Behind Alibaba: An English Teacher Who Can't Code

Jack Ma built a titan, and that titan only kinda trusts him

By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff

Posted May 8, 2014 8:41 AM CDT

(Newser) – Jack Ma did not code Alibaba in his college dorm room. Indeed, Ma can't code a lick, and claims he doesn't understand technology. Yet the 49-year-old former English teacher is the force behind an e-commerce giant that accounts for 60% of all packages shipped through China's postal system. Ma is just a guy who realized the importance of the Internet early, a New York Times profile today implies. In 1995, he and a friend set up a basic Chinese translation service, and were blown away by the instant response. He soon founded one of China's first registered Internet companies, China Pages.

When Pages folded, Ma spent a brief stint in the Commerce Ministry, before founding Alibaba in 1999. His role: Strategist and visionary. "I had always wished that I was born in a period of war," he says. "I could have been a general." His maneuvers aren't always lauded. The prospectus for Alibaba's upcoming IPO includes a warning that Ma could work against the company's interests, Reuters points out. That's common for tech founders, but notable in Ma's case because he made investors like Yahoo furious in 2004 when he quietly transferred Alibababa's lucrative Alipay unit to a company he controlled without consulting the board. Ma likens the move to Deng Xiaoping's decisive action against Tiananmen Square protesters. "He needed to make this kind of cruel decision."

Jack Ma, chairman of China's largest e-commerce firm Alibaba Group, gestures during a conference in Hong Kong, March 20, 2012.
Jack Ma, chairman of China's largest e-commerce firm Alibaba Group, gestures during a conference in Hong Kong, March 20, 2012.   (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
Jack Ma, chairman of China's largest e-commerce firm Alibaba Group, gestures during a conference in Hong Kong Wednesday, March 20, 2012.
Jack Ma, chairman of China's largest e-commerce firm Alibaba Group, gestures during a conference in Hong Kong Wednesday, March 20, 2012.   (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
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