Consequences, problem-solving ‘within and around wires’ serves alumna well
Just prior to being accepted to the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was enacted under President Bill Clinton, and Jeanine Johnson made the mistake of “telling” on her acceptance paperwork. Her enrollment was delayed.
But the Air Force Academy’s loss was the University of Missouri’s gain as the bright, ambitious Mexico, Mo., native with a passion for solving technical problems came instead to the MU College of Engineering. Johnson graduated in 2000 with dual degrees in computer science and computer engineering.
“In retrospect, it worked out very well. I met great people and had great experiences at MU,” Johnson said.
At an early age, the ambitious young woman had taken a shine to computers and computer programming, taking advantage of her local library’s public access computers.
“My parents noticed my interest and got me my first computer,” Johnson said. “It was a Tandy 3000. I took a basic programming class at the Mexico vocational school between middle school and high school and by the time I hit MU, I knew I wanted to do programming and electronics.”
MU’s computer science program moved to engineering from the College of Arts and Science in 1996, a fortunate circumstance Johnson said fit perfectly with her plans as it allowed her to be more programmatic and hands-on.
“I am very fluid within and around wires,” she said of the combined skillsets she acquired at MU and has continued to hone over the course of her career.
Because she had done an internship with Microsoft Corp. while a student, Johnson had a job waiting for her when she graduated, another fateful circumstance with a favorable outcome.
“In March 2000, the dot-com bubble burst, and those who didn’t do internships, didn’t have jobs,” she said.
Johnson was at Microsoft for eight years, first working as a software design engineer and security lead and later, as a program manager. After starting a couple of successful initiatives within Microsoft, she left to start up a new Web 2.0 company called MyQuire, serving as chief technology officer (CTO).
“MyQuire didn’t take off, but we sold the technology — not a big bang, but it paid for my MBA,” said Johnson.
While finishing her MBA at Cornell University, she helped the top Web 2.0 company at that time, MySpace, launch its developer platform, and also helped Amazon expand its Amazon Web Services (AWS) offerings. She led the migration of more than half of Amazon’s back end services to run on her new AWS cloud infrastructure services before being recruited to McKinsey & Company as a strategy consultant in its Business and Technology Office.
“Consulting was amazing, but it required crazy travel,” Johnson said. “We were working with thought leaders around the world. I sometimes felt like my lifestyle must be similar to a secret agent’s. I never knew what to expect. Once, while walking down the gate to one flight, we received a call to turn around and jump on a different flight to another city because a big M&A [merger and acquisition] had hit The Wall Street Journal.”
Johnson and her partner Julie Omran had their first child, Theodora, while Johnson was working at McKinsey. Suddenly, the glamor and intrigue of flying around the world on a moment’s notice and being gone for days at a time to unforeseen destinations lost its luster.
When the director at McKinsey left to become chief strategy officer for Flextronics — the No. 2 electronics manufacturer in the world — Johnson joined him to become the company’s director of project strategy and development. Two of the three products innovated by her group at Flextronics were spun off as successful start-ups. Johnson’s next — and most current — career leap was as CTO for San Francisco-based startup PeerSpace, an online community marketplace that connects people looking for meeting and event space with people who have available spaces.
As a student in New York City, PeerSpace’s chief operating officer passed by places with evening events such as dance and art studios that were empty during the day. It occurred to him that connecting the owners of infrequently used spaces to groups and organizations that had a need or desire for a unique meeting space had great potential.
“I hear a lot of ideas but I just knew this one had merit. In a sharing economy, there is a need for short-term space rental,” said Johnson.
Thanks to $1.5 million in funding from various investors, PeerSpace successfully launched in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the past year.
“We’re doing a city-by-city roll-out for now. It’s mainly controlled by what we can manage,” Johnson said. “Once the experience is seamless, we’ll flip the switch and let the marketplace grow organically into wherever people sign-up.
“[With these types of endeavors] it takes a couple of years to work out the kinks — ecommerce, resource management, communications, etc.,” she said.
By all indications, PeerSpace is positioned for success. Johnson loves the work she’s doing, which doesn’t take her away from home but still gives her plenty of the technical problem-solving that she enjoys — and lots of leeway to build a marketplace platform to her own standards of precision and efficiency.
Theodora, now three years old, has a one-year old brother, Thurston. Johnson and Omran are enjoying life in San Francisco with their children, taking advantage of all the city has to offer.
For the time being, Johnson is fully engaged launching PeerSpace, but she doesn’t rule out the possibility of starting more companies in the future.
“I haven’t had the success of [Facebook co-founder] Mark Zuckerberg,” Johnson said.
Not yet, anyway.