Easy Video Conferencing Through Proactive IT

CISCO

I joined the WITS (Wish IT Services) team in mid-2017 to lead their Helpdesk. Wish had hit it big in many countries that you would expect, but it had also taken off in emerging markets worldwide due to their cost-conscious consumer focus. Having such a geographically diverse user base meant an equally diverse employee base to support them. Many of the normal IT support challenges were further exacerbated by the need to maintain such a global reach.


Early on in my tenure at Wish, I was challenged with helping define the company standard for a reliable, user-friendly global video conferencing solution. We had accumulated several different conferencing products, but we were unsure which was the best purpose-fit for our needs. This story explores how my journey into the video conferencing market set the new office standard, and unified Cisco's video conferencing line.

Making Communication Easy

My previous experience in IT involved a very strong top-down hierarchy where the mindset was, “Here are your systems. Here is your budget. Do the best you can.” At Wish, the mindset was entirely different.

Help Desk connects #technology and people together. The ideal candidate is half technician and half therapist.


As my IT teammates owned the daily support duties, I had the time to explore options for all kinds of new solutions, instead of just reacting to issues as they came in. I was able to dig deep into R&D and explain the possibilities I discovered to my higher-ups. I quickly learned that they valued that kind of exploratory thinking.  


One of my early wins was improving messaging. When I first started at Wish, our communications were fragmented, so I prepared some presentations, integrations, and campaigns around Slack. Now that’s our biggest communication platform in the company and we average over 100,000 messages a week.


I was assigned to evaluate the video conferencing solutions the company had spent money on. At the time, we were fortunate enough to trial four different conferencing solutions: Zoom Rooms, a Microsoft Surface Board, a Google Jamboard, and what were then called Spark Boards (now Webex Boards).


Our single most important criteria was ease of use. For the front-end user, an ideal conference solution should be intuitive enough that they can walk into a room and not have to worry about connectivity. Getting started should take less than a minute and should feel like second nature. 


On the back end, the solution should be easy to manage. That means having reliable, high-end hardware and a vendor that is constantly working on the product roadmap. IT shouldn’t have to babysit the solution, because not only does that mean more time and effort for us, but it also means more disruption to the front-end user experience. We wanted something simple that required very little maintenance, with reliable service and an easy setup, with impressive hardware that we can grow into.

Influencing Vendor Roadmap

The Microsoft option needed to be mostly Windows with a Domain and we did not have that environment, so pass on the Surface Board. While we were on G-Suite, the Jamboard was more quirky than practical, and everything had better be in Google or it would not work. Both of the full standing boards were out of consideration.


That left us with Zoom Rooms and Webex Boards. Zoom Rooms was initially the front-runner due to the ease of desktop use and the fact that it was in use globally. Still, the conference room systems weren’t intuitive. We still had to purchase and build the system, hope a desktop operating system is stable for utility use, and manage all the patches, updates, dongles, cables, and any other user activity that might interfere with the Zoom Rooms use.

Don’t just pay attention to relationships with account managers. Engineers, product teams, and executives all play a big part in addressing feedback and changing product roadmaps.


That left us with Webex Boards, which boasted solid, high-end hardware. But to be frank, the Spark software and services behind the boards needed some work since it was just getting off the ground. Rather than write them off, however, I went back to Cisco with feedback.


It’s crucial to have a good relationship with vendors, and I’m not just talking about your account manager. Build bridges with the engineers, the product team, and the executives. It might seem impossible to make inroads with a large company like Cisco, especially if your company is much smaller, but if you have feedback about a product, other companies likely feel the same way.  


I didn’t think Cisco would change their roadmap for us, but a month after receiving our feedback, they told us that they agreed with our analysis. Very soon, they merged everything under the more tried-and-true Cisco Webex hood.


Once the roadmap was changed, my boss was all-in. We didn’t even need to see the solution fully in place, just the roadmap for what it would include under Webex, such as the join-ignore scheduler, Webex Assistant, and full HTML5 compatibility. The latter was essential for us because it meant our Linux users could host or join Webex as well. The fact that Cisco was willing to change their roadmap for us, that they listened and responded appropriately, was a game changer.

