Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Arrives

For driving e-commerce innovation

“Young people are changing the world of projects by the way they live. They’re buying online and watching videos and live streaming—all of which is changing e-commerce and cloud services.”

Stephen Xu speaks from experience: Not only is he one of those young people, he’s also a project leader at one of the largest e-commerce companies in the world.
Xu joined Alibaba in 2017 and was named head of the project management office (PMO) for business unit infrastructure just two years later. Overseeing a team of 10, he has helped shift the PMO’s focus from execution to strategy, leading to substantial improvements in efficiency and costs. He credits his rapid rise in part to coupling “business understanding with project management skills.”

More than anything, Xu says, working in the digital world requires an agile mindset and a ready-for-anything gut reflex that keeps teams nimble amid constant change. “I believe black swan incidents, like Brexit or COVID-19, might become a new normal phenomenon in the future,” Xu says. “That will make strategic agility even more important.”

“Young people are changing the world of projects by the way they live.”

Q&A: Stephen Xu on Apollo, AI and thinking strategically

What project in the world most influenced you personally?

Apollo 11. The moon landing project gathered the best scientists and astronauts to go further than mankind ever had. The project’s legacy is invaluable for every person on earth.

What’s the most influential project you've worked on?

I’m currently working on a project closely related to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Due to confidentiality, I can’t say too much about it, but I’m sure it will deliver great value to the games’ domestic and global spectators. It’s the project I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

What’s the one must-have in The Project Economy?

Operational excellence. A company’s ability to succeed against the competition depends largely on its ability to execute.

What’s your philosophy for leading projects?

Understand your company’s business and technology. And help people of different backgrounds to work together.

What’s one way managing projects will have changed by 2030?

AI could change project management significantly. It might take over a lot of project managers’ tasks, such as organizing meetings and recording meeting notes. If so, project managers will have more time to think strategically.

What famous or historic person would you want on your project team?

Neil Alden Armstrong. He was an excellent individual contributor and team player—self-disciplined, knowledgeable and collaborative.