Monday, May 9, 2022

What It Was Like To Do a Mid-Career Year MPA Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School

If you're wondering why I did this program to begin with, I explained it in another blog post that you can find here. I’m writing this post as a bit of a journal for me and to help anyone interested in a deeper view of what a program like this is really like. Going into the program I had three main goals that I had written down during orientation that I used to focus my time and energy. Here is what they were.

1. Make sure this is a positive experience for my family
2. Build relationships
3. Focus my time/energy in exploring new areas

For the first goal, this one happened way more organically than I ever thought. My wife and I have three kids under 7 and this would be our third move in three years, so we were pretty worried about what this experience would be like for the whole family. Luckily, I had got connected with some Harvard Business School students that also had kids and they gave us the best advice, which was to live at Soldier Field Park (SFP). SFP is Harvard campus family housing that is basically part of the business school, but only a 9 minute walk across the Charles river to my campus too. This ended up being an incredible decision. Graduate housing is done through lottery, but we were lucky enough to get a 3 bed, 2 bath apartment. It’s pricey, but it was worth it. We had instant community because our building was full of 2 and 3 bedroom apartments so there were kids everywhere. Not only that, but there was a playground basically right outside our door. When half of your neighbors also moved in at once too, it’s easy to make friends. It also meant we had access to all the amenities on campus and could walk into Harvard square to hang out or to eat. There was almost always something fun going on close by. After a pandemic year of being recluses, we made up for lost time with a vengeance. I’ll share more about Boston/Cambridge later in the post, but my Bay Area born wife, who is a tough judge of cities, absolutely fell in love with Boston. 

Our oldest was going into first grade and ultimately decided to put him in a private catholic school in Cambridge. We had never considered private school, but we home schooled him for kindergarten because of COVID and the lottery system for the Boston public schools created a lot of uncertainty, so we decided to do it. It turns out, most of the school aged kids that lived on campus went to private schools. He had a positive experience and we were even able to carpool with other kids in the neighborhood. Overall, we were really quickly able to make friends and build community through our church, classmates and neighbors. The business school in particular has an incredibly well organized and fun parents club called Crimson Parents that we participated in.

I had gotten the advice to really prioritize relationships with my classmates to maximize my experience. As soon as I met my classmates, I was in awe. It was such an incredibly talented, kind and diverse group of individuals. My program was geared towards “Mid-careers” so the average age of my classmates was probably ~40. About half of the 200 students in my program came from outside the US. In my class we had a Nobel Prize winner, a winner of multiple Emmy's, a professional dancer, musicians, doctors, diplomats, soldiers, lawyers, and the list could go on and on. The most inspiring thing to me though was that everyone was committed and wanted to be an active participant in the world around them, for good. No one talked about salaries, few talked about reaching career milestones, it was all about the issues or causes they cared about. Coming from a pretty capitalistic Silicon Valley career so far, it was a breath of fresh air and very inspiring to be so surrounded by those kinds of people. Being around those kinds of people made me want to do more for the public good, which is exactly what I had hoped for. I must admit that at times it was easy to get down as we studied some of the world’s most challenging problems. There were issues that I became much more acutely aware of, like climate change or I’d found out about a group of people that have been systematically oppressed that I had never even heard of like the Rohingya people. That part was so different from my MBA. An MBA is all about the potential of businesses and growth, but in the end, this is the world we live in and seeing such passionate people tackle some of these problems gave me hope that we’ll figure much of it out.

I’m a pretty social guy, but trying to balance the incredible social opportunities and home life is always challenging. I tackled this by setting some boundaries (things like, almost no evening classes) and being proactive about organizing social events that worked on my terms. I did a lot of “coffee” chats and lunches during the week and had to pass on a lot of week night 6pm dinners/happy hours. I also organized two class trips with classmates that were a mix of fun and meeting with alumni and organizations of interest. One trip was to DC in the Fall and another to NYC in the Spring. All and all, I feel like I was able to make many lifelong friends. One of the things I appreciated the most was how quickly our class became cheerleaders for each other. In our class Whatsapp group, almost every day someone is highlighting a classmate's work, or achievement and the whole group is full of positive encouragement for one another. 

