Exclusive: A global outage, privacy and security concerns, how Zoom Video set it right

Chennai, IndiaWritten By: Sidharth MPUpdated: Dec 29, 2021, 08:32 PM IST
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Velchamy Sankarlingam, Zoom’s President of Product and Engineering Photograph:(WION)

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In an exclusive conversation with WION, Velchamy Sankarlingam threw light on his experience of helping improve Zoom’s services, while also improving its privacy and security, amid widespread concerns

Monday, August 24th, 2020, is a date that will remain etched eternally in the memory of Indian-American Velchamy Sankarlingam. In fact, his work involves striving to ensure that what happened on that day doesn’t repeat. Zoom Video Communications, the popular video conferencing service, where he has been President, Product, and Engineering, had suffered a major global outage.

This, at a time when the service was being used by over a 300million daily meeting attendees, amid a pandemic that had forced people across geographies into Lockdowns. In an exclusive conversation with WION, he threw light on his experience of helping improve Zoom’s services, while also improving its privacy and security, amid widespread concerns. 

Having joined Zoom in June 2020, on the insistence of his longtime friend and ex-colleague and Zoom’s Founder, CEO, Eric Yuan, Velchamy had to hit the ground running. The challenge at hand was unenviable - help scale up a product that was witnessing a 30-fold growth, in terms of the number of daily meeting attendees and attending to the growing concerns of privacy and security, expressed by individual users and Governments.

“Even prior to my joining Zoom and after my joining, there are nights when we built capacity to handle the next day’s needs. However, a lot of credit goes to Eric(CEO), as the product is built really well. Zoom can run on our own data center and on the public cloud, this ensures flexibility to expand” Velchamy recalls about the beginning of his tenure at Zoom.

He admits that it was a lot of pressure on the team to scale up rapidly, however, he also believes that it is their company culture to do what’s right and keep customers happy. “When the pandemic hit, Eric could have prioritised his premium customers and shut down the free service. Instead, he went on to expand the free service and offer it free-of-cost for schools” he explains. 

Hailing from Virudhunagar, in the Southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu, Velchamy had moved to the US after completing his engineering from Anna University, in the Southern Indian metropolis of Chennai. With a specialised qualification in Computer science and business, Velchamy worked at leading firms in the Software-as-a-Service industry(including IBM, Webex, VMware).

According to him, WebEx acquiring (the startup he was working for) was a major turning point in his career. It provided him the opportunity to help WebEx grow, while also being mentored by renowned tech industry leaders. It was at WebEx that Velchamy had met and worked with Eric Yuan (Zoom’s Founder, CEO).

“If you’re not paranoid, then this isn’t the job for you”

24th September 2020 happened to be a Monday, when even Zoom, which enabled WFH for millions across the globe, suffered Monday blues. During the morning hours, outages were reported across America, Europe and also in India and Australia. The service is said to have been restored by noon. “It was caused due to an error we made in our billing. It took us a couple of hours to resolve… It was not a full disruption, but a significant one” Velchamy recollects. 

Learning from their own mistakes and those of others, Zoom worked towards ensuring that availability of service remains a top priority. “We will be able to run the service even if a data center goes down… Our product is resilient and can run from different data centers worldwide. There’s a lot of architecture built-in… Its not about feeling good about what is right, we must always look at what can go wrong… If you’re not paranoid, this job isn’t for you… ” he quips about the nature of his work.

That might sound like a lot of work-related stress, but playing a few hours of Golf is all he needs to get back with renewed vigour. But, when faced with challenges and in need for motivation, he looks to icons from his part of the world - Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam(Former Indian President and aerospace scientist) and K.Kamaraj (Indian freedom fighter and former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu). “Since I am from Virudhunagar, I know a lot about Chief Minister Kamaraj. I have also read a lot about Dr. Abdul Kalam. I admire both of them for their integrity, values and selflessness” Velchamy says with pride.

True to its name, the company just Zoomed ahead during the pandemic - going from 10million daily meeting attendees(pre-pandemic) to nearly a 300million, during the pandemic. In India, the growth in daily meeting attendees was more than 60-fold. To cater to this user base, Zoom established data centers in India cities and even began accepting the Indian Rupee as a mode of payment. However, this growth was not without widespread concerns - the company’s alleged China ties, Security and Privacy issues, among others. 

Queried about the China ties and related controversies, Velchamy said that Zoom is an American company and that it was built so by Founder, CEO Eric Yuan, who is also an American citizen. He added that the company had its major data centers in the US and how the company was funded by mainstream US investors and meant to provide service globally. 

Elaborating on the China issue, he said that security options were provided for both Free and Premium users- For all the free users, none of the traffic goes through China, whereas we’ve given our paid users the option to join from 20 data centers around the world. “If you have meeting attendees in China and want them to join from China, you can. If you don’t have meeting attendees from China, then you have the choice to pick which country(data center) and how the data flows” he explained.

On the questions raised over privacy and security of the service, he responded that the company had spent 90 days on enhancing these facets and ensuring that a slew of new features were added. “Now, meeting hosts can lock the meeting room once all guests are in, attendees can be sent out of a meeting, the meeting can be frozen and hosts can find out who is doing what. We also have a Trust and Safety team to investigate any reports that come in” said Velchamy.

Asked specifically on the number of Governments that use Zoom services, he said, “Parts of the US Government, UK Government and Singapore use Zoom and recently the Indian Government had also issued an advisory saying Zoom was safe for use for Government purposes. A lot of Governments worldwide use Zoom”.

Immediately after the service outage in 2020, Zoom had sent an apology e-mail to its affected customers, but the responses overwhelmed the Zoom team, recalls Velchamy. “Pretty much all responses were about how Zoom helped them(the users)… We felt even worse(to have let them down), after reading their replies.. We realized how big a difference Zoom is making and that’s what makes us work harder” he signs off.