By Kat Braz
This story originally appeared in K-Stater magazine, a quarterly magazine for Alumni Association members. To read other stories like this join the Association by visiting k-state.com/join.
Arriving in Manhattan, Kansas, as a freshman, Nick Chong ’91 may as well have landed in Oz. An international student, Chong was raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (pop. 1.8 million), where the soaring 88-story Petronas Twin Towers dominate the skyline.
He and his three sisters lived with their parents in a small apartment above their family business. Chong’s father bought him an Apple Macintosh computer when Chong was about 13 years old. This was the budding engineer’s first foray into technology.
“I really enjoyed the concept of computer logic — predominantly around sequencing of steps and what-if scenarios,” Chong said. “I was fascinated by the idea that this machine could create endless possible paths from a single choice, much like a chess move.”
He used a computer at the public library to research potential engineering schools. Accepted by six, he chose K-State because of its strong engineering program, large international population and what he describes as “a caring spirit.”
In addition to his academic studies, Chong also was learning social integration through cultural immersion in a foreign land. The students and resident assistants he encountered during freshman year in Haymaker Hall helped him develop confidence in his communication, which led him to become an RA himself. He found K-State faculty similarly supportive.
“The electrical engineering program offered a diversity of topics, the discipline of learning fundamentals and the depth of critical thinking through hands-on learning,” he said. “I remember struggling across these areas due to the language barrier and a lack of prior hands-on experience, but the faculty were extremely patient with me. I eventually overcame my feeling of deficiency and understood what the Kansas motto of ‘Ad Astra per Aspera’ truly meant.”
Following graduation, Chong joined Conoco Inc. as a telecommunications engineer in Ponca City, Oklahoma. He then was recruited by Cisco Systems as a technical support engineer during an explosive growth phase. In 2012, he met Eric Yuan, who had recently left Cisco to found Zoom Video Communications.
“He impressed me as a down-to-earth founder and I wanted a new challenge at the time,” Chong said. “It was a 180-degree change. Zoom was a small team of four in the United States and 30-plus remote engineers, with a technical vision. I took on the role of product management, marketing, support and even business development to acquire early adopters. It was a stack of hats, with a different hat trick for each occasion.”
Nine years later, and Chong is now head of global services for Zoom, the video conferencing platform that became an essential means of connection for millions of people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We woke up one morning with the news that everything was closing down due to the pandemic,” Chong said. “Then we start seeing news of how people are using Zoom for education, exercise, social events, concerts, magic shows and work meetings. Even my mum used Zoom for her cooking classes. I felt an immense sense of pride, but also responsibility. I was proud that our team produced an antidote for quarantine. I was energized that we would now have to work harder to deliver a product that supported global connections around the clock.”
As difficult as the past year has been for so many, Chong regards the pandemic as a valuable life lesson.
“It brought us together as a family, as a nation and as a world to overcome an unprecedented challenge. It gives me hope that we can overcome challenges to come, as long as we keep the ‘human’ in humanity in check. I am optimistic that through this experience, our children will have a stronger mindset to cultivate a more empathetic society.”