People@Work

Zooming and Looping in Silicon Valley

Vinay Kamath & Chitra Narayanan | Updated on August 26, 2020 Published on August 26, 2020

Velchamy Sankarlingam

Raja Narayanan

TN boys Velchamy Sankarlingam and Raja Narayanan on working for the hottest tech firms — Zoom and Virgin Hyperloop

It has been a long road from small-town Tamil Nadu to San Jose, the centre of cutting-edge technology in Silicon Valley, for Velchamy Sankarlingam. Now, as President of Product and Engineering, Zoom Video Communications, Velchamy is helping his friend of many years Eric Yuan, founder of Zoom, keep tabs on the frenetic pace at which the video conferencing app is, well, literally zooming around the world, with businesses large and small, as well as school and college students using the platform productively.

From Virudhnagar to the Bay Area, there were many academic and career stops (Yercaud, Chennai, Northern Illinois, New York and stints at IBM, Andersen Consulting, Webex and VMWare) in Velchamy’s journey. It was at Webex that Velchamy and Yuan became friends.

It has been an equally circuitous road to Silicon Valley for another TN boy, Raja Narayanan, who has recently taken over as the new CFO of Virgin Hyperloop and will oversee not just the finance but all business development functions of the company as it drives the exciting hyperloop technology towards commercialisation. The hyperloop is a futuristic transportation system in which pods carrying passengers accelerate through a low pressure tube at phenomenal speeds.

But Narayanan’s career has been pretty much on track when you consider that much of it has been built around things that fly and things that move. So it’s a fitting move to a transport solution that, for want of a better description, one could say levitates!

The Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (PSBB) school alumnus and computer science masters degree holder and dual graduate in physics and engineering was earlier SVP at Hyundai-Aptive Autonomous Driving Joint Venture and involved in self-driving cars. Before that he had stints with Panasonic and OneWeb.

But what is a physics, engineering and computer science expert doing in a finance function? Narayanan explains that his role is by no means pure finance and that in the early stage of a disruptive company there is a big interconnect between technology and finance. “If you fix the cost curve early by investing in the right technology partnerships, it helps in the longer run,” he says, pointing out that he also owns the responsibility for the technical partnerships in the company. “One of the reasons I was hired was to provide the glue between conducting finance strategically with the CTO’s office as I can understand both sides,” he says.

Isn’t it a risky career move? After all, the Hyperloop technology is still an unproven bet. Early on in his career, says Narayanan, he was told that the opportunity to be part of a life changing technology only comes once in a while. “I have been lucky enough to be part of two. One was autonomous driving and now hyperloop. “Besides, I didn’t want to miss out an opportunity that would make my son proud,” he confesses. As society evolves, he thinks people will want transport as a service at the tap of a button. “I don’t want to be waiting at an airport for a flight.” Mass transportation solutions might move in the direction of fulfilling this need. “Hyperloop unlocks the ability to zip across cities at speed,” he says.

If Narayanan regards his new assignment as a plum job, then he literally is in a plum place with the fruit dominating his garden. The self-confessed “oorgai” addict has even experimented with making plum pickles from the pickings in his garden and describes the taste as akin to “nellikai” (gooseberry pickle).

Meanwhile, Velchamy is pretty chuffed to be working at Zoom too as he is proud how the company is helping Indian businesses, government agencies, communities, school teachers and other users stay connected during the global health crisis. Three of Zoom’s top executives are of Indian origin.

Apart from Velchamy, Aparna Bawa, Chief Operating Officer, and Sunil Madan, Corporate Chief Information Officer, hail from India. “We see great potential in the Indian business community as prospective Zoom customers. From large MNC brands with Indian operations to MSME enterprises looking to expand as well as home-grown start-ups, India is a key player in global business and a key market for Zoom,” says Velchamy.

Velchamy says Zoom is able to handle the sudden massive increase in usage because of the data centres it has around the world, with two in India (in Mumbai and Hyderabad) as well. “Apart from our own data centres, we can also scale seamlessly to the public cloud if we need more capacity with all the compliance and security,” he says. The whole of last year, Zoom did 100 billion minutes of meeting time while this year he expects 20 times growth, at two trillion minutes.

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Published on August 26, 2020
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