Sunday, December 5, 2021
1. The glory days of border less technology are ending. The internet is segmenting and it will become harder and harder to do business across borders as countries move to regulate the internet more aggressively. Some of this is driven by privacy and security concerns but there is a whole lot of nationalism in the mix as well. The internet in each country is becoming a stronger reflection of the political system of each country, especially in authoritarian countries. The costs of going global are increasing dramatically.
2. Technology is neutral, but at its best has unintended consequences and at worst is a weapon. Overall we were taught to look at technology to see the balance of the good it brings and the bad. There are many sectors like social media where society is starting to feel like there is too much bad for the good it creates. On the unintended side you see bias, discrimination in algorithms and unintended mental health consequences. As a weapon you're seeing state sponsored misinformation attacks, cyber attacks on infrastructure and more effective ways of making war.
3. Facebook is public enemy number one. The one company that got brought up the most in my classes was definitely Facebook. Facebook has lost control of the narrative in public sector discussion circles, they are everyone’s favorite punching bag. Interestingly enough even those most adamantly against Facebook do not seem to be quitting their products, especially Instagram and Whatsapp (The de facto messenger of choice at Harvard’s Kennedy School). I think as employees in technology you have to look at the company you work for and ask yourself if you believe the impact of your work will be a net positive. I have many friends I respect at Facebook, but in policy circles it is viewed more and more like big tobacco.
4. Regulation for Social Media is extremely difficult in a Democracy. We had several projects where we had to write policy memos about how to regulate aspects of social media and it was extremely difficult. I most often toiled on the assignment until I had no choice but to pick an argument not because I thought it was the solution, but because it was a decent idea and the assignment was due, but hey, maybe that’s politics? :) This dilemma is extremely obvious in American politics where you see how Democrats want to fight misinformation and Republicans want to fight censorship. Both parties have social media in their cross hairs, but for different reasons. Political gridlock will likely keep the status quo for a while so I won’t hold my breath for big changes anytime soon.
5. The government has been WAY more involved in making great technology than I understood before. One of the most eye opening things was learning about how the US government has systematically invested in different technologies, especially post World War II. Seeing this chart below really puts things in perspective. If we want to maintain our technological edge as a nation we need to continue to invest. Governments can invest in ways and time frames that the private sector will not. Silicon Valley likes to take a “we built this” attitude, but under the hood you see the fingerprints of government dollars and research.
6. When it comes to Cybersecurity, no one and nothing is safe. Frankly, the internet was designed for sharing and collaborating and it’s foundation does not make security easy. There are battles actively being fought in Cyberspace, but it’s extremely messy. It’s hard to know who your enemy is and the red lines are less clear. I attended a lecture with one of the US’s Cybersecurity agencies and you could sense that it’s the wild west of warfare right now. As more of our lives goes online, the more potential reward there is for people to hack you. After learning about all the scary stuff in Cyber security I’ve made lots of changes to how I use the internet.
7. If you think social media can mess up society, wait until you see what’s happening in biotechnology. This is an area I knew nothing about coming into grad school. When we covered this section I was shocked at how close we are to doing some things in bio tech that could have an incredible impact and grave consequences. Designer babies are right around the corner as well as germ line editing, which means making changes to human DNA that are HERITABLE. Future generations could be biologically impacted by decisions that are made now. So many moral and ethical questions facing our society in this rapidly expanding field.
8. Large tech companies and employees will have to choose sides. During my time working in Silicon Valley it seemed like everyone wanted to stay neutral to sell into as many markets around the globe as possible. My perspective was that many in Silicon Valley saw themselves as “global citizens” and above any allegiance to one specific country. Personally, I still believe in the institution of the United States as an imperfect force for good in the world. It is going to get harder and harder to stay neutral. Frankly, for America to maintain its technological edge, we need those in the valley to be on team America or at least team democracy.
9. Crypto lacks a killer use case and has a government hammer hanging over it. I did not fully understand the importance of a monetary system to a country until we dove into crypto. Specifically for the United States, we’ve used our status as reserve currency in many ways to benefit us when it comes to foreign policy. I don’t believe the United States or any world power will give up that power. It does not matter if it’s decentralized, if you live in a country that has borders, laws and a tax man there are a thousand ways that can make sure they maintain control. I think there is a place for crypto, but don’t believe it will be the decentralized utopia many crypto fanatics paint.
10. China China China. I could write 10 blog posts about China. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are extremely important to me. That tends to be the case when you are the son of a Cuban immigrant that fled communism under Castro. Overall, if there is one country that is working the hardest to surpass America when it comes to technological superiority, it’s China. They are making insane investments in automation, A.I., Cyber and every other up and coming field of science. It is admirable how they’ve tamed social media to reflect their system of government. China’s ability to monitor, surveil and control their citizens is the scary stuff of 1984. I believe that a stronger and a technologically superior China will make the world a less free place and that is cause for major concern. The US cannot take its technological superiority for granted. China seems to be hoping we do.
There was so much more, but these are just a few things fresh on my mind.
Thursday, November 18, 2021
If you've been following my blog posts, you know that I've recently gone back to grad school to explore some career interests in a much different direction than my tech marketing career. This may seem strange to people I've worked with because if you know me, it's clear that I have really enjoyed my career so far.
I'm not changing things up because I'm unhappy, it really comes down to having a lot of interests and a sense of adventure. My personal philosophy is that you have to spend a massive amount of your life working, your career should be an adventure and involve a lot of experimentation. I understand that it's a massive privilege to be able to view my career this way. Career changes, breaks and exploration can require sacrifices. It can be time consuming, emotionally draining and financially difficult, but ultimately if you feel the need to continue to explore, I believe it's worth it.
