harm efficiency, and there’s little time for idleness while on the job.”

However, as Binance grows bigger, there are new opportunity costs when it comes to delays in communication and management efficiency.

In 2018, Binance only had 300 employees, but this figure has increased by 5x, as headcount surpassed 1,500 by the end of 2020.

“Now we have so many people, sometimes you don’t even know whom to approach,” said a product manager.

As an international organization, Binance covers many countries and time zones; the rapid growth in business has made cross-team, cross-culture and cross-timezone communication the most time-and-energy-consuming work for many employees. As reported by more than one Binance team member, “communication and coordination” have become the most stressful part of work.

The HR department at Binance has adopted measures to cope with this issue, both recruiting professional managers from top corporations and promoting key frontline team members. These team members are given one-on-one leadership courses, further growing the organization’s capabilities.

In the meantime, internal processes and intermediate layers are introduced to distill the large network into smaller fractions, as responsibilities are delegated and communication lines set up. Teams function independently in order to increase flexibility and operation efficiency. Binance is gradually transforming itself from an extremely decentralized organization to a “network organization.”

How will professional managers with corporate backgrounds and management principles integrate with the hardcore, freedom-oriented culture of Binance? Especially during these fast-paced early stages of the crypto industry, a question arises: will their experience carry over to Binance? How will promoted frontline team members cope with their new role? And how will it be possible to respond quickly to the market after Binance adopts a network organization structure? These are all important questions that have yet to be answered.

During a recent internal meeting, He Yi mentioned that this year, Binance would promote more internal team leaders who were able to control costs, expand the business, comprehend business logic, respect users, and spend their time and energy solving user issues.

Over the past year, there were already some more junior team members who were promoted to management—the average age of the Binance team is 28. As they transformed from independent contributors to team leads, the manager role has generated both opportunities and challenges.

Though they’re working through a booklist that includes titles like Leadership and The Leadership Pipeline, the matters that concern them most have to do with how they can keep their team members happy during a period of rapid expansion. How do team leads properly inform people of their shortcomings in addition to celebrating their merits? When it comes to bonus allocation, how can speed of delivery be balanced with fairness and careful judgement?   

Every successful company goes through periods of change. As the organization evolves, companies face new challenges. From an industry perspective, it’s fair to say that Binance’s greatest enemy is itself, and it must be constantly be innovating in order to solve each challenge that comes its way.

Of course, all Binancians are united by their eagerness to learn and willingness to fight, coupled with a sense of mission and relentless appetite for freedom.

Binance team members maintain a positive outlook. “We keep creating new value for users.” While challenges are unavoidable throughout the journey, it’s important to keep in mind that no company is perfect, and there are no shortcuts to success. As one team member says, “Time will solve all problems.”

This article originally appeared on WeChat