Accidental engineer morphs into a top executive at Microsoft

Peggy Johnson is a big fan of actual ‘face time’ and met several Irish start-ups at the Dublin Web Summit

Peggy Johnson of Microsoft at  the 2015 Web Summit in the RDS, Dublin. Photograph:  Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE / Web Summit

Peggy Johnson of Microsoft at the 2015 Web Summit in the RDS, Dublin. Photograph: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE / Web Summit

 

Peggy Johnson is only half-joking when she admits she might have risked being mobbed if she had roamed the aisles at this week’s Dublin Web Summit freely. For an accidental engineer, she was a pretty massive draw for the tech-heavy crowd, speaking to packed auditoriums with queues for both of her public appearances.

Her droplets of wisdom were deemed so valuable because she is the one charged with making links between Microsoft and the outside world. In other words, if you run or own part of a company and want Microsoft to buy it or become involved in it, she will be the one to sign on the dotted line, or to instruct the lawyers to do so.

In corporate speak, Johnson is executive vice-president, business development, or one of Microsoft’s senior leaders. This means she is part of a team of 12 who run the company and report directly to its still-newish chief executive Satya Nadella.

Her signing-on bonus amounted to a cool $7.8 million (€7.2 million) in stock and cash when she moved to the Seattle-based tech giant in September last year. In man-on-the-street terms, she is a very big technology fish who flits around the absolute peak of the technology universe, hence the mobbing risk.

Johnson was Nadella’s first big hire after he succeeded Steve Ballmer at the top of Microsoft in February 2014. She is part of the new-look version of the company, a business that had struggled to find success in the increasingly mobile tech world and that had allowed its image to become just a little bit tired.

“It was just so refreshing,” says Johnson now of her recruitment process. During almost 25 years at San Diego-based chipmaker Qualcomm, she had been the recipient of many recruitment cold calls, but had never let them proceed beyond her voicemail. This one though, was different.

“Every step of the way, I was more and more impressed, and I thought, if I’m ever going to leave, this is the company I’ll leave for, because they’re at such an inflection point in their history . . . It was the funniest thing when I actually decided to call back.”

Now a year and a bit into the job, Johnson suggests a big part of her appeal for Nadella was her strong background in mobile, with Qualcomm technology having been used in handsets from the very start, allowing for such necessities as ringtones.

For her part, she says Nadella’s vision for the company “resonated”.

Johnson says Microsoft was already in a “state of change” when Nadella stepped up to become chief. She describes him as a “change agent”, selling his previous 22 years with the group plus his “vision” as providing him with the “perfect mix” of chief executive attributes.

It would not be surprising for observers to be saying the same about her in a while, given her combination of a solid engineering training and her myriad of senior, externally-facing business roles at Qualcomm before landing the Microsoft job.

The shift last year involved a physical relocation from San Diego, Johnson’s native area and home to Qualcomm, to the chillier climbs of Redmond near Seattle in Washington state, where Microsoft is based. Her husband and the youngest of three children went too, as did the family’s four dogs and one pet fish.

Johnson acknowledges that the jump was a big one, probably the second most significant in her life alongside a highly accidental stumble into engineering that started the whole thing more than 30 years ago.

It was 1981 and the young Peggy was a a business major at San Diego State University where, as one of a very large family, she was helping to fund her education with a job delivering the mail on campus. One such delivery brought her to the engineering department, where two female receptionists’ faces lit up on her arrival, believing her to be a rare female student in the subject.

“They said, ‘we just never see women in this hallway’,” Johnson recalls. Disappointed that she wasn’t there for academic reasons, they took to convincing her of the merits of an engineering career.

“The world will be your oyster,” is the bit she most remembers now.

“I thought why has nobody ever told me about this? The next day I switched my major. I became an electrical engineer.”

Family support

Johnson always had the support of her family when it came to academic endeavours, particularly her many siblings. Her father (son of Longford and Sligo parents) died when she was two, with her mother in time remarrying a widower and father of seven, thus making for a household of 15 kids supported through her stepfather’s petrol station. Her mother and stepfather, university graduates neither, wanted two things from all of them: “You had to go to college and you had to pay for it yourself.”