I was extremely sure of my decision to go to grad school again, but arriving here has not provided instant clarity on the exact career paths I should take after graduation next year, so I've been doing a lot of introspection. It's not really a "crisis" like the title suggests as I figured I'd find myself in this situation, but still has me doing a lot of searching. I've encountered a lot of folks that at different stages of their career also face a period where they really want to think deeply about their career. I've been reading a lot and asking for book recommendation, so I wanted to share the three books that have been the most helpful.
How to Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen. I've read this book probably more than any other business book when I start thinking deeply about career stuff. It has always been a great reminder to not abandon the other important parts of your life in pursuit of your career.
So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport. I must admit, I just got recommended this book this week, but I'm already almost done with it. Provides a really compelling alternative to "follow your passion". Also, it really stuck me how important autonomy is in career happiness.
These books have helped me a lot and I hope they help you too.
Tuesday, September 7, 2021
Before I get too far into this, there are a few things you need to know about Zoom and me. First, I no longer work for Zoom. After 4+ wonderful years, I left to go back to grad school. Everything I am writing here is from my personal experience and opinions, not Zoom, the company’s opinions.
Also, a few things you should know about Zoom. In Feb of 2020, when the pandemic hit, according to LinkedIn, there were only around 2,300 employees globally. I joined Zoom in 2017 when there were about 500 employees. At the beginning of 2020, Zoom was also barely starting to get attention outside of Silicon Valley. We were very below the radar until we IPO’d in April of 2019, and people got to really understand our business and see our numbers for the first time.
To fully understand what happened in the pandemic at Zoom, you have to understand Zoom’s culture. It’s extremely positive. A lot of this comes from the top, from Eric, the CEO. He’s a true servant leader, customer-obsessed, extremely smart, and just overall a good guy. That being said, Zoom was still a very intense place to work. We moved incredibly quickly, expectations were always high, and we were very scrappy. I’d meet with peers at other companies, and they’d be shocked at how small our teams were. We always punched above our weight class, and we were proud of it. For most of my time at Zoom, my responsibilities were leading our international marketing, partner marketing, and localization teams. While that was my day job, I reported to our CMO and took on different projects for the executive team throughout the years (ran the first Zoomtopia user conference, was a member of the IPO deal team, etc.).
My first indication that the pandemic would impact our business drastically was seeing what was happening to some of our standard marketing metrics in APAC in February. Sign-ups for our free product across the region were starting to accelerate to levels we’d never seen. Pretty soon, inbound leads followed. Our biggest office in the region was in Sydney at the time, but it was still pretty small, so they were overwhelmed quickly. I was asked to put a cross-functional task force together to monitor the virus situation and shift resources to support the APAC teams. At the beginning of the pandemic, I think many people assumed, myself included, that it would be contained in Asia like SARS had been, so while it was starting to get some attention, no one was freaking out yet.
We started to have daily stand-ups with the leadership in Asia and started reviewing the metrics daily to shift resources accordingly. Outbound sales teams starting only doing inbound. Our sales reps were instructed to only work high intent leads. We’d have sales reps from Europe and the US help during overlapping hours. Day by day, every metric just kept going up. Then we started to see massive waves of interest as lockdowns began to be imposed.
I remember one day waking up and checking the free sign-ups by country dashboard and seeing a massive increase in Vietnam. We only had one sales rep in the entire company who spoke Vietnamese, and we did not even have Zoom, the product, or any content in Vietnamese. I quickly checked the news and confirmed a lockdown had just been imposed in Vietnam. At that point, it dawned on me that if we became the app of choice for a place like Vietnam, we would be the application of choice in a worldwide pandemic. Also, as I watched our numbers show the spread across APAC, it appeared nothing was stopping it. I started to raise the alarm internally that this would quickly overwhelm our business if it hit Europe and the US. At this time, this was still sort of an international project, and people in the US were not in panic mode yet. I remember calling a meeting to lay out some bigger plans on how this would impact our marketing with some of the other direct reports to our CMO, and I found out through the grapevine one person did not show up because they thought it was “a waste of time to talk about a virus in Asia.”
From that point, the worry and headlines got a little worse every day. My boss, our CMO, wisely decided it was time to make a public statement. At that point, we also activated our crisis comms firm. We worked on a blog post which would be the first time we would address publicly the virus and the role we were playing/would play. I remember the crisis comms agency suggesting we do not say anything, but overall, I think it ended up being a good idea. We were the first of all of our competitors to make a statement, and within two weeks, every one of our competitors had also launched a similar copycat statement. About a month or two later, everyone started, myself included, getting statements on COVID from every company, from your lawn guy to toothpaste brand.
My role leading the virus task force shifted a bit as this became a whole company issue and not just an APAC issue. The entire company started to be mobilized.
Before we got sent to work from home, I remember coming out of a yearly planning meeting and overhear someone say that our online purchase system was down for a few hours overnight. That was pretty unusual, so I asked them what happened. They said we got so many online purchase orders we hit the fraud limit for our billing system. In other words, we hit whatever the limit was that people thought would never be possible with legitimate orders. That is how quickly things were accelerating.
Another thing I remember clearly doing around this time is working on a statement we could provide to customers about our infrastructure. CIOs in the US and Europe were starting to get nervous and seriously ask themselves if everyone could work from home and if Zoom would work for them. Our sales reps were basically getting asked all day long, “Can you guys handle what might happen?”
It was only a week or two later that those CIOs and the rest of the US would find out. Things went to a whole new level of crazy as lockdowns were imposed in the US and Europe. I remember during our IPO roadshow, we would talk about how Zoom always built out its infrastructure at the time to 2x peak capacity, which at the time, to me, seemed aggressive.