Showing Employees What Video Conferencing Can Do

The Webex Boards are a single unit that come ready to install, and installation is as easy as securing them on a wall. When we ordered Webex Boards in the spring of 2018 for every room in our San Francisco office, though, Webex was still working on adding all the new features.


While we were waiting, Cisco loaned us a similar product, Room Kits, as they were ahead on the roadmap and would get us the join functionality up-front. Having those 25 Room Kits for six months ended up being key to adoption for Wish employees. Because they started using Webex in the conference rooms, they started to get a sense of the conferencing capabilities. They liked the scheduling functions, but the main hooks were the ease of video conferencing and screen sharing.


The hardware change was easy when it came time to transition from the Room Kits to the Webex Boards. Users saw the same functionalities, the same buttons, and could use the strategies they’d already learned, which made for a seamless transition. Another win for us is that Webex integrates with the G Suite like they do with Exchange. Once a user sets up their account, they can make any meeting a Webex meeting within the Google Calendar interface. 


After a year of users getting to know the scheduling and interface, I was introduced to the talk-back Webex Assistant at Cisco Collaboration Summit. I took note of this functionality and soon after was able to test a beta version on one board. The IT team enjoyed using it, and we did not experience many bugs or misbehaviors, so we actually rolled out the AI, still in beta release, to all of our boards. While the adoption was not across the board, the teams that did notice and liked it used it often. It is used widely now and the Webex AI team even met with me to go over our usage analytics.


Being in my 40s, I’m actually on the older end of the spectrum here at Wish, while many of my colleagues are straight out of college. Our industry is at the point now where a lot of younger workers don’t know any other experience apart from AI and they expect seamless integrations using that technology. As we want to continue attracting these bright young people to work here, those expectations become really important.


Webex keeps rolling out new features, such as the ability to detect any type of SIP meeting, including a Zoom Room or any other third party. Any type of SIP video conferencing meeting in your calendar can talk to the board. All these things help with adoption, and the Webex AI product team has reached out to me on several occasions because we have one of the best adoption rates of all their clients. 


Today, Webex is the standard in our office. If it’s just a one-on-one call, maybe people will use a Google Meet or a Slack video, but if a call involves three or more people, Webex is just so much easier. It’s become second nature for people, and the boards themselves are very simple to use.

When IT Is Proactive, Walls Crumble

Webex has played a key role in erasing borders within Wish, since we have offices around the world. In the fall of 2018, we deployed a Webex Room Device to every room of our San Jose, Toronto, and Shanghai offices, in addition to the San Francisco offices where it all began. It’s a standard in our work environments, and even any new temporary offices we are looking to grow into.


You might think that increasing our conferencing, video chat, screen sharing, and whiteboarding capabilities might decrease other types of communication but we’ve actually found the opposite to be true. The increased richness of our meetings generates more Slack messages, more Gmail messages, and more conversation in general. 

With enhanced conferencing capabilities, team members feel closer to one another than ever before. It feels like the other person is in another room, not another country.


We’ve created a deeper link between teams, and our offices feel much closer to one another than they ever were before. Our Toronto and San Francisco teams are especially tight, because they’re able to truly work together as opposed to each doing their own thing. When we have a meeting with our Shanghai office, there’s no translation loss, no breakup. The audio is clear and rich. Webex has unified Wish as a whole across those country lines. It feels like the other people in a conference are simply in another room—not another country.

Empowering Business Through R&D

Last spring, my boss and I agreed that I should have a job title that matched my duties, and I became head of IT Business Operations. IT and other departments relied on the IT BizOps team to research, develop, and deploy solutions to increase effectiveness. A fully funded and staffed IT department dedicated to R&D can result in enhanced productivity, cost savings, and more efficient use of time for any company. More companies, regardless of industry, should prioritize this approach.


For the first time in my career, I’ve been given the freedom to take a proactive stance in IT, and our experience with Webex just goes to show what we can accomplish when we’re no longer just putting out fires. This is an exciting place to be, and not just on a personal level. Our entire organization is working tighter and more collaboratively. When working proactively, every department stands to benefit.