Following the plot of a heartwarming movie, all 15 managed it to one degree or another, with Johnson, the second-youngest, taking top billing with a consistently stellar outcome.

She is one of three women on Microsoft’s top team of a dozen, a ratio that figures fairly well in the tech world as a whole. It also helps Nadella to counteract criticism he attracted last year when he suggested that women in the sector should rely on “karma” in getting the rewards they deserve rather than asking for higher wages.

Johnson is very engaged with the issue of getting more women into technology and engineering, fuelled in part by her experience of going back to her alma mater 20 years after graduating and being “flabbergasted” to find that no more women were entering the discipline than when she had done so.

The data bear this out today too, with numbers compiled by the US-based National Centre for Information Technology showing, rather stunningly, that there were more women studying technology degrees, by percentage, in 1980 than there are in 2015. In 2014, female representation in the technology workforce amounted to about a quarter.

The Web Summit, for all of its hipness and millenialitis, was also home to a lot of male faces this week, both on the stages and in the audiences. When The Irish Times was trying to gain access to a lounge reserved for speakers to meet Johnson, the (very pleasant) security team presumed she was a man asked if “he” could come and meet outside instead.

Johnson did her bit on this front when on stage, urging delegates who had “a young girl in your life” to introduce them to the idea of a future in technology. The summit itself has, meanwhile, promised to invite 10,000 female entrepreneurs to its events next year, for free.

Johnson also argues that women already engaged in such careers should remember that it’s ok to “pause” for a time when children arrive, as she did.

“It’s a balance – sometimes you have to concentrate on your home life and sometimes you have to concentrate on your work life.”

Travel

For her, the home front involves a promise to have a family dinner at 7pm every evening, having started work at 7.30am, although she admits she may take out the laptop (or Surface Book) again at night. She also needs to take account of a lot of travel, probably a trip every two weeks t o Silicon Valley near San Francisco and a cross- country or international engagement once a month.

She’s a big fan of actual rather than virtual “face time” with start-ups and venture capitalists, and does it as much as possible. “We want to make sure we’re not missing anything”.

Johnson describes the Web Summit attendees as “the start-up community of Europe”and marvels as the “creativity in the hallways”. Rather than risking being kidnapped in the main hall, she hosted during her visit a “small, intimate dinner” for a group of hand-picked Irish start-ups, all of whom had a chance to pitch to Microsoft for its support in growing their businesses.

“The person presenting is generally the core,” she says.

A pitch success does not necessarily involve Microsoft taking any ownership in the company, but it could see the start-up getting access to the group’s “tools and services” with a view to both sides benefiting if success ensues.

It’s all part of the company’s efforts to boost its three new goals: reinventing productivity to “give people time back in their day”, building an “intelligent” cloud, and creating more personal computing.

On mobile phones, one of the old Microsoft’s most challenged ventures, Johnson says the company offers “great” devices, but she is more focused on the “mobility of users” than the “mobility of devices”. The endgame is to get as many people as possible to use Microsoft technology that fits around their life, without necessarily getting too hung up on the other companies’ products they might choose to use along the way.

“We want to ensure that as a user is moving through their world, their data is following them in an appropriate manner,” she says.

An example of the kind of relationship that facilitates this has come with Uber, the car-booking company.The first collaboration between the two came when Microsoft introduced an Uber-hailing facility into its Outlook platform, meaning a user could automatically call a cab as a scheduled meeting was about to fall due on their calendar. Microsoft subsequently sold some of its mapping technology to Uber and was later reported to have invested about $100 million in the business.

It’s a swings and roundabouts sort of arrangement, displaying Microsoft’s new- found flexible side under Nadella’s leadership.

“It’s about partnerships,” says Johnson, who rather charmingly explains that initial contact between the two organisations came because somebody on her staff knew somebody in Uber.