I had been a Zoomie long enough to know that our ability to scale and provide a high-quality experience was basically why we existed in the first place. Still, seeing how fast things were moving, this was a black swan event that no one could have prepared for. The first Friday night of lockdown in the bay area, Netflix and Google Play were not working because, presumably, everyone decided to get on simultaneously. If Google and Netflix were down, that made me pretty nervous for Zoom. Every Monday morning at the beginning of the lockdowns in the US, I would wake up extremely anxious that we’d have an outage. Zoom’s engineering team and SREs do not get enough credit because while there were some minor issues, they kept the lights on and scaled them. This is also a testament to how the product was built; you could not re-engineer your product to scale overnight, so while no one could be ready for this, the foundation was in place for us to scale at an incredible pace. It's even more incredible when you consider many other large corporations with many more resources and infrastructure had more outages and instability than Zoom did during the pandemic.
At this point, my focus shifted to helping provide Zoom for free for K-12 schools. Eric has always been passionate about education. Very early on in the pandemic, he was keen on helping K-12 schools. We had many of the largest universities around the world already on Zoom, so we knew that for them, the transition to virtual would be less painful, but there were overwhelming needs in K-12. Giving away free accounts to tens of thousands of schools overnight was not as simple as it sounds. It took an immense amount of coordination. Our systems were not built to give away so many free accounts, so the engineering team was figuring out how to do it at scale, while at the same time, in marketing, we were trying to find a way to vet the schools. The program was not worldwide at first; we were trying to be careful not to overwhelm our systems by adding too much fuel to the fire. We were adding as many additional countries to the program as possible, but we were constantly worried about capacity. Every night the teams were doing capacity planning to see what more countries we could add. Since India imposed one of the first nationwide lockdowns, I remember we wanted to offer the free service for schools in India early on. Still, it being such a populous country, we wanted to ensure we could do it. Finally, we got the message from Eric, “Expand the program to India.”
Apart from trying to keep the lights on, this was really a honeymoon phase of sorts in hindsight. I remember being in shock when Jimmy Fallon was interviewing Alec Baldwin about the pandemic, and he asked him if he zooms. I could not believe they were talking about our company. I wore my Zoom shirt to the grocery store for a quick pandemic run, and someone stopped me to tell me about their experience of their classes going virtual on Zoom. My mom talked to me as if I was on the front lines, saving the world by working at Zoom. I thought that was hilarious because one of my brothers is a doctor, and he was treating COVID patients, but she was proud of both of us. She would text me every time her local news station in Utah would mention Zoom.
As a marketer, your job is to make your product and brand known, and it was like the brand just took a life of its own and started running wild all over the world. We became the number one app in the app stores. We were getting celebrities, news, social and all types of media talk about us non-stop. We were getting the type of exposure you cannot buy. My inbox and LinkedIn were full of messages from agents of A-list celebrities saying, “X wants to promote your brand.” I remember the day Ellen’s team reached out about a collaboration, and I almost fell out of my chair. It was an incredible feeling. We were getting so much organic exposure that we turned off all of our paid ads, and it did not change a thing. All charts continued up and to the right. We were the technology darling and savior of the pandemic, but soon we would learn the hard lesson that the pendulum swings both ways.
Before COVID, while we had a free version of the product, we were mostly a B2B software company. Most of our users were in companies, higher education, financial services, or governments. Users at those organizations are typically sophisticated, have IT teams, and a good grasp of technology. It was to our horror to start seeing more and more “Zoom bombing” incidents. New users to Zoom would post their links to Zoom meetings without a password publicly on Twitter or other social media sites, and the internet’s worst quickly saw an opportunity to be terrible. It was an awful feeling inside of Zoom to see incidents of racism, hate, and all sorts of horrible things happen across our platform. It also created a perception that we had been hacked in many cases that were often user errors. I remember talking to an engineer, brainstorming what we could do, and I could tell he was getting emotional. The stress of knowing our platform was being used in such a way was a terrible feeling for Zoom employees. While it’s popular to demonize tech companies, I can tell you that as employees, we really did care. As a marketing team, we started scrambling to do a mass education campaign about our security features, how to use them, and just general online safety advice. Our events marketing team was deputized and started making daily YouTube how-to videos and coordinating to make them in other languages with our new global reach. It was all hands on deck, and we had people take on completely different roles overnight. Our product teams were scrambling to change default security features, make them more intuitive to use and add more enhancements to protect users.
Many people don’t realize that there were armies of people actively trying to zoom boom. It truly felt like we were under attack. In particular, students were organizing over Instagram, sharing meeting IDs and passwords, and asking people to disrupt their classes so they would not have to do virtual school. Being mostly B2B, we did not even have a presence on Instagram as a company, but we had to start one to defend ourselves. I called a good friend at Facebook and asked a favor to expedite the Zoom Instagram page to get verified, so we could start controlling our message on that platform.
There was even a coordinated rating campaign to sink our app store rating in the Android marketplace. If your rating gets low enough, they pull your app from the Google Play store, so students were trying to get us kicked out of the store to mess with their classes by giving us thousands of one-star reviews. Luckily, Google eventually caught on and kept us from getting kicked out. There were also famous teenage YouTubers making coordinated Zoom bombing attacks, some of which were harmless interruptions, but some which again brought out the worst of the internet.
While the Zoom bombing picked up, every security and privacy researcher in the world turned their attention to us. We started being scrutinized like Facebook, Apple, or Google, but we were still a relatively small company. The FAANG companies have armies of lawyers, privacy experts, and security people. We had been building out those teams, but we were not near the scale we needed. In December 2019, our peak daily meeting participants was ten million. By April of 2020, it was 300 million. We scaled 30x in just a few months.
This was a dark time for Zoom. I think for many of us who had worked at Zoom for a while, this whiplash was a lot to handle. Going from being the darling of the pandemic to “some evil tech corporation” was too much. Also, it did not help that basically everyone at Zoom was working 24/7. If you ask most Zoomies about that time, it felt like much more than a job. We were now a critical infrastructure that was keeping schools open, businesses operating, and loved ones connected. Since I worked internationally, I’d be working from 6 am or so until 11 pm. I’d take a few hours in the evening for dinner and to put the kids to bed. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life.