A big part of coming back to grad school was to explore the public sector, public service and a variety of other interests. In a one year program you really don’t get to take that many classes, so it was a struggle to decide which ones to take each semester. There were only three required classes in three different buckets, but each bucket had like 20 classes in it, so in reality you could take just about any classes you wanted and still meet the graduation requirements for my program. There were almost twice as many classes as I was interested in, than actually fit in my schedule. There were a lot of interesting classes particularly around leadership that I did not take because they were similar to classes I took during my MBA. I wanted to focus on new topics that I was not exposed to during business school. Below you can find the classes I took, which ones were my favorites (highlighted in yellow) and a little bit about each one. Some of these were half semester classes, which is why I have so many classes in only two semesters.

CourseTitleProfessorExplanation
API 205Politics and Policies: What Can Data Tell Us?Hughes HallettI had to choose one required quant course and this is what I choose. It was a great refresher on stats and analysis all in the context of really interesting policy or political case studies.
IGA 505Solving Tech's Public DilemmasCarterSecretary Carter is a former US Secretary of Defense, it was nothing short of incredible to sit in his class each week and look at the tech industry through his eyes and experience.
IGA 355MMigration and Human RightsBhabhaI've also been interested in the refugee crisis for a long time, it has been my issue and charitable cause of choice, but I did not know much about it. I really enjoyed just being in a class I did not know a lot about and soaking everything in. Learned a ton and more committed than before to doing what I can to help refugees of all kinds around the world.
DPI 640Technology and the Public Interest: From Democracy to Technocracy and BackSweeneyThis class studies technology and society clashes, it was very interesting to look at technology development in terms of its impact on society, especially after spending most of my career in Silicon Valley.




MLD 342Persuasion: The Science and Art of Effective InfluenceOrrenIn between fall and spring you can take a two week accelerated class where you meet every day for two weeks. I took this class and enjoyed it a lot, it was a great refresher on the soft skills of leadership.




IGA 236Cybersecurity: Technology, Policy, and LawSchneierOne of my favorite classes, Bruce Schneier is world renowned and just a knowledgeable and funny professor. I had always wanted to dive deeper into cyber and this was a great class to do it.
MLD 831Entrepreneurship and InnovationCavanaghIn this class we work-shopped social innovation business ideas, it was a small class. Really enjoyed seeing all the different types of businesses you can create for the social good. There are so many ways to use entrepreneurship to do good and we got to study a lot of different models in this class. I built out a business plan for a specific idea that I had during this class.
DPI 896MCrisis CommunicationsHaberReally enjoyed this class, got a bit of PTSD as I relived my time at Zoom during the pandemic, but really good still to have if you're ever going to be in a leadership position.
DPI 831MOp-Ed WritingGreenThis was a half semester small class writing workshop where we learned how to write op-eds, the structure, pitching and refined several op-eds we all wrote in the process. Only writing class I had every taken like that and LOVED IT!
HBSMBA7475CS50 for MBAs
In any graduate school at Harvard you can cross register. This was the only class I did not take at the Kennedy School. This was a entry level computer science class geared towards managers. I had always wanted to take a computer science class. Really enjoyed it and learned a lot.

Between my classes, classmates, attending random lectures and events across campus I got to dive into so many topics I have been interested in, but had not had the time to go deeper. A few favorite moments, hearing from US Cyber Command, a discussion about the Israeli-Palistenian conflict, hearing from elected officials and listening to lectures on current event topics like the war in Ukraine.

A few words about the Harvard community in general. The first day we moved in, I met a next door neighbor. We got talking and I asked him all the standard questions, what were you doing before and what are you hoping to do after school. In that short intro conversation, I found that he was a former Navy Seal hoping to one day build a hotel in space. In a lot of ways, that sums up what it is like to be in this environment. Surrounded by incredibly accomplished people with some big goals.

