Eric Yuan

How Zoom Supported the New Virtual Society and Then Adapted to the World It Created

Eric Yuan, Zoom founder and CEO, spoke with Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum for the Breakthrough Insights series.

Long before the world began to use “Zoom” as both a noun and a verb, Eric Yuan was a college student in China who was weary of long-distance travel. The 10-hour train trip required to visit his now-wife inspired Yuan to focus on videoconferencing technology, a spark that led him to become founder and CEO of Zoom.

Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced not only schools and companies but also families and friends the world over to connect remotely, Yuan’s company became a ubiquitous presence as the go-to virtual platform. On Thursday, Yuan joined Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum for a conversation about his personal story, how Zoom supported a world that was forced to move online, and how that experience has redefined the very company that made it possible. “We connect virtually with others for business and for pleasure, combating the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic,” Rosenbaum said. “The now-commonplace experience that we all have of zooming can be traced back to the vision of Eric.”

This talk was the first webinar in the new Breakthrough Insights series that aims to connect some of the world’s most influential business leaders with the Caltech community. “Having a guest like Eric Yuan engage with our community infuses an even greater understanding of not only business but how science and technology benefit people and our society,” said Dexter Bailey, Caltech vice president for Advancement and Alumni Relations.

The sudden pandemic-driven transition to remote education, work, and social life came as a jolt to most people. It was no different for the Zoom team. Since the company’s launch in 2011, it has focused on enterprise clients such as large companies and universities, not on weddings, friends’ happy hours, and other informal virtual gatherings. “We never thought so many consumers would need Zoom,” Yuan said. “The challenge was how to embrace those use cases.”

““The now-commonplace experience that we all have of zooming can be traced back to the vision of Eric.””
- Thomas F. Rosenbaum

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan in Conversation with Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum

Zoom’s first major challenge was to expand quickly to meet the enormous demand. As the world moved online last March and April, Yuan’s team raced to grow its array of data centers so Zoom could supply a virtual mountain of extra video bandwidth. The company hired an army of new people, too, but because of COVID-19, these workers joined the firm and completed the orientation process remotely. Indeed, although Zoom is a platform for virtual connection, Zoom itself struggles with the inability for its people to meet face-to-face. “We have thousands of new employees who’ve never seen each other,” Yuan said.

Although the global pandemic transformed Zoom into one of the world’s best-known tech companies, Yuan is, like many people, yearning for a return to normalcy and in-person interactions. The Zoom CEO said he sometimes suffers from “Zoom fatigue” and bemoaned a recent day in which he had 19 virtual meetings. However, he also told Rosenbaum, “I don’t think we’re going back to the traditional model.” Instead, he expects companies and organizations, including his own, to adopt a hybrid, flexible work environment when the pandemic ends, one in which people report to an office but enjoy more freedom to work and live remotely.

The need to scale up Zoom’s capabilities to meet the demands of a world working remotely trumped all other concerns over the past year, Yuan said, adding that he looks forward to better days, when his company will be able to get back to focusing on technology and innovating new features, including some that would make Zoom feel a little less virtual as well as help deliver an experience that might augment a face-to-face meeting. “If we were to meet at Starbucks, later on, we might forget what we talked about,” Yuan told Rosenbaum. Zoom’s leader pictures a future in which the service could call on artificial intelligence to create an automatic summary of that conversation over coffee, or use instant translation tools to allow speakers of different languages to converse. “You will feel that intimacy in the future,” he said.

It’s no surprise Yuan is not ready to rest on Zoom’s global reach and recognition. Asked by Rosenbaum to reflect on his achievements, Yuan stressed the importance of focusing on more than just an end goal. He said he was rejected eight times for an American visa before finally moving from China to Silicon Valley in the 1990s, an experience he credits with building his perseverance and his ability to find fulfillment all along the journey of one’s life and career.

“The most important thing isn’t your dream coming true,” he said. “That’s one day. It’s more important to enjoy every day along the pathway.”