One memory that stuck with me is that early in the pandemic, while our social media team was scaling up, I started answering social media questions on my own in the evening on Twitter. One tweet caught my eye. It was someone criticizing us for being insensitive to the COVID crisis in Italy. It took me a while to figure out what they were talking about, but if you look closely at the screenshot below, someone had used as filler text in that product screenshot a joke that went, “How did the Italian chef die? He pasta away. The doctors cannoli do so much about it.” The criticism was gaining some traction on social media, so I scrambled at midnight to get that screenshot down before it created another crisis for us. It was such an emotionally charged time for the world that even something as innocent as that set people off. Also, it was clear people were scouring our website for every tiny thing. As I was working with a member of the web team to take it down, I remember her saying to me in frustration, “This is what people are worried about?! We are trying to keep the world afloat, and this is what they want to criticize us about!” I felt the same frustration.
Zoom still felt like a small, tight-knit company, so for me, it was an emotional roller coaster, and it was hard not to take a lot of the criticism personally. I had been part of Zoom early enough that I felt a deep connection to the company and did not just feel like a cog. It was impossible to compartmentalize what was happening. I remember once having a really bad day. It just felt like we’d never get through everything that was coming at us. It was overwhelming. I sadly walked out of my makeshift office and told my wife that I was not sure our company would survive all the criticism.
Also, we were just not adequately equipped to respond and defend ourselves in the press at first. Our in-house PR team at the time of the crisis was two people. The lead was on maternity leave, and while we had some contractor and agency help, a lot fell on the shoulders of an incredibly talented 24-year-old recent college grad as we scrambled to hire. We were getting 100+ press inquiries a day. We had the same sort of negative press internationally, but we had no way to respond at scale. We did not have a voice, making it feel like we were not in a fair fight. Before the pandemic, we had international PR agencies in 5 of our key markets, but now we were making headlines in most countries worldwide. For those unfamiliar with PR, it's very country/language-based, so if you don’t have people in the country speaking the language, you likely won’t get a chance to speak to your side of the story.
Zoom sales reps from all over the world started sending us links to negative articles in many languages, begging us to do something to correct or address the criticism in the most prominent publications of their markets. We started to collect them in a Google Doc in hopes of responding, but eventually, there were hundreds, and there was no way we could respond. We had to take the Google Doc down.
Earlier in the year, we had hired a new PR agency based out of London called Hotwire for the UK. They were managing some of our other international markets as well. They had worldwide coverage, so I teamed up with our solo PR guy, and we asked Hotwire what they could do to help us internationally. We worked together on a plan to have Hotwire act as a central hub to manage additional PR agencies, and in a week or two, we had spun up PR agencies in 14 additional countries. I’d never have gotten so much budget approved so fast in my life. At the same time, we needed spokespeople to tell our side of the story, and our normal media spokespeople, like our key executives, were already tapped out. We only had a handful of trained media spokespeople when the pandemic hit. We went country by country and figured out the best/most senior person to represent Zoom who spoke that language. It meant we had some sales reps, also moonlighting as Zoom’s official media spokesperson because of language skills. Hotwire helped us train and prep all these new spokespeople (over 20) in record time. It took a bit to get everything humming, but we started to have a unified global PR engine. This helped a lot as we began making announcements and changes to turn the tide. We now had the infrastructure in place for our message to circle the globe.
Prior to the pandemic, Zoom preferred to do almost everything in-house. However, during the pandemic, we learned to rely on some key partners to help us scale in PR and other areas, making a massive difference. In our situation, you have to get outside help; you can not hire fast enough. I’ll forever be grateful to some of our partners and agencies who rolled up their sleeves, walked straight into the chaos, and became Zoomies with us overnight.
I was also deputized as a media spokesperson. I had gone through a pretty rigorous media training when I worked at Salesforce, which I’m pretty sure they only let me do to be nice since I was just out of college. I was behind in line like 50 spokespeople at Salesforce but never did any interviews there and only a bit at LinkedIn. Almost immediately, I was doing 3-4 interviews a week all over the world. I did written, radio, and TV interviews.
One of my first interviews was a BBC Asia radio interview. The first question the reporter asked me was, “On a scale of 1 to 10, what score would you give your executive team on responding to this crisis?” Luckily, my training kicked in, and I did not walk into that trap.
Another memorable one, I had just completed an interview when our PR guy called my cell phone saying they can’t get a hold of our CIO, and he was five minutes from doing a live TV interview on the BBC. He asked if I could step in. I said yes, ran to my closet to throw on a shirt and jacket, and got ready. Luckily, they found our CIO at the last second, but my adrenaline was flowing for the rest of that day.
We got an inbound request for a CNN TV interview in Spanish. Our main Spanish media spokesperson was out of town, so they asked if I would do it. I speak Spanish, but not natively. It was a big stretch for me, but I felt like it was too good of an opportunity for Zoom to pass up; we were still trying to turn public perception, especially in our international markets. I practiced with my mother-in-law and Dad, both of whom speak Spanish natively, in the evenings and had a really fun interview.
All the negative media attention caught the attention of companies, governments, and lawmakers worldwide. We began to get headlines about organizations or governments banning Zoom over security concerns. Many of these bans were highly sensationalized. The bans were often just companies telling employees to use their approved apps for video conferencing. Sometimes they were legitimate bans, many of which would later be walked back, but this posed a real threat to our business. This was amplified because of the nature of our company. Our CEO Eric is Chinese American, and we had many engineers in China. While there were legitimate concerns about Zoom, I have no doubt that racism and xenophobia were working against us. There was just also a ton of confusion. My favorite was when Nancy Pelosi called us a Chinese company, which we are not. We had to fight a persistent rumor that we were a Chinese company.
