23 October 2016
Alibaba chairman Jack Ma is probably sacrificing its five top IT talents to highlight how Alibaba values integrity. Photo: Xinhua
Alibaba chairman Jack Ma is probably sacrificing its five top IT talents to highlight how Alibaba values integrity. Photo: Xinhua

Alibaba uses mooncake ‘hacking’ incident to brush up image

Each year, ahead of the Mid-Autumn Festival, e-commerce giant Alibaba gives each of its staff a box of mooncakes.

This year the design of the box is said to be so special that many employees wanted to buy additional boxes.

So the human resources department arranged for workers to buy the remaining stock through an internal website on a first-come, first-served basis.

Five programmers in its cyber security department came up with a program that helped them snap up 124 of the special mooncake boxes by quickly detecting stocks when they became available and clicking on the buy button just as fast.

After their nice little caper was uncovered by HR, all five were asked to resign.

However, many in the IT industry criticized the HR’s decision as an overreaction.

The five engineers did not actually hack into the company system, but simply created a new program to increase their chances of getting those mooncakes.

Such practices are not uncommon. For example, people used their IT expertise to write similar programs when they competed for iPhones or concert tickets sold online.

Some observers note that similar cases have occurred in US tech companies like Google and Facebook, but unlike at Alibaba, the employees who pulled off the mischief were promoted or given a pay raise.

Internet firms usually encourage the hacker spirit, and those who can find loopholes in well-designed systems are commended for their technical prowess.

After all, those engineers might have just done it for fun or tried to show off their computer skills.

So, why did Alibaba get so serious about the incident and show the engineers the door?

According to the firm’s public relations unit, these five guys were asked to leave because they “touched the bottom line of integrity” and caused “unfairness in welfare distribution among employees”.

While looked upon to protect and defend the security of the company’s systems and platform, these engineers violated the trust of their fellow workers by breaking the rules themselves.

More importantly, Alibaba’s own integrity has been under question in recent years; it has been criticized for the rampant sale of knock-offs on its online shopping website.

As a result, the company’s image, along with its share price, has been under a lot of pressure.

That being the case, Alibaba, by sacking five of its security staff, probably wants to show that it values integrity.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 20.

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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