Peggy Johnson, a scheduled keynote speaker at the 2013 Mobile World Congress, became an engineer, and later switched to business, at a time when women were not encouraged to enter either profession. Today she is one of the most influential people in the mobile sector. Johnson, 51, the only woman on Qualcomm’s senior management team, is credited with pioneering the world’s first large-scale commercial app store, under the Brew initiative, helping developers monetize their applications long before Apple came along. She played a key role in Qualcomm’s foray into mobile TV with MediaFlo, and, in her role as executive vice-president of Qualcomm in the Americas and India, helped lead its push to bring the benefits of wireless to emerging markets.
She currently serves as Qualcomm’s executive vice-president and president of global market development. The job entails overseeing Qualcomm Labs, the company’s internal incubator, which focuses on next generation wireless technologies.
“Qualcomm usually gives her the innovation things – challenges that everybody else is afraid to take on — and she does it and executes with great success,” says Candace Johnson (no relation), another industry trailblazer who co-founded the Global Telecoms Women’s Network (GTWN) 21 years ago. Qualcomm’s Johnson has been a regular attendee of the GTWN’s annual power breakfasts at Mobile World Congress over many years and has also been a speaker at the invitation-only events.
Following its 20th Anniversary celebration in Barcelona at the 2012 Mobile World Congress, the GTWN began working with industry lobbying group GSMA to raise the profile at the MWC of the swelling ranks of women who play a leading role in the mobile sector. The idea is to get more women included in the official program, a goal which is in keeping with GTWN’s tradition of promoting senior women in the sector. In 2011 the GSMA appointed Anne Bouverot, a former executive vice president of mobile services for France Telecom Orange, as its director general and as a board member, but the majority of keynote speakers at the annual event continue to be men.
In recognition of the many ways women are shaping the sector the GSMA has invited more women to take the podium at this year’s event in Barcelona. It is no surprise that Johnson is among the women asked to give a keynote this year: “She is a role model for all technology and business drivers,” says GTWN’s Candace Johnson.
A Circuitous Route
Peggy Johnson took a circuitous route to get where she is today. One of eight children, her father died when she was three. Her mother married a widower with seven children of his own, making Johnson the second youngest of 15 children in a single household. All were expected to go to college and to pay their own way. Although she had clear strengths in math and science she was advised by a high school guidance counselor to study business and enrolled as a business major at San Diego State University.
Her degree in engineering was due to a fluke encounter. Johnson had a job on campus to help pay tuition and was delivering mail to the engineering department. The faces of the two women working in the office lit up when she entered because they though she was a prospective student, then fell when they learned why she was there. Undeterred, they proceeded to pitch her on the program, which was, of course, based around two areas she loves: math and science. She switched majors the next day. Her mother was speechless when she reported the news, says Johnson, but thought it was great.
Upon graduation she went to work for General Electric’s military electronics division, coding anti-submarine warfare technology. In 1989 a job announcement for a software engineer caught her eye. The recruiting company was a four-year-old start-up called Qualcomm.
Early in her 23-year career at Qualcomm Johnson worked on the team that helped pioneer one of the first commercially successful machine-to-machine data applications, the OmniTRACS mobile asset tracking and data management system. It was, in fact, one of the earliest location-based services and it helped revolutionize the trucking industry. “It was a magical thing,” recalls Johnson. This early form of contextual contact, which relied on triangulation between satellites for positioning, “changed productivity in the trucking industry,” she recalls. At first, truckers were worried about “Big Brother” and privacy issues — raising some of the same questions that consumers have today about location-based services. But, she says, when the individual truckers found that the new technology meant that they could seize more opportunities and get bigger paychecks, they quickly embraced the system.
As a leader of the Brew initiative, she helped pioneer the world’s first large-scale commercial app store, helping developers monetize their applications and inspiring the growth of what is now a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Johnson has often been tapped to help the company test the waters in new areas and not all of the dossiers she was given turned into successful lines of business for Qualcomm. For example, the company ended up pulling out of the mobile TV business, selling its FLO spectrum to AT&T in 2010.
Johnson says she regrets nothing. “It takes a certain amount of fortitude to take on new areas,” she says. “Each and every one has some risk to it. I was deeply involved in the FLO product and we ended up selling the spectrum and repurposing the platform. You have to embrace change. I am drawn to that risk aspect of product development and don’t mind moving on if it doesn’t work. It is like building an early-stage business. There is all that early-stage excitement. But if it doesn’t work you just have to let it go.”
Her current job focuses on helping Qualcomm stay ahead of the curve on next-generation wireless technologies. That is where the work at Qualcomm Labs, the company’s internal incubator, comes in. “There is a severe lack of spectrum in the world; the demand for data is expected to grow 1,000x over the next ten years,” says Johnson. “We know we don’t have 1,000 times more spectrum out there so we have to come up with a different answer.” To that end, Qualcomm Labs is working on a technology called LTE Broadcast, which aims to make delivery of video over mobile networks more efficient, allowing wireless operators to better exploit their existing spectrum, infrastructure and chipsets to address the surging demand for data.