In terms of academics, there is some truth to what they say about places like Harvard that “the hardest part is getting in”. I was a pretty average student in high school, better in college and even better during my MBA, but I was never the stereotypical straight A student that aced standardized tests. For me, believing that I could attend a school like Harvard only started to creep into my mind once I moved to the Bay Area after my undergrad and worked with a lot of folks from Ivy league institutions. Working with them took away a lot of the mystique around what it takes to succeed at those schools. I thought my colleagues were smart, but I realized I could keep up. As I did well professionally I think I just generally had more confidence in my capabilities, even if I totally sucked at taking standardized tests. In fact, my GMAT score was so low that BYU grilled me about it during my MBA admission interview. I found that my time at BYU prepared me well academically to do well in my classes at Harvard. There were classes where it took a lot of effort and work and some classes where it did not take that much effort. I also selected the classes I was most excited about and interested in, which were rarely subjects that I would not have excelled in. I think as an older student you are able to focus better and not stress out as much, so the academic side of it was not a stressful experience for me. I’m sure I would have completely drowned in an advanced econ class at Harvard. I felt like my best Professors at BYU were just as good as my best Professors at Harvard teaching wise, but I think the biggest differences comes from the professional renown and experience of the Professor. At Harvard it’s just often at a different level, same with my classmates.

Harvard was pretty serious about their COVID restrictions. Luckily we had an in person class for just about the entire year. We did not ditch the masks until the end of Spring semester. There was a pretty formal testing program where you usually had to do a COVID test twice a week. There were some limits to different kinds of gatherings and canceled programs, but overall I’m guessing I got 85-90% of the pre-COVID experience. I’m glad that I decided to go this year.

There are some funny quirks about Harvard. One of them is that once you're in, it’s really easy to complain about Harvard. I think people have such high expectations going into it that a lot of folks are shocked to find out that not everything is perfect, but no organization is good at everything so sometimes we all had to remind ourselves of that.

Politically, I’m pretty moderate. I did my undergrad and MBA at BYU, which is generally pretty conservative leaning so I was bracing myself for whiplash going to a place like Harvard which I expected to be pretty liberal. It is in general, but not as much as I would have thought. I was pleasantly surprised, especially in the Kennedy School to hear some diversity in thought. Don’t get me wrong, there is a strong liberal under current and there were some discussion topics that seemed to be avoided because any disagreement with the general current would unfortunately not result in a productive dialogue, but the majority of my classmates I personally found to be very open minded, diplomatic and thoughtful. As a 2nd generation Cuban immigrant, who’s Dad fled communism, I tend to be in the “Pro-US, with all of its imperfections camp” and there was much more of that than I thought there would be, especially on the national security side of things. Many of my classmates were from different branches of the military which I think helped to create that feeling. Also, as a person of faith and this being my first experience in higher education that was not faith based, I was pleasantly surprised how all faiths were embraced. I felt like I could be my true self and appreciated so many of my classmates being open about their beliefs. I did not expect faith based motivations or experiences to be as welcome and celebrated as they were in a place like Harvard.

A few words about Boston/Cambridge. This area had a lot of the same characteristics that we loved about Silicon Valley, the people are similar in a lot of ways. I have always loved meeting interesting people doing interesting things and boy this town is full of them. Especially coming from the Bay Area we were shocked at how clean and safe much of the city was. Having the Charles river run out into the ocean, passing Boston’s beautiful skyline just really makes it one of the most beautiful cities in America. We loved the history, architecture and quirks about Boston. I never had class on Fridays during my whole program and we went on so many weekend trips to Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island and NYC. As New England newbies we loved our crash course in the culture, food and all this area had to offer. Even with our aggressive weekender schedule, it feels like we only scratched the surface. 

The cold is no joke and we are not cold weather people. I think the best thing we did was have covered parking and geared up. We spent a small fortune at the local Patagonia store, but it was worth it. We had never experienced a winter like that, but between the gear and a few well planned vacations to warmer destinations it really was not that bad. In some ways this past year felt like a gap year for the whole family. We are not staying in Boston, but I think Boston will probably forever be a very special city for our family because of this experience.

