An exclusive interview with Velchamy Sankarlingam, Zoom’s President of Product and Engineering, dives into Zoom Events, ‘Zoom-bombing’ and security, and why the company is not worried about Apple’s FaceTime Links.
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As the second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic trudges on, we are still glued to our webcams for virtual meetings. As competition in the teleconferencing market picks up, Zoom continues to evolve and meet the demands of a fast-changing world, the company releases more tools and features in verticals of security, collaboration, development, and more.
Zoom was founded by Eric Yuan in 2011 and in FY2020, installs spiked as it saw mass adoption across the world during the pandemic, including new talent such as Velchamy Sankarlingam, President of Product and Engineering.
The Tamil Nadu-born technologist talks about coming to work at Zoom during a pandemic, “I’m someone who loves to go into the office and work. At VMWare, I was the person who was first in the office and last to leave but I knew the people at work. When I moved to Zoom, I didn’t know many people aside from Eric and a few others. I’ve never been to Zoom offices as an employee but I realised if I had gone to work in the office, I’d have two tiers of work relationships. One tier would be the in-person working relationships, and the other virtual. But now, with remote work, I know hundreds of names.”
As the platform has also seen its free user base grow about 60 times in India compared to 30 worldwide in the last year even after a Ministry of Home Affairs advisory stated Zoom was not a safe platform, The Hindu interviews Sankarlingam on the evolution of the service.
Excerpts from an interview:
Let’s start with the upcoming Zoom Events; whether it is multi-day summits to multi-track conferences, event planners can create a branded event hub where they can virtually manage ticketing and registration while using one dashboard to administer user access, and allowing attendees to network during the event. Can you talk about the research and strategy behind this platform?
Businesses were scared initially, due to COVID-19, that they would be shut down or go out of business. They were faced with physical limitations but quickly realised it opened up virtual limits – they could break geographies.
In terms of the commercial side of Zoom Events, most conferences had a small virtual part such as an Oracle OpenWorld or Dell Technologies World Digital Experiences. Companies, even during the pandemic, want to release products, engage with consumers and network – so they started moving these to virtual spaces but they realised they could have a wider audience while running these events at a lower cost. But there was no product completely covering all the needs of such a large-scale event.
At Zoom, we felt we were in the right position to build this end-to-end platform for these conferences. We wanted to address the question of ‘how do we empower these small businesses and consumer-oriented businesses further?’ They need a payment engine, because they’re not ecommerce businesses. On the enterprise side, these events will continue to grow, so we wanted to focus on that.
However, in some parts of the world, people are heading back to work in a phased manner. How will Zoom adapt to remain an integral asset to these companies that will once again embrace the physical workspace?
So much has changed during this period. While some companies are going back to work, others are planning for a hybrid. Working remotely is an option that works! Previously, working from home was a benefit some companies offer. Now, companies have realised the productivity in this WFH space is better, and that they can hire people everywhere. Even if they go back to the office, companies still have to remodel the office space for physical distancing and new mandates on capacity.
So with Zoom, we are using a lot of functional frameworks; for example, with Zoom Rooms, we have an added feature for when some do return to the office and some work remote, the experience is universal. For those in the office, we would show them as individual panels instead of a single screen in a conference room. Other features include linking the Zoom Room to your smartphone, environmental sensors, virtual receptionists, and more.
As you mentioned, remote work is very prevalent now. There’s always the added concern of security. Zoom has partnered with VMWare Anywhere Workspace for more robust security protocols just for those working remotely. From an engineering standpoint, can you elaborate on this aspect of security and what void it is filling that it has not before?
I actually came to Zoom from VMWare (laughs) so I know their product suite pretty well. VMWare provides identities to all the machines because now you are not on the corporate network. Many workforces everywhere have always had VPN connectivity for the work remote situation or digital nomad lifestyle, or even if you’re working in the physical office space.
We’re working with VMWare to help secure your mobile device or desktop, to make sure there is a single sign-on and that only you have access.
Can you talk about the turnaround speed Zoom has to work with to release features and tools, as the industry garners more competitive players?
The speed has increased for us. Normally, as you hire and get bigger, things get slower. Part of my goal is to ensure we don’t lose agility and innovation as we bring on more people from around the world, wherever the talent is. And, of course, keeping the innovation speed high to keep up with the infrastructure.
Since we last spoke, there have been new security features introduced such as ‘suspend participant activity’, securing a meeting with encryption, activating a Waiting Room, and so on. But Zoombombing is still an issue! Are there any specific actions being taken against these newer threats as unruly players find more loopholes?
People think that in the physical world there are many bad players but that in the virtual world there are not. It’s like leaving your door open, when you have no password.
When we started giving Zoom for free ages ago (initially the product was built for enterprises where there’s an administrator tweaking security measures for a meeting space), we realised schools and homes do not have ‘administrators.’
Eric Yuan (Zoom’s CEO and founder) committed to spending 90 days on all these security features – and we added tons of security! We ensured every meeting would have either passwords or Waiting Rooms by default.
But we’ve seen people share meeting links on social media for more attendees, but there is a side effect. With social media scanning tools, we will warn the host it has been posted publicly.
We also have a complete Trust and Safety Team on this and they look at all the activity. If you enable the Freeze feature in a meeting, they will examine the meeting space for a bad actor and suspend them entirely from the platform. This streamlining is part of the process, and we make sure that the education is available to everyone.
That said, we want to make sure meeting interruptions do not happen or at least at the minimum. We make sure that it is partly technology and partly educating users.
Are there any industries Zoom is eyeing in the India or APAC region as the pandemic continues?
Education and healthcare are two verticals which we are doubling down on, and ensuring Zoom meets all the needs of these industries, and also integrates with other partners that have Zoom-compatible tools. In the education market, we have many ongoing integrations with a number of vendors.
I don’t think we’ll ever have every resource to target every possible industry. But we are building an ecosystem where we let developers or partners who want to adopt a Zoom client into a vertical, we provide the full video and audio software development kits (SDK) to create their own product they can run.
We have also brought in various Zoom Apps for more integrations on the platform itself.
And finally, the Worldwide Developer Conference 2021 keynote, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced FaceTime Links. These links can be joined by anyone, regardless of what computing system they are using (Windows, Apple, Android). What are your thoughts on this rollout?
We are very close partners with Apple. With their iPad Pro, they recently released Centrestaging and we were the first to work with them on this.
In terms of competition, Zoom started in 2011; there were already a lot of players in the market. The focus is making the product better everyday for our customers, and on ourselves as a company. Our focus is not specifically targeting a particular competitor and – no disrespect – that’s just the way the company is built and that’s how Eric works. We have enough ideas to execute for the next five years!