Helen Hawthorn

Helen Hawthorn

Head of Solution Engineering EMEA

We speak to Helen Hawthorn, EMEA Head of Solutions Engineering at Zoom, on her career journey and Zoom’s AI-driven offerings and solutions

Rising in prominence when the COVID-19 pandemic brought virtual networking into the mainstream, communications technology company Zoom became a household name seemingly overnight.

Today the company offers a wide range of communications services to businesses and individuals, including robust omnichannel and advanced AI solutions.

In her role as EMEA Head of Solutions Engineering at Zoom, Helen Hawthorn heads up a team of frontline software engineers working alongside Zoom’s sales teams and specialists across the region.

Starting her career as a graduate with BT, where her journey into collaboration began, Hawthorn had her first taste of management at ICT and telecommunications company Telindus.

“That was an interesting one,” she recounts. “I got told I was going to be a manager, and I didn't really want to do that. And frankly, it was the worst year of my life, that first year of management. I had eight guys working for me that were all the same age as my dad.

“I did that for a year, and that taught me everything not to do as a manager. It was probably an easy place to fail because the expectation was I was going to fail anyway, so it was actually quite nice to make those mistakes in that environment. However, it is also where I realised that I was pretty good at seeing the end-to-end. I love the technology, but actually, the end-to-end piece really interested me.”

Hawthorn would then join technology solutions provider Insight, which was a more positive experience. “I got to build out my own team, bring people in and go through that whole coaching piece, which I really enjoyed. I got more involved in the end-to-end piece in terms of operations, sales, marketing and again realised I loved the technology. How it fits into the whole flow is quite exciting. 

“The reason I like collaboration so much is because it’s focused on the end user. You can sit down and go through it wherever you find problems, you can't really do that with security and networking, but in collaboration you really can. So I did a lot of that there as well.”

After another move, Hawthorn would end up at Polycom, now HP Poly, in her first time as a vendor. “That was really good fun. I was trying to get them away from being focused on the technology side to understanding how customers use that technology: what it means to them and why they're using it. I did that for a few years, my boss then retired and I went into the EMEA role for a very short time actually, because that's when I jumped over to Zoom.

“When I came to Zoom, I wouldn't have come here if it was just video. Ultimately what excited me was that I saw the innovation, I loved the product and then was told what they were going to be doing with Voice, with Contact Centre, Digital Signage and AI. The innovation here is just second to none and it gets you up every day and it makes you excited about coming to work.”

Speed and innovation at Zoom today

As Hawthorn makes clear, Zoom today is a company with far more capabilities than just online conferencing. Its Zoom Phone offering – a cloud-based solution allowing businesses to send and receive unlimited calls – was one of the first innovations.

“Zoom Phone is the big offering that shows the speed and the innovation [here at Zoom]. We have gone from a point where there literally was no product, to now, where it could very much go against any of our competitors.”

This truly highlights how innovative Zoom has been in the market. “In terms of deployment, I come from a background where there was a lot of training to take place when it comes to rolling out voice solutions, and I came here and set up a platform in literally 10 minutes. The ease of usage is what's key, as is the fact that all of this is within one client.

“And then there are all the things that I didn't even know when I first joined Zoom, such as that  products like Rooms, Digital Signage and Workplace Reservation are built in. These products normally are chargeable events, whereas in our product they're not. And then when you see how they stand up against these chargeable products, it's pretty amazing.”

Zoom’s contact centre offering is another core area of focus at the moment, Hawthorn highlights. “I don't really like to call it contact centre, because it makes you think of that old traditional way of working, and it's anything but. If you look at our contact centre, it's more about customer engagement and how do you get that best experience, especially when end-users are demanding so much to be spoken to, or reacted to, in the way that they want to be reacted to.

“I've always had a bad time using virtual assistants. I've come to Zoom and yet again been blown away by what we've been able to achieve. It's just phenomenal. We call it AI, but in my day you called it bots – it's the same thing with a different name – but that's pretty cool and sets us apart from a lot of our competitors.”

How has Zoom advanced hybrid work solutions?

“When I started at BT, on my first day I was handed a laptop and told to go home. That was 25 years ago. I've always worked in that manner, so it's always shocked me that others haven't. You expect everyone to have the same experience. 

“Of course, COVID-19 pushed a lot of hybrid work forward which is important, but I've always worked like that. I went into an office when I needed to go into an office for specific things, but the work-life balance that hybrid working enables is really, really important. 

“But then how do you then bring that back into the office? Because those engagements that you have face-to-face are super important. It is the way that you build relationships, especially if you're not used to working in that video world.”

Solutions like workplace reservation and intelligent director can help improve the hybrid working experience, driving improved collaboration for employees and businesses. Its Workspace Reservation offering is an innovative solution that enables teams to reserve flexible workspaces ahead of time or when they arrive to the office.

“I find that interesting on two counts. Number one, it's great – just from the point of view of coming into an office and booking a desk. But the other thing is also looking at where people are sitting, and exploring some of the intelligence that sits behind that.

“When you're coming back into the office in a hybrid setting, maybe you see that a couple of your team are sitting in a particular place. So the tool will say to you, ‘why don't you sit over there, because there are people that you already know there?’. Or perhaps you’re coming into the office and you want to remind yourself who else is sat around you. When you don't always work in the office, it gives you that little bit of familiarity between people, and I think that's really important.”

AI innovations at Zoom

As with many businesses, Zoom has embraced AI and is today incorporating it into its offerings. Zoom's AI Companion helps draft emails and chat messages, summarise meetings and chat threads, and make brainstorming sessions more fun and productive.

As Hawthorn explains, when developing AI applications it’s essential that the tools serve a clear purpose. “We've spoken about AI for years in this industry. This is not a new thing. Right now, AI is out there because we’ve becoming far more intelligent in the way that we're using it. I think the important thing is to make sure AI is useful, and not just something that's there to make you look cool. 

“Personally I hate writing emails. So the capability for me to put in a few words into Zoom, and it literally spit out a great big long email is music to my ears. I'd rather personally jump onto a call or a video call, but there are some times when you need email. The fact that I can say, ‘make me sound a little bit less harsh when I'm writing this’ and the AI tool will do that for you, are examples that everyday users will get.”

Another of Zoom’s AI functionalities, to summarise chats, is another benefit. “Everyone has opened up their email and thought, how am I going to get through all these things? The fact that it can summarise it, is fantastic. We use the summary of meetings quite a lot in my own team. No one likes being the secretary. So the fact that you've got this tool in the background that's sat there listening to the conversation, taking it all down, noting who is doing what – and then you consider the accuracy of it as well – is just beyond phenomenal. 

“Usable AI though, for me, is the key thing. Don't just have it there for the sake of having it. Don't make it complicated. Definitely don't be using my data for things that you shouldn't be using it for. These are the things I think that are important to people now.”

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