Similar to our PR challenges, we did not have a government relations program at the time of the pandemic either. To most governments around the world before the pandemic, we were unknown and irrelevant, but overnight we became a critical infrastructure for a meaningful percentage of their population. Most of the information they were getting about us was coming from headlines and our competitors. The international head of sales and I were extremely worried about the potential long-lasting negative impact on our international business. The little resources we had focusing on government affairs at Zoom were already swamped just focusing on the US. My responsibilities shifted again as our COO asked me to hire a firm to help us with international government affairs and run with it. I had zero experience in government affairs, but it was all hands on deck, and I had done several other high-profile projects for the exec team before. This became my number one priority. We got a warm introduction to a firm, met with them on a Saturday morning, and by Monday, we hit the ground running. Our goal was simple, stop or slow down the runaway train of organizations and governments banning us. This usually happened through meetings with appropriate government officials, explaining who we are and doing our best to resolve their concerns. In some ways, it was a surprisingly simple process. This was not a fast process, but country by country, we were able to clarify who we were and resolve concerns. As a newcomer to international affairs, it was incredible to see the change. Once these governments had a face to the company name, a person to call, they seemed much less likely to shoot from the hip and ban us as some of them had.
I remember being in one of these introductory meetings with several government agencies (Cybersecurity, Defense Dept, etc.) of a large European country and being surprised by their questions and demeanor. Based on the statements they had made, you would have thought we were public enemy number one and would be hostile, but they just did not know us. Once we walked them through who we were and what we were doing, they seemed even friendly.
This is slow, complicated, and politically sensitive work. I was also shocked how often governments were making decisions without bothering to contact us or seem to do any investigating of their own. Governments were already so skittish with all the virus stuff and often seemed to be reacting to the headlines.
One bright spot around this time was our first pandemic earnings call. The phones had been ringing off the hook all quarter, so it was no surprise that we had a massive blowout quarter. People knew it would be good, but it far exceeded even the highest expectations. Some called it the “Greatest quarter in software history.” Most people still don’t understand just how unique Zoom’s business model is. The only reason why we could have a quarter as we did and grow at that speed is that we have highly effective and diversified sales channels. This includes our online business (including our freemium), direct sales business, and channel business. Very few software companies are strong in all of those areas, and we were. That means we could absorb a huge amount of business quickly. This shot our stock price to levels most of us did not think would be possible for a long time. It was a weird feeling to have your company stock appreciating so quickly while so many others seemed to be worried about their jobs. My job had never felt more secure. It also added this weird pressure because as the company was being attacked, it made you feel like this windfall could all disappear overnight.
Heading into May, we were still in the thick of things, especially with the international government relations stuff. My third child was due the first of May, and I had planned to take a month of my paternity leave as soon as he arrived. As we got close to the due date, I was dying for a break, even if that meant waking up every three hours with a newborn. Leading up to it, my wife had to gently remind me that I should be excited about our child and not just for the chance to step away from work after I made one too many comments about how excited I was to take a break from work. Our healthy boy finally arrived, and I got a much-needed break from work and, more importantly, was able to focus 100% on my family after months of non-stop work. Going through what we were going through at Zoom, it was hard not to think that my job was the most important thing in the world, but going on leave reminded me that if I woke up and Zoom no longer existed, my life was still pretty great. That reminder helped me maintain a positive attitude, especially with my team as the crisis and intensity dragged on. I was not the only Zoomie who had personal stuff going on while we were trying to keep the world afloat. Everyone across the world had their own struggles with the pandemic. Zoomies were no exception; I saw incredible grit across the company. I saw fellow employees deal with mental health issues, losing family members, domestic violence, and many other challenges. One of my closest colleagues was so stressed out that he started having intense stomach pains. I remember telling him and several people when they seemed to be having tough moments, “No matter what happens to Zoom, your life will be good, and you’ll be successful.” Every time I told someone that, in a way, I felt like I was also saying it to myself. It was challenging to maintain the bigger picture when you're in the trenches.
I returned from my paternity leave, hoping things would start getting back to normal. Things were still pretty intense throughout the summer, but they did start to normalize. It helped a ton that we were hiring like crazy across the company, especially in areas where we really needed deep experts. We always ran lean. Eric was known for scrutinizing each headcount during our yearly planning, but we could hire just about anything we needed during the pandemic. I remember sending our CMO a paragraph over chat about needing a second localization headcount, and all she wrote back was “Approved.” The head of sales and I started going back to our day jobs mostly as we hired a real head of government relations that could formalize the program and take it out of emergency mode and to the next level.
Something I’m proud of when I look back is how Zoom changed the industry. We saw major competitors follow us in giving products away for free. Not only that, as all of those companies scrambled to catch up with us, the pace of innovation increased for our entire industry. Eric was big on continuous learning through reading books. He would often recommend books to the whole company. Early in my time at Zoom, pre-pandemic, he recommended that we read the CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella’s book. I read it and remember being shocked at how little collaboration technologies got mentioned. He spent a lot of time talking about his new areas of focus for the company, but video conferencing or even collaboration was not on his radar. That boosted my confidence that Zoom could be successful, knowing they were not focused on our space. There was a similar story at Google. Early during my time at Zoom, I was doing competitive research. I searched how many employees at Google mention Google Meet or Hangouts in their LinkedIn profile; it was around 20 people in all. It was clearly not a focus for them, and everyone was confused by the massive mess of different video products they had at the time.
This is how innovation works. Big companies ignore a market and stop innovating; smaller companies make something better, and eventually, the big companies have to start moving again. In the end, the consumers win with better technology and more options.
