The Zoom Where It Happened | Straight Talk

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What’s it like to scale up a business by an order of magnitude in four months? 

By Harry Moseley, Global CIO, Zoom Video Communications

Prior to Zoom, I was CIO at KPMG, the US audit, tax and advisory firm, and I retired from KPMG in December of 2017 with the intent of never working again. Four days later, I got a call by Zoom asking if I would consider joining them as their global CIO.  

As I had retired to have fun, and Zoom looked like it was going to be a lot of fun, I took the job. 

Zoom had been growing steadily, but then in February, the global lockdown sent demand soaring. We went from 10 million daily meeting participants to 300 million in four months. Today, we are keeping the world’s economy running, keeping countries operating, keeping governments running, and keeping kids in school—we’re now running in over 100,000 schools in 25 countries.  

On top of all of that, we are keeping people connected with their children, their grandchildren, their cousins, and their families, who are dispersed around the world and who had family plans that have now gone up in smoke. You’ve got weddings and unfortunately, funerals, bar mitzvahs and special birthdays, church services, holiday events and Mother’s Day on Zoom. It’s been a wonderful experience.   

A different architecture 

We could scale so quickly partly because our architecture is different from everything else that is out there.   

We have 19 data centers around the world. Those data centers are where the meetings are actually hosted. We also have what we call our multimedia routers. All these MMRs do is route messages. The actual intelligence is all happening at the client’s, so that is where the messages are encrypted. The data centers just route the traffic—there’s nothing actually going on within the data center with respect to the meeting, except the routing of messages and packets—which makes the transmissions more secure.   

Our data centers always have excess capacity, because we’ve always been upgrading and maintaining capacity for peak volumes, with a view toward our growth trajectory. This has given us the ability to borrow capacity from a data center that has availability.  

For example, in the US, early morning Eastern Time, our Central data center and our West Coast centers are idling. So, if the Eastern data center needs capacity, it can borrow from Central and from California. Later in the evening, when the East Coast quiets down, the West Coast data center might need additional capacity, which it can borrow from Central and from the East Coast.    

We can also leverage the Amazon Cloud and the Oracle Cloud to handle our basic service, which is our free service. Since the pandemic began, we have moved our free services into the Amazon and Oracle Cloud in order to reserve our data center capacity for our enterprise and other paying clients. 

Managing security 

We had to make a number of adjustments to the service. Security was a challenge. Not because we had lots of holes in the fabric, but because we now had all these different constituents beyond the enterprise leveraging the platform, and we were designed for the enterprise. We were designed for organizations that had great IT departments to train their people, set up the right defaults, and put the right controls in place. But now you get a variety of different organizations deploying the platform, not understanding how to deploy, not understanding the controls, doing weird things like taking photos of their meetings that include the meeting ID and putting them on Facebook.   

We had to pivot our entire engineering team to focus on security and privacy, so that we could put different controls in place for different constituents. Over the next 90-day period, we introduced over 100 new features into the platform around security and privacy. We took all the security controls that were already in the Zoom platform and bundled them behind the security shield—things like locking the meeting, enabling the waiting room, and so forth.  

The second thing that we did, which is a first in the industry, was to create a data center selection tool for enterprise clients. They can select which data centers in the world they want to host their meetings. This gives them control over how their meetings are being hosted and where. If you’re a Canadian company, you might want your meetings hosted in Canada. You may not want your meetings hosted in US data centers, even if you have subsidiaries there.  

Finally, we announced Zoom 5.0, an upgrade of our encryption service from AES 256 ECB to GCM, the next level of encryption.   

Zoom, don’t run 

That’s a partial technical explanation of how we kept up with 30X growth in four months. The managerial side has been more challenging and taught me a few things. 

Of the lessons learned, I would say moving with careful urgency is near the top of my list. Going a little slower sometimes enables you to go faster.    

The other lesson is: Don’t panic. Just don’t panic.  

One way we try to move carefully is a heuristic that we call Problem, Root Cause, Solution. First, you accurately identify exactly and precisely what the problem is. Then you dig until you understand the root cause of the problem. And once you understand that root cause, you can create a solution. 

Democratizing meetings 

Another thing that has been interesting is that virtual communication turns out to have some special advantages for managers. For instance, a few months ago, a business leader told me, “The wonderful thing about Zoom is, it takes all the egos out of the discussion.”   

At an in-person meeting, the most senior person would typically walk in and sit down at the top of the table, and then all his or her lieutenants would sit in their usual seats. You could almost see the hierarchy in the room, whereas on video, there is no hierarchy. Everybody’s head is the same size. If you’re an introverted person, and you can’t seem to get a word in edgeways, you can text a message.  

One of our CEO’s advisors told me that another of the CEOs that she works with said that when they do get back to the office, they plan to hold every other meeting on video anyway, because he likes the fact that it’s so much more efficient and that conversation is more evenly distributed among all the participants on video than in person.  

Another thing I heard from a different CEO is that instead of flying all over the world to meet people in the organization, he has taken to making a list of 10 or 12 people in a particular office to contact individually out of the blue now, and asking, how are you doing? He spends an hour a day doing this, five days a week, and he says it’s been a godsend to him. It certainly beats going to an airport and flying for 14 hours.  

Now, I am thinking ahead about how we will operate after the pandemic is over. For example, when everybody was working in the office, collaboration was good. When everybody is working in a distributed environment, collaboration is good.  But when some people come back to the office and you have a hybrid model, how do you collaborate? The answer is not that obvious, but we are going to figure it out.

The Takeaways 

Make sure you define your problem clearly and understand its root cause before you try to solve it.

Video conference calls can be a useful way to break down hierarchies. Communicating this way can help managers hear from people who are often not heard in a traditional in-person meeting. 

Teams can innovate well when they are all physically present or all virtual, but how to get a mixed group to innovate remains uncertain.