I’ve always highly valued new experiences, travel, adventures and learning. In that way, this program was tailor made for me. I think the value of graduate school often comes down to what you were expecting, which can vary widely between folks, but for me, this program met and exceeded my expectations. I felt like I was able to meet all of the goals that I had outlined at the beginning of the year. Going back to school was not only a career based decision for me, it was a mix of career, personal interests, my belief in life long learning and for fun.

If you're reading this and thinking of going back to school, I have a bit of advice. The first is to really think about what you would want to get out of graduate school. Especially later in your career, the opportunity cost can be very high but your ability to focus and make the most of the experience is in some ways more optimal a bit further down the career road. I also think you should shoot for the stars. I’m grateful for some friends and mentors that always encouraged me to shoot higher than maybe I thought was possible. If there is no one in your life like that, give me a call and I’ll be happy to pay it forward and give you a pep talk.

If you're thinking about this program, the best advice that I’d have for you is to tell a strong and compelling story about why you, why now and what this program will enable you to do. If you look at each class you can see the admission’s committee’s methodical approach to make a diverse (in many dimensions) class. Almost no one is that similar, so be your authentic self and tell your story clearly.

If you actually read this whole blog post, at this point you might be very disappointed to realize that I’m not going to talk about what is next for me career wise. At the time of writing this post, some things are still in process, but once they are finalized I’m definitely going to share in another way too long of a blog post about how the past year has evolved my career thinking and why I’m doing what I’m doing next, so stay tuned!


Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Christian Case for Supporting Immigration in the US

I wrote this paper in a class I took in the Fall of 2021 called Migration and Human Rights. If you feel so compelled, please donate to the International Rescue Committee.

At the age of 19, I paused my university experience and went on a two-year, full-time volunteer mission for my church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Members of my church are often referred to by the unofficial nickname of “Mormons''. Missions for young people are a customary aspect of my religion and at any given time there are more than 50,000 (1) men and women serving as missionaries around the globe. You do not get to pick where you are assigned for your missionary service or the language you might have to learn. I was assigned to serve my mission in Orange County California attached to Spanish speaking congregations. 


Most people I met and interacted with during my time as a missionary were immigrants from Mexico and Central America, most of them came into the US illegally. Prior to being a missionary, my views on immigration were generally a reflection growing up in Republican dominated Texas and being the son of a Cuban refugee. My father came to the US with his siblings and parents at the age of six in the 1960’s. Cubans have enjoyed preferred immigration status in the US and tend to be less aligned with other Spanish speaking immigrants based in the US in terms of their views on immigration. (2) Simply put, they are often not as pro-immigration politically as you might expect from an immigrant community in the US. I don’t remember giving a lot of thought to immigration as a teenager, but likely would have disapproved of people crossing the border illegally.

Spending two years inside the homes of these immigrants, developing friendships with them and hearing about their hopes and dreams significantly changed how I viewed immigration in the US. I found that most of the time these immigrants were seeking safety, freedom and economic opportunity. Some of the strongest motivations they expressed for coming to the US focused on the quality of life for their children or future children. Overtime I came to realize that I would have potentially made similar decisions as they did if I had been in similar circumstances. I also realized how their stories were not that different to the story of my own family. As the second generation of an immigrant family, I’m seeing all those hopes, and dreams of my Cuban grandparents play out as they imagined. Their grandkids are living productive, free, and safe lives in the United States. Most of the difference in experience between my family's experience and those of the Mexican and Central American immigrants today are because of differences in the US immigration policies.

Religious study was daily and significant part of my experience as a missionary. As I studied my church’s doctrine and reflected on the people and experiences, I was having every day, I personally and naturally saw clear alignment between the principles Christianity and a pro-immigration political view. The principles that were most impactful in driving my change of view were not unique to my religion but were basic and widely accepted principles of Christianity

For me, it was not just my experience getting to know so many immigrants, but a deeper understanding of the tenants of my faith and Christianity overall that drove me to have a more compassionate view of immigration politically.

In the many years since being a missionary, it has been clear that there are many who do not see the same alignment between tenets of Christianity and pro-immigration political views. This contrast became even more clear during the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and subsequent presidency. Though this paper focuses on Christianity, Harvard Professor Jacqueline Bhabha pointed out in her book “Can We Solve the Migration Crisis?” that “all the major religions also evidence a dramatic disjunction between scriptural text and quotidian practice”(3) when it comes to immigration.