In 2020, I had the best and worst moments of my career. Every two weeks, we had a company-wide all-hands. I remember after a few very terrible weeks of criticism of our company, Eric got up and acknowledged that this was a really tough moment for the company, but he said something that stuck with me. He said something to the effect of, ”Everything we are doing right now and all the decisions we are making, we are doing it in a way so that 20 years from now, we’ll look back and be proud of the role we played in this pandemic.” Zoom was not a perfect company or had perfect leadership, but the hill I will die on is that Zoom stepped up in good faith and played a critical role in supporting the world during the pandemic. Any company would have had a lot go wrong experiencing something we did, but I’m convinced that much more went right than should have. I feel proud of my small contributions to Zoom over the years and especially during the pandemic. Still, there are countless unsung heroes and stories from Zoom that might never see the light of day, so I hope you enjoyed reading about my experience.
Monday, May 3, 2021
When I was getting my MBA I met a few MBA students from other schools who were doing joint MBA/MPA’s through Harvard’s Kennedy School. I had no idea such joint programs existed and was bummed that I did not try to do a program like that at the time. I looked more into Harvard’s MPA programs and saw they had a full time Mid-Career 1 Year MPA. This program is designed for people later in their careers that often already have advanced degrees. Before I graduated with my MBA 8 years ago, I made the goal to attend this program.
Even before the pandemic, my wife and I decided that if I was going to apply to Harvard’s MPA program, 2020 was the year to do it for our family (which now includes 3 kids under 6). She has been extremely supportive even though this means moving our family again after only having moved to Raleigh from the Bay Area in September of last year. She has been an incredible partner on my career adventures. I like to tease her about how lucky she is that I don’t like to golf or watch sports but I do have one hobby that is really expensive and time consuming: grad school. Few things sound more fun to me than being a student again so I can sit in interesting classes and get to know interesting people.
I was interested in this program for a lot of reasons. Interest in the public sector/public service has been brewing in me for a long time. As the son of a Cuban immigrant, I have always felt a deep gratitude, respect and love for the United States from a young age. I saw how my family was able to leave a dangerous political situation and build successful lives in the US with the personal freedoms that were disappearing in Cuba when they fled. I believe the US has a net positive impact on the world and helping the standing/influence of the US on the world stage motivates me.
At the age of 19, I served a two-year, full time volunteer mission for my church working with Spanish speaking congregations in Southern California. That was an incredible experience for a lot of reasons, but it definitely helped to bust open my world view on many different levels. One of my most memorable experiences was trying to provide some comfort to an alcoholic around Christmas time. He lived in a junky trailer behind a house in the worst part of town. Listening to him describe how he was driven to alcohol after losing his wife and daughter tragically as he illegally crossed into the US seeking a better life was a life changing moment for me. I really saw, recognized and felt the suffering of someone from a different culture, religion and country. That moment has helped drive the need for my life to have a positive impact outside of my immediate sphere of influence. I also at that time was able to recognize how fortunate I had been in many aspects of my life.
As an undergrad I was initially drawn more to studying business, but after being rejected from BYU’s competitive undergraduate business program, I decided to study Political Science. I absolutely loved my classes but continued to nurture the business side of me with club affiliations and internships. I graduated in 2009 during the peak of the recession. I did not have a job at graduation but was fortunate enough to get another marketing internship at a software company where I continued to build marketable skills. As that summer was starting to wrap up, I felt that marketing in a software company was a really good fit for me. I’m naturally an evangelist for the things I care about so promoting a product or service that I believed in felt good. As the son of a software engineer, I always had an interest in technology and I liked the pace and excitement of the industry. Unfortunately, I was not having much success trying to get a full time job where I was interning because of a hiring freeze. I continued to look for jobs in tech all over the country. My plan was if I was not able to get a job in tech by the end of the summer, I would move to DC to pursue more public sector interests. This was a significant career fork in the road for me.
It’s a long story for another blog post, but I was fortunate to land my first job at Salesforce in San Francisco. When I got that job, I had never even visited San Francisco before. I was ready for that adventure and eagerly packed everything into the back of my truck and moved to SF. At that point I started flying down the tech career path. Being in SF provided a ton of new experiences and greatly expanded what I thought was possible for me professionally. You are going to laugh, but I had never even had Indian food before I moved to San Francisco. During that time, I also met my amazing wife and we got married. Working in marketing was still feeling like a great fit, but after 3 years at Salesforce I decided to return to BYU to do an MBA. An MBA had also been a goal of mine since my undergrad. My goal in getting an MBA was to prep myself for future leadership, have fun, learn and expand my horizon and that’s exactly what I did. After exploring different cities, industries and jobs during my MBA program, tech marketing still seemed like the best place for me, so after my MBA I returned to Silicon Valley to work at LinkedIn in marketing. That was a great experience, but after a few years, I was itching for another adventure and specifically something that would accelerate my career experiences.
My thought process was that if I am going to be living in Silicon Valley, the pedal needs to be to the metal. I joined Zoom in April of 2017 when there was about 100M in revenue and 500 employees. Zoom was a rocketship. Immediately after joining I had more responsibility and experiences that I had ever had before. I was fortunate enough to run the first two Zoomtopia’s, be on the IPO deal team and build out our international, partner marketing and localization programs. I built a talented team of around 20 marketers in 5 different countries.
The pandemic had a profound impact on our business at Zoom that I will definitely describe in more detail in a later blog post someday. I will say though that working at Zoom in 2020 during the pandemic and all the challenges we faced as a company, gave me chance to work on a lot of things outside of my day job that started to scratch the public service/public sector itch, including launching Zoom’s International Government relations program. Zoom overnight had become center stage on critical issues like the future of work, security, relations with China, privacy and many others. I had a front row seat on the biggest collision of policy, technology, international relations and public health that we have had as a nation in a very long time. This has helped me recognize areas where I think there needs to be some changes for the US to continue to expand our leadership position in technology.
