COVID Contemplations (May 8) – “Zoom, Zoom!”

It all apparently started when Eric Yuan was a freshman studying applied math and computer science at one university in China and his girlfriend (now his wife) was at a college that was a ten-hour train ride away.  They tried long-distance dating, of course, but Eric dreamed instead of a handheld device that would enable two people to see and speak with each other from anywhere in the world.  The problem was that Eric knew that China was still at least ten years behind America in having the resources to develop such an idea.

So after hearing a speech by Bill Gates, Eric applied for a visa to travel to the United States.  American consular officials denied that visa eight times.  Until finally, at the age of 27, and speaking almost no English, Eric’s application was approved and he came to Silicon Valley in California to work for Webex, later a part of Cisco.  Cisco’s videoconferencing product was still not quite what he had envisioned, however, and so in 2011, he left that company, taking 40 engineers with him, to start his own.

Originally he called his enterprise Saasbee, which didn’t exactly bring the investors rolling in. He received so many rejections for funding, in fact, that he changed his screen saver to read “It Can’t Be Done” and then kept on working anyway. Until, after renaming his company Zoom, Eric was able to launch a beta version of his program in 2012 that could host 15 video participants, signing Stanford University as its first customer.  By the end of its first month, the number of users grew to 400,000 and by 2013, over one million.

Today, of course, the pandemic has made Zoom a regular feature of many people’s lives, with over 300 million daily participants, up from 10 million in December before the virus hit.  And that English-challenged immigrant from 22 years ago is now worth almost $7 billion.  But Eric still takes the time to answer complaints and concerns that folks may have with his product, working 18-hour days and writing the code himself if necessary to resolve whatever issue may arise.

All of which is a reminder that even as a world-stopping epidemic is believed to have come out of China five months ago, nine years earlier an inventor with a better idea to allow individuals, schools, and businesses to keep on communicating face-to-face did so as well.  And the brainchild of Eric Yuan, a believer in Christ, has been used not just to facilitate corporate communications but to bring healthcare to rural settings around the world, as well as education to students who couldn’t make it to school even if it was still meeting.

To be honest, I’m probably not alone in getting a little tired of all the Zoom meetings I now attend.  Until I remember anew, while conversing simultaneously with other church leaders from Africa to Russia to the Philippines, just what an incredible technological marvel that program is and see it as a provision of God that came to pass before we even knew we needed it.  For as Deuteronomy 31.8 reminds us, “The Lord is the one who goes ahead of you.”

I still miss the in-person contact with others, of course.  But Eric Yuan says they are working on developing a virtual hug that you can actually feel.  And given his motto for life, “Hard Work and Stay Humble,” I won’t be all that surprised if he pulls that off as well one day.

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