Republicans tend to be much more religious than Democrats in the US(4). The Republican party is dominated by Christian denominations with about 82% of Republicans identifying as Christian(5). Mormons, Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants are the most Republican dominated Christian denominations(6). This religious (mostly Christian) base helped Trump get elected and on the platform of instituting some of the harshest immigration policies in recent years.

As the 2016 election unfolded in the United States, I could not help but be surprised by the level of anti-immigration rhetoric from Trump and his campaign, especially knowing how many of his supporters were of the Christian faith. The way he discussed and framed immigrants was shocking. The most memorable was in his formal announcement of running for president, he referred to those coming from Mexico into the US as “not their best” and went so far to generalize many of them as “rapists”(7). It was extremely unsettling for me personally to see so many Christians align with Trump’s policies and rhetoric, especially when my faith pushed me in the opposite direction in terms of my views on immigration.

Shortly after being elected, he started to make good on his campaign promises and began to roll out his immigration agenda, which included ending The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program(8) and eventually led to 400 executive(9) orders on immigration. The most visible of these policies was separating children at the border(10), which received a lot a massive amount of criticism and was eventually reversed to some degree. While President Trump took a much harder stance on immigration, tougher immigration has been a part of the Republican platform for a while. There is no doubt that after four years of the Trump presidency legal and illegal immigration is much more restrictive than it has been in a long time.

I do not expect the members of any faith to be completely aligned to a political party or any specific policy among the many a political party will push forward. How different Christian groups prioritize and view immigration as an issue varies widely. In a 2019 PRRI survey(11), immigration was a top issue in the 9 different religious groups surveyed, but it was not the number one issue for any of the groups. It did not even make the top 3 for more than half of the groups. This leads me to believe that while immigration is an important issue for many Christian faiths, it seems unlikely to be the most critical issue driving voter behavior.

Who you vote for is very complex and few candidates perfectly reflect the views of the individuals they represent. Individuals must make tradeoffs and prioritize the different policies to be able to support specific candidates. The number of Christian voters was clearly influential in getting Trump elected but I think it would be short sighted to blame a religion for specific policies of a political party. Though, the commonality of faith creates opportunities for faith-based influence to impact policy. A closer look at some well-known biblical examples of immigration can serve to help those who look to the Bible as a source of faith to be motivated to support not just a more empathetic view of immigration, but candidates and policies that will reflect that view. My goal in writing this paper is that an understanding of Biblical and modern-day migration within existing frameworks of how to approach immigration challenges could be a cause for reflection among Christian readers of this paper. The biblical examples throughout this paper could be used in many religious settings to teach, inspire, and advocate for immigrants. It is also my goal that these parallels could be used by advocates, refugee supporting NGOs, experts, and policy makers to more effectively appeal to people of the Christian faith to drive more support and an empathetic view for migrants of all kinds. The high percentage of Christians in the Republican party creates a group of voters that believe many of the same things, speak a common language, have often heard the same scriptural stories, and potentially have some of the same faith-based motivations. In this paper I’m primarily focused on the US, but it’s worth noting that Christians are the largest religious group in the world. Christians make up 31.2% of the world’s population at around 2.3B people(12). Christians are an influential group in many democracies around the world, just as they are in the US. The arguments in this paper could be extrapolated to Christians in other nations as well.

In the book, Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, leading thinkers in the study of migrants, highlight two core guiding principles in the world’s response to immigration. The principles are rescue and autonomy, which are also core principles of Christianity. The book goes on to say that “The duty of rescue entails ensuring that people in distress have rapid access to their most fundamental needs.”(13)

Few biblical verses capture the Christian principles of rescue as clearly as the book of Matthew in the New Testament. In the book of Matthew, the Apostle Matthew is recounting the parables Jesus taught and captured the following words of Jesus in Chapter 25:35-40 of the King James Version of the Bible.

