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.