Among the many lasting changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is that everybody – and I mean everybody – knows Zoom. From enabling team meetings to virtual happy hours to online fitness classes, Zoom’s team of 2,500 employees has been saving our collective bacon for the past four months.
In March of 2019, we interviewed Harry Mosley, Zoom’s Chief Information Officer, about the changing role of IT teams and the importance of making IT more agile. A year later, and the agility Harry and his teams baked into their technical architecture and collaboration practices positioned them to take advantage of a massive growth opportunity – albeit under circumstances nobody would have wished for.
Curious for a behind the scenes look and eager to ask more questions, we sat down with Harry again this month to learn how Zoom was able to scale so successfully, what they’ve learned, and what still keeps him awake at night.
Atlassian: Zoom has exploded from 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to 300 million daily meeting participants in April 2020. To what extent were you able to anticipate this growth and what steps did you take in the early days to help you scale quickly, both from a technical and organizational perspective?
Harry: In December, we had around 10 million daily participants. Then it went to 200 million in March, and 300 million in April. We’re a metrics-driven organization, so we watched that growth trajectory going up slowly at first, then saw it go like a rocket.
The Zoom architecture is designed to scale and support this growth, taking advantage of Oracle and Amazon’s cloud platforms. We’ve always had headroom from a capacity perspective. And we have great partners who worked with us to expand the network capability because that’s where the real bottlenecks are.
It would have been really difficult – not just for Zoom, but for many other tech companies as well – to conduct business without the cloud capabilities that let you take advantage of more capacity when needed, and so on. I’m not sure we could have survived without that.
There was also an increase in support tickets, so we pivoted resources from other activities to help from a customer success perspective. Then we brought on additional people to help in that regard and trained them over the weekend. Everybody being virtual made it really easy.
A: What about the decision to offer Zoom free to K-12 educators? Did you feel ready for that from a technical standpoint?
Harry: Education is something we care a lot about at Zoom. In fact, the vast majority of universities in the U.S. are already on our platform, so we understand what that sector needs. Young children’s education, in particular, is fundamental and it has ripple effects in terms of the supply of talented workers and in many other ways. That was why we offered the service for free to K-12 educators.
Again, our architecture scales quickly thanks to cloud platforms, so we were well positioned for this. You always have to think about the unintended consequences, but in this case, we felt it was important to go ahead and do it regardless. And it’s been good.
A: What has been keeping you awake at night these past few months, and how are you and your teams addressing it?
Harry: We’ve been through a lot of stress, as people have read about in the articles published on our security and privacy issues. That brought a lot of intense scrutiny, but clearly the way we reacted to it has been well-received in the market, so I’m very proud about that. Many organizations have commented about how quickly we responded to that.
We established a council with over 40 CISOs from our client companies across different industries and geographies to advise us on privacy and security. This is part of the 90-day security and privacy plan we announced on April 1st.
A: We all know the term “Zoom-bombing” now. Can you give us an inside look at how all the different teams involved – IT, product dev, support, PR, marketing – worked together to roll a fix out quickly, and in the midst of so much media attention?
Harry: We call them “meeting disruptions.” It can happen on any platform, so it’s not just specific to Zoom. So for starters, we elevated a handful of features and controls that were already in place, but now they’re easier for the host to access and use. Things like locking the meeting and controlling who can share their screen.
We added the ability to manage the complexity of your passwords, and then we upgraded our encryption service to AES 256 GCM. We also brought in a team of cryptographers. And of course, we announced in mid-June that we’re rolling out end-to-end encryption to all users, whether they’re using the free service or are a paying client. Our encrypted services are front-end encrypted services that can support the enterprise at scale, so that’s been an interesting journey for sure.
From an organizational perspective, Zoom is a very collaborative company. There’s lots of internal dialogue around how to balance security with ease of use. Every part of the company is involved in these things: marketing, engineering, IT, all the way across to customer support, as I mentioned.
A: With some of your product development happening overseas, Zoom was a distributed team even before the pandemic. Do you feel that gave the company a head-start in terms of ramping up on remote work when your offices closed? What lessons have you learned from going all-remote?
Harry: We have 18 offices around the world, so being a distributed team is in our DNA. That said, there are still lessons being learned. One is that, if you have people in the office, collaboration is easy. If you have people who are remote, collaboration is easy. But collaboration across a hybrid model is harder. I tend to get pulled in only when necessary – which isn’t the worst thing in the world, I might add. Although sometimes I wish I was included more frequently.
My other major observation from being in this fully distributed model is that it sort of levels the playing field. There are no big egos in the meeting room because there is no room, and everyone appears the same size on the screen. Then you’ve got the introverts and the extroverts. If the meeting’s an hour, the extroverts are happy to talk for 61 minutes without taking a breath, whereas the introvert can’t get a word in edgewise and may not be as comfortable talking anyway. In a remote meeting, they can use the chat feature to communicate.
The lesson that I personally will hang onto after all this is over is that I don’t need to travel nearly as much as I had been doing. I used to be on three or four flights a week, mostly doing client visits, which of course I’ve been doing virtually since the lockdown. I see now that traveling so much was nuts. And I don’t think I’m alone with that, by the way. I think many, many people around the world are now like, “What were we doing?” Going forward, I intend to be on three or four flights per month.
What’s your favorite virtual background? I like simple ones, so I typically use the Zoom logo.
What’s your #1 tip for running better remote meetings? If you’re doing a large meeting, my number-one recommendation is to have everything locked down 24 hours beforehand. No content changing, no orchestration changing. It’s like, “Here’s the content. Here are the speakers. This is the run of show,” and nothing changes.
What book should everyone read this year? No Room for Small Dreams. It’s the autobiography of Shimon Peres, President of Israel from 2007 to 2014. Brilliant read, brilliant leadership, and a lot of really great lessons in that book. It’s nonfiction but it was kind of like reading a thriller. I couldn’t put it down.
Favorite hobby? Hosting dinner parties with friends, though I haven’t done this in several months now. It’s the therapy of thinking about the guests, then the menu. Doing the shopping, and then the music, the wine, the cooking, the eating, the fun, the laughter. I love it.
Coffee or tea? Coffee.
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