35 For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

These verses make clear what is the duty of a follower of Christ, which is aligned with the immigration principle of rescue “ensuring that people in distress have rapid access to their fundamental needs.”13 It is worth noting that there are no “qualifications” in these verses on who should be helped or deserves it, but rather focuses on if there is a need, the Christian duty is to act. One might argue that your duty to help others is more focused on those around you in your immediate sphere of influence, but this scripture explicitly mentions “strangers”. “Strangers” comes from the world “extraneous” which means “exterior” or “from the outside.”(14) This could mean Jesus was referring to someone that was an outsider in several ways. Just as modern-day immigrants can have different countries of origin, religion, and culture.

Later in the New Testament the Apostle John in the book of 1 John was addressing a fragile new church trying to stay aligned with the teachings of Jesus.(15) In that environment, you can imagine how important it would have been for him to focus the attention of his readers on the most basic and fundamental aspects of Christ’s teachings. He was more explicit and direct about the responsibility of Christians to help those in need, even going so far as to say that if you don’t, the love of God is not within you. 1 John Chapter 3:17, “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”

The Bible extols true believers to rescue those in need and is full of examples of the principle of rescue in action. One of the most important was Jesus himself as a refugee in need of rescue. In the Book of Matthew in Chapter 2 we learn that King Herod, feeling threatened by the birth of Jesus, intended to kill the Child. Shortly after the birth, Jesus’s father Joseph was warned in a dream by God and was commanded to “and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word” (verse 13). Jesus’s father took drastic action to protect the physical safety of his child, which involved fleeing to another country. The same rationale for fleeing to another country, often illegally, is used by many modern-day migrants with children.

The story of Exodus is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. The dramatic story of the Israelites fleeing persecution in Egypt is repeated often in the Christian and the Jewish traditions. In this story we have a group of people being oppressed that flee looking for freedom and better opportunities. One aspect of the story that is often overlooked is why the Israelites were in Egypt. Earlier in the Bible in Genesis Chapter 47, we find out that Joseph and his family were driven by famine to settle in Egypt.(16) The parallels to modern day reasons driving immigration are clear. Searching for economic opportunities and escaping conflicts are still major drivers of immigration today.(17)

In these well-known Biblical stories, you explicitly see the principles of rescue, but throughout the Bible you also see autonomy. On the topic of autonomy Alexander Betts and Paul Collier go on to say “But as soon as this is achieved - the child is pulled out of the pond - our purpose becomes to restore autonomy. A satisfactory refugee regime should enable people to help themselves and their communities, particularly through jobs and education.”13

Returning to the story of Jesus fleeing to Egypt, eventually after the danger had passed, they returned. Not much is said about Jesus’s formative years in Nazareth, but in Luke 2:40 it says “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.” Many Christian faiths assume he became a carpenter like his father. The story shows the need for rescue, but also implies a return to autonomy once the danger has passed.

In the New Testament you see the virtues of autonomy espoused in the epistle that the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy(18), who at the time was a young church leader in Ephesus. Paul wrote in 1Timothy 5:8 “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” The Apostle Paul also wrote to the Thessalonians espousing the importance of work and providing for yourself in 1 Thessalonians 4:11–12 “And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.” He did again in 2 Thessalonians Chapter 3:12 “Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.”

The message is clear, working and providing for yourself is a good thing and a virtue of Christianity. Enabling others to obtain those virtues, such as immigrants who are unable during a time of difficulty, would be an honorable thing to do as a Christian.

Two of the most important guiding principles for addressing the challenges of migration are clearly supported throughout the Bible with many powerful stories of those principles in action.

In Joseph Carens, book The Ethics of Immigration. He drew a powerful framing for how we should think about immigration ethically. He wrote “Whatever principles or approaches we propose, we should always ask ourselves at some point, "What would this have meant if we had applied it to Jews fleeing Hitler?" And no answer will be acceptable if, when applied to the past, it would lead to the conclusion that it was justifiable to deny safe haven to Jews trying to escape the Nazis. This approach will not settle every question about refugees that we have to consider, but it will give us a minimum standard, one fixed point on our moral compass.”(19)