Qualcomm Labs are also working on “digital sixth-sense technologies” which allow smartphone apps to bridge the digital and physical worlds. For example, Qualcomm Labs’ Gimbal context-aware technologies are being used to deliver exclusive content and real-world game experiences for the “Star Trek Into Darkness” application based on the upcoming movie from Paramount.
The “Star Trek Into Darkness” app, which become available in late January, includes: an audio scan function that can be turned on to automatically recognize and reward users for watching “Star Trek Into Darkness” content on TV and other media; an image scan function that enables users to interact with images printed or viewable in the real world; a geofencing function for location-based experiences; the pushing of new “Star Trek Into Darkness” content, such as videos, images and wallpapers delivered directly to users’ mobile devices; and special offers only available to app users.
Beyond entertainment and the use of contextual technologies for m-commerce, the mobile industry has a chance to transform health and education and improve the lives of women around the world; a diversified work force will help the industry achieve those goals, says Johnson.
Johnson encountered sexism in the sector early on in her career: a Japanese firm she interviewed with made it clear they didn’t want women engineers and once, when walking into a meeting room with colleagues, she was mistaken for a secretary and asked to provide coffee for the group. Johnson laughed those things off but struggled with various managers’ insistence that she speak up frequently at meetings and be more assertive. She told her bosses that they would need to measure her by other metrics because those traits aren’t part of who she is.
“My message to other women in his industry is you don’t have to be a man in skirts,” says Johnson, who has managed a variety of high-powered executive roles while raising three children. “Be who you are and you will bring a valuable voice to this industry. We need the quiet and the aggressive and they both have roles to play. Women in technology careers are under-represented and I believe you need a mix, a diverse group of employees, to build the best products and the best services.”
Johnson volunteers to go into schools and encourage young girls to consider a career in engineering in the mobile sector, a path she believes can help truly change the world. “What gets me excited is the impact that wireless will have on the world when it comes to areas like education, health and the empowerment of women. We are only at the beginning,” she says. Through her current job, she intends to keep blazing trails, helping the industry to further transform the way people live and work.
Mobile Industry Shapers
Some of the other women leaders speaking at MWC this year
Padmasree Warrior, Chief Technology and Strategy Officer, Cisco
Warrier, Cisco’s Chief Technology & Strategy Officer, is charged with aligning technology development and corporate strategy. She helps drive technology and operational innovation across the company and oversees strategic partnerships; mergers and acquisitions; the integration of new business models; the incubation of new technologies; and the cultivation of world-class technical talent. Warrior holds a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, a master of science degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University, and an honorary doctorate of engineering from New York’s Polytechnic University. Prior to joining Cisco in 2007 she was the Chief Technology Officer at Motorola. Fast Company Magazine recently named her one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business.”
Ann Mei Chang, Senior Advisor for Women and Technology at the U.S. State Department
Chang is a member of the GSMA mWomen working group, the International Steering Committee on the mobile program at the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, and a member of the international steering committee of the Global Telecom Women’s Network (GTWN). Prior to her current role, Chang, who earned a computer science degree from Stanford University, led engineering for Google’s mobile applications and service worldwide, including products such as search, ads, Google Mobile Maps, Gmail, YouTube, Goggles and Voice Search across all major platforms. She oversaw 20x growth of Google’s mobile business in just three years, delivering over $1 billion in annualized revenues.
Laureen Cook, Principal Industry Advisor, Global Telecommunications, Media and Technology, World Bank
Prior to her recent move to the World Bank, Cook, who earned an MSc in Telecoms from the Rochester Institute of Technology and an MBA from Long Island University in New York, was Alcatel-Lucent’s vice-president 4G/LTE technology. Over the past 25 years Cook has held executive and board of director roles at operators around the world including: MTC-Vodafone (now Zain) in the Middle East; Deutsche Telekom (Germany); Cable & Wireless (now Vodafone) in the UK; and Nynex (now Verizon) in the U.S. She is the founding director of several European and Asian wireless companies: Debitel (Germany), Telestet (now Wind Greece), and PT Satelindo of Indonesia.
Vicki MacLeod, member of the OECD’s Business and Industry Advisory Committee
MacLeod is an international consultant in communications policy, with a special focus over the last decade on broadband infrastructure and applications. She began her career in communications policy working for the Australian government in Canberra. As executive director of the industry thinktank International Institute of Communications in London in the 1990s she worked on telecom policy reform and drove the institute’s research agenda in media ownership and convergence policy. She also spent more than a decade working as an advisor on public policy and international regulatory issues for Australia’s telecom operator Telstra. She is an active member of the OECD’s Business and Industry advisory committee and regularly attends working party meetings of theinformation, computer and communications group. She is also secretary general of GTWN.
Janice Hughes, Founding Director, Redshift Strategy
Hughes is an experienced strategy consultant who has also worked across the mobile, fixed, radio spectrum, entertainment, music and retail sectors. Redshift Strategy, Hughes’s latest endeavor, provides strategic advice, investment services, and insights into rapid technological change in the media and telecoms industries.Prior to Redshift Hughes, who has a degree in economics from Cambridge University, was a lead partner in Booz Allen’s European TMT practice, where she managed multimillion-pound assignments for major corporate clients across the world. She has also advised governments in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, the UK and Continental Europe on regulatory issues.