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Struggling Huawei loses top ‘Genius Youth’ recruit

When Huawei Technologies Co founder and chief executive Ren Zhengfei initiated a programme known internally as “Top Minds” in 2019, just months after the company was blacklisted by the US government, he committed to write fat pay cheques to woo top talent to join the telecommunications equipment maker’s ranks and “energise the organisation”.

That recruitment drive, later dubbed as the “Genius Youth” programme, gave priority to candidates whose research had produced “tangible and impactful” results, research papers or patents; those from top-notch laboratories or honours programmes; and winners of top international competition in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to the advertisement posted by Huawei on Weibo at the time.

Of the many skilled young talent recruited under the programme, Peng Zhihui emerged as the most high-profile hire. The 29-year-old wunderkind from Ji’an, a prefecture-level city in eastern Jiangxi province, joined in 2020 to work on artificial intelligence (AI) projects at Huawei’s computing division and became a viral sensation on Chinese social media for posting his inventions, including an Iron Man-inspired robotic arm and a self-driving bicycle.

But Peng, who reportedly drew an annual salary of up to 2 million yuan (US$287,000), on Tuesday announced on video-sharing platform Bilibili that he was leaving Huawei to start a new endeavour, dealing a fresh blow to the Shenzhen-based tech giant’s efforts to bolster its roster of talent amid its continuing struggles with US sanctions.

In his post, Peng – known as top influencer Zhihuijun on Bilibili – thanked his colleagues and Huawei, adding that he will “start a new cause to do something more challenging”.

“Though there should be tactics in war, courage is fundamental,” Peng wrote in his post, citing a quote from ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi to suggest his passion for a new undertaking.

Huawei declined to comment. Peng did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Peng’s high-profile departure has now put a dent in the sustainability of Huawei’s Genius Youth recruitment programme, in which the company commits to pay successful candidates at least five times what their peers are making as well as provide mentorship and challenging projects.

“I’m doubtful about the programme,” said Xiang Ligang, founder of Beijing-based telecoms sector-focused information portal CCTime.com. “I don’t believe these so-called boy geniuses are taking the company to the next level.”

Peng’s sudden departure comes as Huawei founder Ren, 78, has humbly sought ideas from employees about the company’s future direction, while US sanctions continue to bite and leave its once-lucrative smartphone business crippled by various trade restrictions.

Ren has asked Huawei’s scientists and experts to hold cross-disciplinary discussions and “speak freely” about which direction the company should be headed, according to an internal memo published on the online company’s employees’ forum in July.

“Huawei grew into a giant without many of its leaders or engineers displaying much of the genius flair,” Xiang said. “Huawei needs people who fight hard battles and take concrete steps to grow.”

In March, Huawei said it had hired more than 300 recruits through the Genius Youth programme, without elaborating on how many have left the company.

Before Huawei, Peng worked at Chinese smartphone giant Oppo as an algorithm engineer, a job that entails improving AI applications.

Peng has not been shy about his AI-related pursuits. “Manifesting the robots with flesh and giving it a soul with AI would be a geek’s true romance,” he said in an interview with local media Gitee.

He received his master’s degree in information technology in 2018 from the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in southwestern Sichuan province, where he launched two start-ups involved in 3D printers and biped robots. South China Morning Post

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