The same comparison can be made to some of the most famous refugees in Christianity, Jesus himself and the Israelites fleeing Egypt. While I personally believe Joseph Carens’ analogy to be sufficiently persuasive as is, his framework could also be used to focus specifically on Christianity. As modern-day Christians, we should also ask ourselves when looking at immigration policies “What would this have meant if we had applied it to Christ fleeing Herod, or Moses fleeing Egypt?" The current plight of immigrants today is no less dramatic than those faced in the time of the Bible. In our modern day we have more than one million(20) Rohingya people that are stateless, abused and persecuted looking to flee their situation, not unlike Moses and the Israelites. In Venezuela we have parents that fear for the physical safety of their children because of not only an oppressive government but a dangerous lack of food, medicine and other necessities needed to sustain life. The dire situation has led to over four million Venezuelans leaving which is an 8,000% increase since 2014.(21)

Harvard Professor Jacqueline Bhabha was right when she wrote “despite the prominence of hospitality toward strangers as a core obligation in all major schools of religious thought, clear religious edicts collide with the practical operations of state sovereignty and personal and national self-interest.”3. I’m not naive enough to think that a simple understanding of Christian principles related to rescue would be enough to convince voters, but I do fundamentally believe that the Christian experience can be a greater force for good in supporting the 84 million people forcibly displaced throughout the world.(22)

The reality is that the Christian faith already drives many people to participate in helping immigrants around the world. There are many faith-based organizations that embody the principles of rescue and autonomy towards migrants like the Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and many others.

There are bright spots out there that many Christians are even willing to break away from their political party for this issue, driven by religious beliefs. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the reduction of the maximum number of refugees to 30,000, many religious organizations came out in opposition, including the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT).(23) I saw this in my own faith, which is headquartered in Utah and the state that has the highest concentration of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In December of 2019 President Trump gave states the authority to veto refugee settlements.(24) Gov. Gary R. Herbert of Utah, a deeply conservative and religious state, wrote an open letter to President Trump asking for more refugees based on the religious history of the state. He said “Our state was founded by religious refugees fleeing persecution in the Eastern United States. Those experiences and hardships of our pioneer ancestors 170 years ago are still fresh in the minds of many Utahns. As a result, we empathize deeply with individuals and groups who have been forced from their homes and we love giving them a new home and a new life.”(25) In coverage from The Washington Post of the unusual announcement from a conservative state in the height of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, they speculated the reasons Utah was taking such a dramatically different stance than other red states. One of the journalist's conclusions was that “The high percentage of young Mormons who perform missionary work abroad plays a role, as well. Utah may be landlocked, far from any international border. But its population has a comfort and familiarity with foreign cultures.”(24)

It seems as if my experience as a missionary and how it has shaped my views of immigration might not be unique, which leads me to believe that experiences, education, and messages rooted in Christian principles can convert more of the believers to believe in a United States that is more welcoming to immigrants.



 

Notes

 