And so, despite all the technology that exists to facilitate virtual contact, there is proof of Johnson’s thesis that humans still need to talk and listen to one another to get the ball rolling on a deal, as all the excitement surrounding the summit proves very well. If she has a “super power”, Johnson says, it’s that she is a great listener.

She says she was open to getting involved in Web Summit since meeting its founder, Paddy Cosgrave, a few years ago, when the event was a much smaller affair. She agrees that Cosgrave is a great salesman, possibly because it takes one to know one, as she showed during her stage appearances.

Stay focused

When asked about the advice she would offer start-ups negotiating partnerships with larger companies, she suggested they should “stay focused” and “have a very clear roadmap” but quickly turned the question around to why it’s a good idea to partner Microsoft, making the company sound more like a cuddly grandpa bear than a corporate giant.

During her short time with the group, she has overseen a number of notable acquisitions alongside partnerships, adding to-do list app Wunderlist, calendar app Sunrise and email app Acompli, and quickly integrating them with existing businesses. There have also been rumours about a link with hip productivity start-up, Slack, which has an outpost in Dublin, but Johnson won’t be drawn.

She has meanwhile negotiated new relationships in some surprising quarters, such as a deal with customer relationship management specialist, Salesforce, and an arrangement with file-hosting company, Dropbox.

“We look for partners who are solving a problem for us. If they’ve already solved it, we’d much rather try to partner with them than try to rebuild it,” she says.

As far as potential deals go, Microsoft apparently has a “very high” perception of the Irish tech scene, drawing on its 30-year presence here. The company is in the process of bringing together its 1,200 employees and 700 contract staff to one Dublin campus in a €140 million investment, making Dublin the only location outside Redmond where project engineers work alongside developers and sales and marketing teams.

Johnson goes along with the idea that this implies a degree of job security for Irish staff, with expansion also “in the realm of possibility”.

“We are deeply embedded,” she says, with the company’s cluster of Irish data centres underlining that sense of permanency. Johnson is, however, reluctant to discuss the aspect of its Irish operations that has attracted most international press of late: a US department of justice attempt to access Hotmail email data based in a Microsoft Irish data centre.

The US authorities are seeking the data in relation to a drugs investigation, and they want to access it without going through the Garda. Microsoft is opposing the request, which some argue could set a scary legal precedent for the world as a whole.

Alongside this, there is Max Schrems, the Austrian privacy campaigner who has successfully challenged in the European Court of Justice the Safe Harbour framework under which data held by companies (specifically Facebook) in Europe is transferred to the US. This has created considerable uncertainty for companies involved in such data transfers and, more particularly, has worried their customers.

Johnson says she is “not competent on that topic”, pointing to a blog by the company’s legal chief on the issue instead. She notes, however, that hosting data in the cloud is something customers now expect.

“The industry trend is that every thing is moving to the cloud and most of our customers are in this very heterogeneous world,” she says, adding that it’s “definitely not” going anywhere.

The same could be said for Microsoft itself, which is now, in Johnson’s words, newly “poised” within a sector that is booming. She realises that there “probably is a bit of a bubble” in the tech world, as rivers of capital flow, but she is hopeful that as the rest of the economy improves, new areas of investment will become attractive, thus opening a pressure valve on tech valuations.

It is an optimistic thesis, and one that chimes well with Johnson’s warm and positive demeanour. In this vein, she says she is never afraid to “hit the reset button” if a brick wall is approaching on a project, such as when Qualcomm crashed and burned with its first foray into China.

“You do have to do your homework. You can’t take that for granted,” is a characteristic piece of advice, and one that seems to have worked out fairly well for her so far. CV Name: Peggy Johnson

Position: Executive vice-president, business development, at Microsoft

Age: 52

Family: Married to Eric Johnson with three kids aged from mid-teens to late 20s.

Why is she in the news? She was a star draw at this week’s Dublin Web Summit. Something you might expect: She is travelling to Sligo for the Surf Summit follow-on to the Web Summit this weekend. She hopes to trace some relatives on her father’s side in Ballincurry.

Something that might surprise: Such are the family’s Irish links that one of her children chose to complete her primary degree at Trinity College, Dublin.