Will We Ever Stop Zooming?

Written: February 12, 1997
Edited: October 7, 2021

During the period of 1995-2001, it was my honor to give more than 50 keynote speeches about “The Future of the Internet” at conferences in countries around the world.  The communications people at IBM gave me a plaque with a big brass key on it. The beautiful plaque, hanging on the wall at my home office, is titled “Mr. Keynote”.

Occasionally I would get an invitation to speak at a university. In the summer of 1996, I visited Lehigh University (my engineering school alma mater) and spoke at a combined session of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). I was named a Fellow of the IEEE in 2008 and have been a Senior Member of the ACM since 2009. I continue to learn a lot from both organizations.

Speaking at conferences is enjoyable but speaking at universities is much better because you learn as much from being there as the audience. The audience at Lehigh was very technical. I asked how many were writing Java software programs for the World Wide Web, and all the hands went up. I learned a lot from the Q&A at sessions like this. Later in the year I went to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the invitation of Professor Ron LaPorte of the University of Pittsburgh to visit the College of Epidemiology. Ron was leading a terrific project called the Global Health Network. The Q&A in Pittsburgh inspired Ron and me. Ron believed research was critical to gaining the data needed to solve the world’s biggest health challenges. Ron wanted The Global Health Network to drive faster progress by sharing more effectively. I was able to confirm his view the Internet would be the key to make this happen. I got the chance to meet some wonderful and creative people who were collaborating to improve the health of the world. The Q&A inspired us all.

In February 1997, I visited The JL Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. A group of 100+ faculty and students heard my views about the Internet but equally important stimulated my thinking through an extended Q&A session. I told the students they were the most fortunate graduating class in many years because they were about to enter a networked world of e-business, and they could be the entrepreneurs who would help create it.

Some of the other university visits and speeches took place at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University. In all cases I felt I had learned as much or more as they did. Students asked questions which really made me think. They were not burdened with decades of experience, and asked questions which made my next speech more relevant.

A question one might ask is whether the learning by students and lecturers could be achieved with Zoom, Teams, WebEx, etc.? Many would say no. I believe much of the learning could be. Is it possible to look someone in the eye via Zoom? (The question reminds me of when President Bush met with Vladimir Putin and said, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” I suspect Mr. Bush now deeply regrets making the comments.)

Zoom meetings are not perfect but, given the right attitude and preparation, they can be highly effective, sometimes better than in person. Step one is our attitude. Remote video meetings are very real. They are not virtual, as many call them. Unfortunately, the term “virtual” has been widely adopted. I feel like Don Quixote on this point, so whatever you want to call them, remote meetings are most effective when participants take them seriously and are well prepared.

I have attended more than one remote meeting where, for some participants, you only see the top of their head or maybe just their ceiling fan. The more prevalent and frustrating problem is with audio. A studio quality microphone is not necessary, although they do add greatly to sound quality. The key thing is to have the microphone, be it your smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop, close to your mouth. All the Zoom-like services provide a test routine where you can see the strength of your audio. It only takes a minute to try it. The other attitudinal step is to be conscious of the mute button. Some leave it off letting the other participants to hear a blaring new program, crying toddlers, or barking dogs. Most of the audio issues are the opposite. It would be so helpful if everyone developed the habit to check the mute status before speaking. It could eliminate the need for the most spoken words, “Can you hear me now?” Zoom has a nice feature which lets you press and hold the space bar while you are speaking. When you finish, you are automatically muted again.

If a remote video meeting is well planned, it can be highly effective and reach a large audience. For example, Zoom supports (for a fee) up to 1,000 video participants, or 10,000 webinar viewers. With proper planning, the presentation of slides, videos, and other content can be very professional and easier to read than from sitting in the back of a conference center. A split screen can show content on one side with the speaker’s head on the other. You can change the size of both. When you have a large view of the speaker’s face, you can pull a President Bush/Putin and look for soul behind his or her eyes. All the various Zoom-like platforms provide for Q&A, chat, raise a virtual hand, or cast a vote on a question.

I follow dozens of technology startup companies, and I have observed over the past 18 months they have gotten really good at communicating remotely. Some of them have weekly investor webinars. The missing ingredient with remote video is camaraderie, and there is not a substitute for chatting in the hall during coffee break and enjoying wine and cheese at the end. In my opinion, a hybrid model for working and sharing will be indefinite. Some companies have announced a mix of working like two days in person, three days by remote video. Some companies are letting employees make the choice, for example to work from a thousand miles away. For board meetings, I suspect companies and non-profits will transition to a hybrid model with every other meeting being conducted with remote video, and the meetings will be very real, not virtual.

Disclosure: I am an investor in Zoom Video Communications, Inc.