  1. “Latter-Day Saint Missionary Program - Missionaries Serve Two Year Missions.” newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org, August 24, 2021. https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/topic/missionary-program.
  2. “Cubans in the United States.” Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project. Pew Research Center, May 30, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2006/08/25/cubans-in-the-united-states/.
  3. Bhabha, Jacqueline. “Chapter 2.” Essay. In Can We Solve the Migration Crisis?, 7. Newark, NJ: Polity Press, 2018.
  4. “Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, September 9, 2020. https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/compare/belief-in-god/by/party-affiliation/.
  5. “Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, September 9, 2020. https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/party-affiliation/republican-lean-rep/.
  6. “Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, September 9, 2020. https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/compare/belief-in-god/by/party-affiliation/.
  7. Collins , Michael, and Christal Hayes. “Timeline: 10 Controversial Things Trump Has Said about the Border, Immigrants.” El Paso Times, January 1, 2019. https://www.elpasotimes.com/storytelling/timeline/donald-trump-racist-tweet-things-said/
  8. Soto, Isabel, and Whitney Appel. “Comparing Trump and Biden on Immigration.” AAF, September 9, 2020. https://www.americanactionforum.org/insight/comparing-trump-and-biden-on-immigration/.
  9. Pierce, Sarah and Jessica Bolter. 2020. Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalog of Changes under the Trump Presidency. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute
  10. “Family Separation under the Trump Administration – a Timeline.” Southern Poverty Law Center, June 17, 2020. https://www.splcenter.org/news/2020/06/17/family-separation-under-trump-administration-timeline.
  11. PRRI Staff. “Fractured Nation: Widening Partisan Polarization and Key Issues in 2020 Presidential Elections.” PRRI, November 10, 2020. https://www.prri.org/research/fractured-nation-widening-partisan-polarization-and-key-issues-in-2020-presidential-elections/.
  12. Hackett, Conrad, and David McClendon. “World's Largest Religion by Population Is Still Christianity.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, May 31, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/.
  13. Betts, Alexander, and Paul Collier. “Ch. 8.” Essay. In Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System. PENGUIN Books, 2018.
  14. Caussé, Gérald. “Ye Are No More Strangers.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Accessed October 21, 2021. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2013/10/ye-are-no-more-strangers?lang=eng.
  15. Introduction to 1 John. Accessed October 21, 2021. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/new-testament-study-guide-for-home-study-seminary-students/introduction-to-1-john?lang=eng.
  16. Knohl, Israel. “Pinpointing the Exodus from Egypt.” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 2018. https://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/pinpointing-the-exodus-from-egypt/.
  17. Francesco Castelli, Drivers of migration: why do people move?, Journal of Travel Medicine, Volume 25, Issue 1, 2018, tay040, https://doi.org/10.1093/jtm/tay040
  18. Introduction to 1 Timothy. Accessed October 21, 2021. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/new-testament-study-guide-for-home-study-seminary-students/introduction-to-1-timothy?lang=eng.
  19. Carens, Joseph H. “10.” Essay. In The Ethics of Immigration. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  20. Chickera, Amal de. “Stateless and Persecuted: What next for the Rohingya?” migrationpolicy.org, March 18, 2021. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/stateless-persecuted-rohingya.
  21. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Venezuela Situation.” UNHCR. Accessed October 21, 2021. https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/venezuela-emergency.html.
  22. Fleming, Sean. “This Is the Global Refugee Situation, in Numbers.” World Economic Forum, June 18, 2021. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/06/unhcr-how-many-refugees/.
  23. Jackson, Griffin Paul. “Evangelicals Argue against US Reducing Refugees to 30,000.” News & Reporting. Christianity Today, September 20, 2018. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/september/refugee-resettlement-trump-pompeo-asylum-immigration.html.
  24. Witte, Griff. “Trump Gave States the Power to Ban Refugees. Conservative Utah Wants More of Them.” The Washington Post. WP Company, December 4, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/trump-gave-states-the-power-to-ban-refugees-conservative-utah-wants-more-of-them/2019/12/02/d8de7b00-1085-11ea-a533-90a7becf7713_story.html?request-id=66d323ad-61e9-42c9-81fb-5651894301ba&pml=1.
  25. Arent, Patrice. “Thank You @Govherbert Pic.twitter.com/sb6yi0tZJq.” Twitter. Twitter, October 31, 2019. https://twitter.com/PatriceArent/status/1190041160183619584.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Takeaways from a Tech Marketer’s First Semester of Policy School

I just wrapped up the first semester of my MPA program. This fall, I purposefully chose several tech focused classes. After spending my whole career in Silicon Valley working as a marketer, a big reason I came back to school was because I wanted to see technology from a policy and public good lens and boy was it eye opening. If you want a quick crash course on what I learned, here are a few key takeaways that I thought were most eye opening in no particular order. My two classes that helped shape these thoughts were “Solving Tech’s Public Dilemmas” with Ash Carter (Former US Secretary of Defense). Technology and the Public Interest with Latanya Sweeney (Former CTO of the FTC).

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

3 Books to Read to Get You Through a Career Crisis

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.

Grit by Angela Duckworth. I avoided this book for a long time because the topic did not just seem that interesting but after hearing Angela speak, I had to dive in and was surprised how many career lessons were packed in this book as she dives into grit.

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

What It Was Like To Work at Zoom During the Pandemic

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.