My experiences the last year and a half at Zoom during the pandemic have really brought together my professional experiences and some of my long-standing interests in ways I could have never predicted. It stirred some passions that have been taking a back seat the first ~10 years of my career. Adding fuel to the fire has been seeing the political turmoil in the US over the last four years. Personally, I value diversity of thought, peace, diplomacy and respect in the political process. As I angrily watched protestors storm the US capitol, it solidified my desire to pursue this path. I have felt very strongly for the last 8 years that I have wanted to pursue this path, but like it often does, how this might all work only became clearer towards the end of my 8-year journey to apply to this program.
I feel grateful and privileged to be able to take this detour. Very quickly in my career I was able to provide enough for myself and my family to even be able to think about pursuing my interests and passions, even when that has meant stepping out of the workforce or taking what some might consider riskier moves. I view my career as an adventure, not just a way to make a living. Most people are not able to do that, so I feel the weight of making it count and using this experience for good.
I feel lucky to have had so many people in my corner (parents, family, mentors, bosses, friends) throughout my whole life that always encouraged me, nudged me and helped me see what was possible, even when I did not. If you were to tell me in high school that I would go to grad school at Harvard, I would have laughed you out of the room. Below is the video of when I found out I had been accepted.
At this point you are probably thinking, “well…what the heck are you going to do after you graduate?”. My response to that is “ask me in a year”.
I have been so focused on my tech career, that now I will take this year to re-tool, learn and explore the public sector. I am interested in tech policy, local government, international relations and the refugee crisis. This could mean I pursue one of those areas after graduation, or I find other ways to apply it to my business career or incorporate public service later into my life.
As always, let’s keep in touch and if you roll through Boston in the next 12 months and want to say hi, please reach out.
Thursday, April 8, 2021
Four years ago I remember leaving LinkedIn's swanky offices to go interview at Zoom. As I sat in the lobby waiting for my interviews at Zoom HQ in downtown San Jose, I remember looking around at the very scrappy/modest start up office and really questioning whether this was a good idea.
Turns out, it was the right thing for me and I've learned so much from my experience so far at Zoom. I'm on paternity leave right now so I've had some time to reflect on the last four years and wanted to share 4 lessons from 4 years at Zoom. Now, I must admit I stole this format from my friend at DoorDash, Nathan Tanner. His 4 year post is great if you want to check it out.
1. Personal growth is almost always uncomfortable. I joined Zoom because I wanted to push myself. I figured if I was going to be in Silicon Valley I wanted my career to accelerate as quickly as possible. Joining a small, fast growing software company like Zoom was my way of trying to kick things up a notch. It really has been a career accelerator, but I always joke around with other Zoomies that even pre-pandemic Zoom felt like a brand new company every 1-2 quarters and during the pandemic it has felt like a new company every 60 days. This means there were countless times I felt completely in over my head, overworked, outside of my comfort zone, unprepared or frustrated that a process that worked 6 months ago no longer works. Over time, I'm come to learn that those uncomfortable feelings are signs that you're growing and being stretched, it's the price you pay for growth.
2. Anything worth doing will have naysayers. When I joined Zoom, no one really tried to talk me out of it, but some people definitely seemed less enthusiastic or impressed when I shared the news. As Zoom has become more well know and grown, I've had several people reach out and say to me something like "wow...when you joined Zoom I thought you were really making a bad career move but looks like it has worked out!". It does not always work out, but as I look back on that decision and have watched other people make different career moves, I've come to the conclusion that if everyone thinks everything you're doing is 100% the right thing to do and the perfect path, you are probably not doing anything too interesting or your friends/network is too homogenous. I have found immense value is talking career moves over with a variety of people I trust and respect, but at the end of the day you have to decide what your path is and not let a consensus or worries about the perceptions of others drive big decisions.
3. You're in the drivers seat of your career. Even in companies with sophisticated career programs, you have to decide what you want to pursue, have goals and share them with your manager. If your company does not have good career programs not only do you have to do those things, but also drive it to action, whether that be a promotion, a role change or additional responsibility. I see a lot of people that seem to be waiting around for someone to give them an opportunity, or point out to them their next best career move. Chances are you are surrounded by people that can do that, but often you need to ask or initiate those conversations. Waiting for a formal evaluation once a year is usually not enough. Also, be wary of stagnation, deciding to things slow down a bit career wise is often the right call, but it should be a conscious decision.
4. Raise your hand. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world with the variety and amount of cool experiences I've had the last four years at Zoom. I got to run our first Zoomtopia (I hired my favorite band, Weezer to be the entertainment), be on the IPO deal team and help launch our International Government Relations program. All of these things were never my day job, but most of them happened because I volunteered or just started doing it. Now, I must admit there were almost always moments I regretted signing up for a big project on top of my existing demanding job, but looking back on the last four years, some of the most interesting, fulfilling and memorable experiences came from my willingness to raise my hand.
The last four years has been the most rewarding and challenging time of my career. As I reflect on this journey so far, I'm filled with gratitude to all the Zoomies that have helped make this such a incredible place to work and hope these hard earned lessons can help or inspire anyone reading.
Wednesday, September 2, 2020
I fought the urge, but once a blog post is swimming around in my head, I have to write it. Actually, what I want to talk about the most are the trends that got us here, how the world is different now and what the future of the Bay Area could look like. Yes, my family and I are moving to the Raleigh area in North Carolina, but more about that later.
A bit of background: I've spent my entire career working in tech in the Bay Area. I moved here during the last recession in 2009 and have basically been here ever since. I've lived in San Francisco, Mountain View and Palo Alto. My wife has lived here her whole life and now we've got three kids, all under 5 years old. I've gotten to work for what I believe are some of the best companies in the Bay Area: Salesforce, LinkedIn and now Zoom.
