Zoom’s Helen Hawthorn on new features, AI, and diversity in tech

Helen Hawthorn is the Head of Solution Engineering EMEA at Zoom. Hawthorn is responsible for the Pre-Sales operations at Zoom, ensuring that outstanding client satisfaction is achieved. She is a strategically minded manager of complex solutions teams, clients and solutions.

To many, Zoom is synonymous with video calls and meetings, and is seen as the company that became a household name during the pandemic. But Zoom offers plenty more products and services that some may not be aware of.

In this article, Startups Magazine’s Deputy Editor, Anna Wood, chats to Helen Hawthorn, discussing Zoom’s new features, the inclusion of AI in the platform, and diversity in the tech sector.

Zoom’s latest features

“If you know anything about Zoom, you’ll know we innovate on a daily basis,” said Hawthorn.

The Zoom AI Companion, which is the company’s generative AI assistant, is one of Zoom’s newest offerings. With the AI Companion, admins can access an analytics dashboard to help them better understand the usage and adoption of AI Companion within their organisation. The Contact Centre has also been upgraded. It can now summarise customer conversations to enable better agent understanding and smoother hand-offs, generate post-call tasks for follow-up, and support speech analytics. The AI Companion also improves workplace communications. When using Team Chat, AI Companion can detect intent to schedule a meeting and will generate a pop-up invite pre-filled with attendees, and date and time information for users, all based on the message’s content. Not only that, but the companion also allows for chat summarisation, and the ability to create mind maps within Zoom Whiteboard to help visually organise thoughts that stem from an idea based on user prompts.

Commenting on the introduction of AI into Zoom’s platform, Hawthorn said: “The artificial intelligence takes it to ‘how do we make people’s lives easier?’

“If you join a meeting late and think ‘what have I missed?’, the summarisation is phenomenal, and then you get into the cool stuff, like asking has my name been mentioned? Has there been anything on the stats? And it will look and bring that forward to you.

“With the Contact Centre part of the business, the bit that really interests me is the virtual agent. We’ve all been involved in those bots that don’t do what they’re meant to be doing. I was blown away the first time I used ours. The intelligence of the learning and what that's brought to us, taking those repetitive tasks away from an agent. Agents should be highly skilled individuals who are really delving into complex situations rather than ‘Can you change my password’ and stuff like that. It's very much about how do we take all of that away and make sure that people are spending their time on delivering what they need to, to end customers?”

On the inclusion of AI in the platform, Hawthorn added: “There's two things Eric was very clear about. Number one, we never use your data for AI training purposes, ever. Point blank. Number two, we don't charge you for this. In terms of our main products, he's like ‘this is part of our products,’ this isn't about another chargeable aspect. This is about us saying to you, we want you to be able to use our technology in a more thoughtful way, and that’s not a chargeable act.”

Another of Zoom’s recently launched features is its new app specifically created for the Apple Vision Pro. The app has been designed to give users the ability to connect with colleagues and customers in a more real-world, immersive environment. It blends video conferencing with users’ physical space, blurring the lines of in-person and remote meetings with the infinite canvas on Apple Vision Pro, helping distributed teams feel more connected and included.

Discussing Zoom’s interconnected platform, Hawthorn explained: “I talk a lot about our API and DevOps side of the business, and I think it’s where we really excel. We are an exceptionally open platform, and I think it comes from Eric [Yuan, Founder of Zoom] coming from a developer background, where for him it’s extremely important that we can integrate all of our products into the business process side. So, as a user, you’re not having to step out of where your work takes place.”

How is Zoom pivoting to keep up with the push of getting people back into the office?

Zoom became a household name during the pandemic. From seeing funny ‘Zoom’ meeting clips online (a highlight was when the baby ran into the camera on live TV), to having Zoom quizzes with long-distance family, to simply using it at work to stay in touch with colleagues, we all experienced Zoom in one way or another. Though, the company predates the pandemic by many years.

“People forget we’re a young company, but we’re not young. We’re 13 years old and were around before the pandemic,” Hawthorn commented. “The interesting thing about when everyone went home, it was, in my opinion, the first time that the end user could choose what they wanted to use. […] Everyone went to Zoom, not because of advertising, but because it was the only one that you could get on and have a decent conversation without crashing halfway through or being glitchy.”

When it comes to more hybrid working, Hawthorn believes a good programme is the backbone: “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the office, at home, on a beach, walking the dog, it shouldn't matter where you are. I want you to have all the feature functionality that you've got, and I want to get the best out of you.

“Forget about in the office or out of the office. Really concentrate on the individual. You’re my employee, where do I get the best out of you, and how do we make you the best you can possibly be? Through technology, I think we can help with that.”

Diversity in the industry

It’s no secret that diversity within the tech sector is dire, though more and more so, there are initiatives that are pushing for more diversity in the industry. Saying that, many women have wholly different experiences within the sector to their male counterparts.

“It wasn’t nice at the beginning,” Hawthorn recalled. “I’m 46 now, so we’re talking many, many years I entered this space, it was a very different world. I used to go into meetings and I could see them rolling their eyes. But then I’d talk and then all of a sudden you were a bit of a novelty.

“I saw so many of my counterparts go into marketing and sales, because of the fact they felt out of place, or they weren’t given the right opportunity.”

So how can diversity be encouraged in the sector?

“As we’ve transitioned through time, I still don’t think we’re where we need to be. I think we have a problem in schools. I don't think it’s the tech space not wanting people to come in. I think what's happening is that we try to resolve this problem at the university stage, but what we need to do is start this at primary school age. I think it’s on us as leaders to go in and involve ourselves in workshops, it needs to start early because girls, in particular, are put off because they don’t really understand that there’s so many different roles in tech.”

How can hiring in the tech field be adapted to encourage diversity?

“I think positive discrimination is hindering us because people will say ‘oh you only got it because of…’,” commented Hawthorn. “I think we need to understand what people bring to the party, and our view of what a technical person is also needs to change.

“What I find is there are people who walk into a room and tell us everything they know. I find women aren’t that way, and what they are is more collaborative. Women tend to sit back and ask a lot of questions, which is exactly what you want. What then happens is their intelligence comes out and people then realise how much depth they’ve got, because they start talking about what they’ve taken in.”

The application process can create hurdles for people before they have even entered the industry. “For me, it’s about getting people through the door in terms of the interview process. It’s about ensuring that the job descriptions aren’t written in a way that puts them off. It’s been proven that a woman, or person of colour, looks at a job description and wants to hit every single part of it. What they’re trying to do is ‘let me make sure that I’m the best of the best before I even walk through the door’, whereas some people will see one line they can do and think they could get the job.”

“I think we’ve got to become better in our interview process in terms of who’s interviewing them, what that looks like, and how we interview. We talk about technology and using the right tools, when you’re interviewing, you’ve got to use the right tools to get the best out of them in an interview.

“Some people are exceptionally good at being interviewed. If someone comes from a background where they’ve been drilled in how to interview, how to test, how to think, they walk in and they’re amazing. There are some people who haven’t had the benefit of that, and we need to make sure that they’re not losing out because we have failed in how we get the best out of them in interviews, and I see it time and time again.”

As the tech industry continues to evolve, the influence of leaders like Helen is critical in shaping a future where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, and the potential for transformative change is palpable.