BARCELONA -- Ryan Ding looked down, grabbed his head, and laughed.
The simple question -- How old are you? -- would not faze the top executive of a Western company. But Ryan Ding is not a typical corporate leader.
Mr. Ding is the chief executive of the telecommunications carrier network equipment business at Huawei, one of biggest and most successful international companies in China. Last week, he was the company's face at the Mobile World Congress, the industry's biggest event in Europe.
For any other company, this might be considered business as usual. But Huawei, like many Chinese concerns, has offered scant access to its decision-makers while the country has become the engine of the world's economic growth.
At the telecommunications convention, Mr. Ding was working the crowds and taking on his rivals, Hans Vestberg, the Swedish chief of Ericsson, and Rajeev Suri, the head of Nokia Siemens Networks. He was also, uncharacteristically, speaking with journalists.
"We hope that the more people know about Huawei, the more it will help us," Mr. Ding said through an interpreter in Huawei's crowded exhibition stand. "It is certainly a positive influence and help with our global business when we are open towards the government, media, customers and the general public."
For Mr. Ding, a spry, 43-year-old, for Huawei and perhaps for China, now is the time to tell the company's story, instead of letting others do it for them.
That is a priority for Huawei, which has been virtually shut out of the U.S. market, the world's biggest for telecommunications equipment, because lawmakers are concerned about its links to the Chinese government and military. A recent spate of hacking incidents tied to the military has not helped its cause.
Huawei denies that it is subsidized by the Chinese government and that its equipment poses a threat. The company says the U.S. blockade, encouraged last year by a congressional committee, is trade protectionism.
Mr. Ding, born Ding Yun, grew up in Beijing and has worked for Huawei, which is based in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, for 17 years. By company standards he is an elder -- Huawei's 40,000 workers in Shenzhen average 27 years of age.
Mr. Ding oversees Huawei's business of selling network equipment to telephone operators, its biggest enterprise, which generated $25 billion in sales in 2012, according to unaudited figures, and employed 80,000 people. Mr. Ding started out as an engineer at Huawei, honing designs for telephone switches, the industry's bread-and-butter hardware at the time. When he was hired, Huawei employed 2,000 people. Last year, the company tallied about 150,000 around the world.
Over a decade, Mr. Ding's fortunes rose with Huawei's, and in 2005 he was appointed president of its newly consolidated core network group, a business created from the merger of its landline and wireless divisions. Under his leadership, Huawei developed one of its most successful products, the mobile soft switch, which has played a large role in the company's pursuit of Ericsson, the industry leader, and in Mr. Ding's rise within Huawei.
In a phone network, the switches direct calls to their intended destinations. Huawei's soft switch for the first time relied more on software than on hardware, allowing operators to configure networks on the go as they added customers. In the industry, the price of switches is linked to an operator's size, with licenses sold for every customer using a switch. Mr. Ding's team sold licenses in perpetuity, letting operators avoid recurring charges common at the time.
Operators snapped up Huawei's switches. Currently, the calls of three billion consumers around the world are routed through Huawei switches, the company said.
"The soft switch was one of the most-successful products ever for Huawei," said Christophe Coutelle, the marketing director in Huawei's core network group.
The product helped catapult Huawei, which began by reselling telephone switches in rural China in 1987, to become the world's No. 2 maker of telecommunications gear behind Ericsson. The steep upward trajectory has forced Huawei to grapple with rapid growth, and Western demands for openness.
Gradually, Huawei has responded by opening up, accommodating demands for greater transparency as it conquers Western markets.
Two years ago, Huawei published for the first time the biographies and photographs of its corporate board members, including its founder, Ren Zhengfei, an entrepreneur who once worked as an engineer with the People's Liberation Army, until his unit was disbanded and he lost his job. About a year ago, the company, which is owned by its employees, invited 200 financial analysts and journalists to a presentation on its 2011 results.
Last year, Mr. Ren spoke at a European Union conference in Brussels, and at an international economic forum in St. Petersburg. At the Russian event, Mr. Ren condemned the global scourge of cybercrime, which he said had also been aimed at Huawei, and appealed for international solutions.
This year, two board members, including Mr. Ding, gave their first interviews to Western media representatives.
In a culture where aggressive self-promotion is frowned upon, Mr. Ding gamely fielded questions during an interview about his personal life, which from his telling appears to be as normal as any other executive's.
He is married with two young daughters. He tries to walk at least 10,000 paces a day to stay fit, measuring his progress with a digital step counter. On the weekends, he hikes in the mountains near Shenzhen, he said.
His wife, Mr. Ding added, thinks he is overweight -- about five kilograms, or 11 pounds.
He comes from a family of engineers; his parents designed air-conditioning and heating systems for large buildings.
"The most interesting part is that they worked in the same office for like their whole life and they still love each other," he said, laughing.
He said he had chosen his Western given name, Ryan, because it sort of sounds like his Chinese name, Yun, but also because it reminds him of one of his favorite movies, "Saving Private Ryan," by Steven Spielberg.
During a typical month, he travels for two weeks, visiting Huawei's customers around the world. The rest of the time, he is back in Shenzhen, either in board meetings, or working with staff members on innovations and business models.
But most of all, he likes talking, especially with the network operators that Huawei serves. They often present him with the engineering problems that prod Huawei to develop new technologies that help fuel the company's global expansion.
Huawei has set up 35 joint innovation centers on the premises of its own customers, where its engineers develop hardware and software improvements that often end up in Huawei's newest products.
"A lot of our innovations come from our own customers," Mr. Ding said. "I love speaking with our customers."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.