I'm not going to rehash the great things about the Bay Area in detail because those are well known: the weather, mountains, coast, incredible food, amazing schools, incredible intellectual capital and the best career/life changing companies in the world to work for. In my eyes, there is really just one main downside to overcome… the cost. On one side of the equation are all the amazing things about the Bay Area and on the other side is the cost.
There is no doubt that COVID has drastically changed that equation for many. Suddenly the dynamics of the situation have changed. You have a really small house or apartment because of the cost, but now your job is not tied to a physical location. Is the Bay Area still worth it? For many, the scales get tipped and the answer will be no.
I've read so many articles about whether working remotely will stick once this terrible virus goes away and I think that while many people will return to the office, many people will decide to stay remote or find in office tech jobs outside the Bay Area. Here are my reasons for why this will be a lasting trend that will result in a new normal far beyond where we were pre-COVID.
1. Some of the most well known and largest tech employers are embracing long term remote work to a level that has never been seen before. These companies are leaders and have set expectations for the industry. Every week more companies are added to the list. The ability to work from home is going to become as expected and iconic of a tech company as having a ping pong table.
2. Long before COVID, large tech companies in high cost areas like the Bay Area had started to invest heavily in “2nd HQ’s” in low cost areas. The majority of hiring in a lot of these Bay Area tech companies, even pre-COVID was focused on the lower cost areas. Now, it will become even easier and more attractive to transfer roles to the other HQ office in Salt Lake, Chicago, Denver or Austin.
3. COVID has forced a massive WFH experiment. Some will like it, some won't, but millions more have tried it that might not have ever tried it without COVID. It has accelerated exposure and adoption.
4. The tech scenes in other lower cost states have really matured over the last few years, better companies, more options and stronger startup ecosystems. (I'm looking at you Texas, Utah and North Carolina)
5. The tools to work from home are better. Companies like Zoom and Slack exist today because previous chat and video software products (which we have relied on heavily when working remotely) did not live up to their potential. Identity management tools like OKTA and a variety of other cloud applications have made it so you can truly be anywhere to run many, complex applications.
6. Hardware is more accessible to enable video connections. That means every laptop and phone has a camera, which was not the case 10 years ago. Not only that, but the cost of building video enabled rooms into conference rooms has fallen off a cliff. Now that you'll be able to plug your work video conferencing into a Google Nest Hub, Facebook Portal or Amazon Echo Show will enable you to create video conferencing experiences as smooth as your high priced video enabled boardroom with the hardware already sitting in your house.
7. A new generation of companies even before the pandemic were proving out that larger firms can go fully remote. InVision, Gitlab and Zapier are great examples.
So what is my prediction about the future of the Bay Area?
I'm still pretty bullish on the Bay Area. While a lot has changed, some things have not changed. It still has world class schools, companies and weather. Those with a lot of the power and money in tech are less likely to leave in the wake of COVID because they are not worried as much about the cost and likely living in a space they are comfortable with (or hiding out in their 2nd homes in Napa, Tahoe or Carmel). Working in office with those leaders and executives will have some advantages post COVID. However, one of the Bay Area's competitive advantages as the tech center of the world is the in-person connections where networking and deal making happen. Those in person events will return, but will it be to the same extent? How long will it take? Will virtual happy hours stick? Maybe Silicon Valley VC's will have gotten used to making deals over Zoom and invest in companies that are further away from their offices? I think there will be a new normal that will weaken the Bay Area's grip to some degree.
In general, I think the concentration of talent, money and other resources has been good for Silicon Valley and have enabled it to become the worldwide leader in technology. However, too much concentration for too long has led to some of the highest costs in the country. And that is not a good thing in my opinion for a lot of reasons. It was never going to be sustainable, especially without bold efforts by the local government and the community to change that.
I do not see any area in the US surpassing the Bay Area as the strongest US tech hub anytime soon, but I do think what we are experiencing with COVID will greatly strengthen and accelerate the already blossoming tech hubs throughout the US. Lower cost tech ecosystems have much to gain in this environment and if I were them, I'd be welcoming any talent leaving the Bay Area with open arms.
In the meantime, the Bay Area will still be strong and traffic will be better. And while I don't think housing costs will fall off a cliff any time soon, it might cool off the growth rate we've seen over the last few decades.
The Bay Area is still a place where dreams come true. Spending the first 10 years of my career here was probably the best professional decision I ever made. I do not wish for the demise of the Bay Area as a worldwide tech leader, but I do hope for a stronger, nationwide tech ecosystem in many states that brings innovation, high paying jobs and taps into talent that would never be able to come to the Bay Area.
Why now and why did we choose the Raleigh area?
When I was in grad school, I had a case competition at UNC. My wife tagged along for the weekend and we really liked it. Three strong Universities in the Research Triangle creates a ton of intellectual capital. It also has a growing tech scene, a relatively temperate climate, it’s a few hours from the beach and has extremely affordable housing. We've also had a few more family members make their way to the east coast recently.
COVID really did become the straw that broke the camel's back. Luckily at the beginning of the year, after living several years in a 800 square foot cottage with 2 kids, we rented a 3 bed 2 bath place in Palo Alto for an amount that made me cringe every time I paid the rent. We felt lucky to have a bit more space when COVID hit, but in May we had our 3rd kid. Combine this with me working from home, we were bursting at the seams. Since I'm not going back to the office anytime soon, the kids need space and I need a dedicated workspace. We figured that now is as good a time as any to try an adventure in a place we've been talking about living in for years. Being able to move to a lower cost area without changing jobs made the leap even more attractive.
To my friends and colleagues in the Bay Area, I'll miss seeing you all in person and will surely be out to visit frequently once this terrible virus goes away, but until then, I'll see you on Zoom. :)