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Microsoft executive Peggy Johnson: 'My teacher gave me the encouragement which changed my whole life'

Samantha McCaughren speaks to senior Microsoft executive Peggy Johnson about female perseverance and reaching the top in technology


Peggy Johnson of Microsoft

Peggy Johnson of Microsoft

Peggy Johnson of Microsoft

As role models go for women in engineering, Peggy Johnson is one of the best. Microsoft's executive vice-president of business development drives the software giant's M&A strategy and was in UCD in Dublin last month with the aim of inspiring schoolgirls to consider a career in science, tech, engineering or maths (STEM).

And while Ms Johnson, who was recently named the most powerful female engineer in the US, was primarily in Dublin to speak to students, she must also have inspired some of the many teachers in the 800-strong audience.

"I was just telling someone about my fifth grade teacher who was really the one who helped me through a few horrid classes in math and she said 'You can do it'," Ms Johnson says.

"She gave me the confidence to keep at it and it was really a turning point for me. My fifth grade teacher was super-encouraging and kept me on course and it changed the direction of my life."

Clearly, Ms Johnson had an aptitude for maths but no one in her schooldays ever suggested engineering as an option for her. That changed in 1981, when she was a business major in San Diego university. When dropping in a delivery to the engineering department, the two female administrative assistants expressed their delight in seeing a woman coming down the hallway.

"They said 'Are you here to sign up?' and I said 'No I'm just here to deliver that'." However, the women went to work extolling the virtues of engineering.

"They explained it in such a way that it just made it so exciting. They talked about solving puzzles, you know, really every one of these big jobs that engineers do, it's all about solving a puzzle," says Ms Johnson. It convinced her to take the plunge and she switched her major the next day.

Since joining Microsoft in 2014, she has overseen several acquisitions, with around 10 deals completed last year including the buyout of business-networking site Linkedin.

She was in Ireland last month for a short trip but has many connections with the country. Her father's parents were Irish and her daughter completed her degree at Trinity.

She is impressed with Ireland from a professional standpoint.

"We have been, obviously, super-happy with it," she says. "We've been here almost 32 years, so our roots are very deep in the country and it has served us well for many years. Just recently we have expanded the team here even further with the centring of our Inside Sales group."

The company announced in February that it was opening its EMEA Inside Sales division in Dublin, leading to the recruitment of 500 staff. Another 100 are also being recruited across the company, which will bring total employment numbers to 1,800.

"It's an interesting site for us because we have sales and marketing and development and a data centre and now our Inside Sales, it's quite a mix," she says of the Irish operation. "It probably is the site that looks closest to our Redmond campus (Washington) with the diversity of jobs that we have here in Ireland."

In an uncertain global political environment when concerns about foreign direct investment (FDI) are on the rise, Microsoft continues to see Ireland as a key part of its future.

"We have no plans to change the current course and speed," says Ms Johnson.

There may be more opportunities coming for Irish start-ups. Microsoft Ventures has invested in close to 30 companies last year and will now be looking internationally for new projects.

"We launched a Microsoft Ventures Early Stage Fund last year and we just recently put somebody in London who will look after this region for us. We'll be looking for early-stage start-ups to invest in that are in line with our ambitions," she says.

There are several exciting areas which Johnson is keen on.

"The areas are artificial intelligence and machine learning, business SaaS (software as a service)," she says.

"Security is another area of focus for us." "And, you know, there's quite a dynamic community of start-ups here in Ireland. So it's of great interest to us."

Ms Johnson told students last week that artificial intelligence and augmented reality were two of the most promising areas of development, with its HoloLens product allowing people to mix reality and computer-generated images.

The potential uses are vast, with Ms Johnson outlining how the product will be used for training future surgeons. "We think business applications will be some of the most innovative because we've already had a number of companies integrating it into their work flow," she says.

"One of them is ThyssenKrupp, the elevator company. If you can imagine you're an elevator maintenance man, and you go to the elevator and it may be a different model than you're used to, you could put the HoloLens on and it can augment an image around the elevator and show you 'this is the part you're looking for and you want to turn this area and you might want to tighten that'.

"In the past, the maintenance person would log on to their computer and maybe bring up schematics and flip through it."

Although there would be plenty of consumer uses for the HoloLens, it does seem as though Microsoft is increasingly concentrating on business customers rather than consumers.

However, Ms Johnson says it is focused on both. "Clearly, we're an enterprise-focused company but we also have gaming," she says. "Gaming provides us with some very good signals about consumers and what they're interested in. We have our Xbox but also our Xbox Live subscription service."

Another development in Europe is a recently opened Internet of Things lab in Munich. "Companies can come into our insider lab and they can share just an idea. They might have a prototype. They might have something that's nearly finished and we can walk them through different stages of support. We can do 3D printing. We can help them with a printed circuit board to test out hardware. We can help them on the software side.

"We had a company in China, and it took weeks and weeks off their development time because they can come in, and in an very accelerated fashion, build what they were envisioning. It made sense to put one in Munich - it's sort of in the centre of the automotive area."

Ms Johnson, who grew up just outside Los Angeles, worked at General Electric in San Diego on anti-submarine warfare technology before joining Qualcomm as a software engineer in 1989. She moved up the ranks during 25 years with the telecommunications equipment company, eventually taking up a senior role in sales and business development.

"I just got a call out of the blue from Microsoft. I was very curious because it was this 40-year-old company.

"From the outside looking in, they were having a massive change with all sorts of new and exciting programmes and a new and exciting ceo.

"But I said 'I just am not sure' because my family is all there in southern California and I have four dogs, three kids, two cats and one husband."

Joining Microsoft also meant a much higher personal profile. "It's the world stage type thing you could say and I'm naturally introverted," she says.

In a corporate world where weakness or insecurity is rarely shown, Ms Johnson is happy to share her self-doubt.