At Zebra, we celebrate our innovators year-round with a multitude of reward and recognition programs. We understand that their contributions – from raising their hands all the way up to securing patents – have a wide breadth of impact on Zebra, our customers, our partners and, quite frankly, the world!
However, with National Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (STEAM) Day coming up this Sunday, November 8, we wanted to take a few minutes to celebrate a very special Zebra who is demonstrating exceptional leadership in the STEM field: Julie Johnson, Vice President of Global Product Management and Portfolio at Zebra.
Julie joined the Zebra ranks just over a year ago and has made a tremendous impact on Zebra’s business as well as our customers’ businesses. Alongside an all-star team, Julie is driving the delivery of best-in-class Android™ and Windows® hardware, software, and cloud-based solutions to retail, field mobility, warehouse, healthcare, and government channels globally. In fact, Zebra just became the first rugged device manufacturer to make the Android 10 operating system available across the majority of its enterprise mobile computing portfolio, in large part due to Julie’s leadership. You can hear all about the effort to rollout Android 10 in this podcast interview with Julie.
In addition to this incredible mobility modernization effort, Julie is also overseeing the development of augmented reality, enhanced imaging and mobile dimensioning solutions for warehouse, healthcare, retail and field mobility customers.
Because of her strategic guidance, intuitive decision making and customer prioritization during technology innovation processes, organizations of all sizes consistently have the tools they need to see all the way to the edge of their operations and empower employees to intelligently collaborate in real time. This empowers them to fully support their customers, even in challenging times.
Because of Julie’s many incredible accomplishments, we weren’t completely surprised when she was recognized as one of the Most Notable Women in STEM for 2020 by Crain’s Chicago Business. STEM has been her lifelong passion, and when she saw the opportunity to advance the field among our incredible community of innovators at Zebra, she seized it.
We recently connected with her to learn more about her journey to Zebra, and she was more than happy to tell us about her personal STEM career progression (and challenges). She also shared advice for others looking to follow a similar path. Below is an excerpt from that interview. We hope you enjoy!
Your Edge Blog Team: You’ve been involved in STEM since college and have a remarkable track record in the field. What sparked your interest in this type of career?
Julie: I’ve actually been a STEM advocate since elementary school. In fact, I was only in first grade when I first said I wanted to be a math teacher when I grew up. My dad was definitely my biggest STEM influencer early on – he received his PhD in organic chemistry and clearly pushed my sister and me in the STEM direction. He never had a doubt that we were intelligent enough to succeed in STEM and wanted to make sure we didn’t either. When I was just learning the basics of math, he would ask me multiplication questions in front of family and friends so I could foster confidence in my own abilities. When he helped me with my fourth-grade science project, we integrated five simple machines into a mousetrap-style contraption. I remember being in awe of how we took words and diagrams from my schoolbook and turned them into this really cool apparatus. As I progressed through my schooling and career, it was fascinating to see how even the most sophisticated pieces of hardware result from those same textbook words and diagrams.
Your Edge Blog Team: Do you have a professional or personal philosophy that you’ve used to guide your growth as an individual and a woman in STEM?
Julie: First, I really believe in knowing and understanding the “how” and “why” behind facts and details – memorization isn’t enough. It may take time and effort to really understand the issues, but better decisions are made when you grasp the “how” and “why” something happens or works the way it does.
I also believe how we engage with customers and coworkers, regardless of their level or job function, influences our success as individuals, teams and a company. If you take the time to understand what is important to each person and ensure he or she understands what’s important to you, it is much easier to effectively relay messages and achieve mutually desired outcomes.
Third, I believe in being authentic to who you are. People may try to coach you to change behaviors or style or your decision-making process, but I feel you have to be comfortable within yourself, go with your gut (after evaluating the data!), and act how you feel most naturally.
Finally, work hard, know your facts and keep asking questions until there are no more to ask.
Your Edge Blog Team: The STEM and STEAM fields are quite broad. Did you always want to work for a company like Zebra?
Julie: I majored in math and physics as an undergrad and received my master’s degree in materials science & engineering. I also have a Master of Business Administration degree. My first job after grad school was in engineering at Motorola where I was able to secure a patent in my first two years as a professional engineer. I then spent six years in manufacturing and worked my way up to running an entire consumer electronics factory. I also spent time in program management, portfolio management, marketing, and ultimately ended up in product management.
I spent much of my career in consumer electronics at Motorola, Google and Lumentum. However, I also was able to gain enterprise experience at Motorola, Verifone and now Zebra. Ironically, I worked at Motorola when Motorola acquired Symbol, so joining Zebra is really returning to a business I used to be part of.
I especially enjoy product management as I feel we own the heartbeat of the company. We create the roadmaps, value proposition, product differentiation, business case and essentially the market story. We get to interface with every function in the company and are involved in most of the strategic and operations decisions for our businesses. There’s never a dull moment!
Your Edge Blog Team: I understand that you’ve been involved in the Society of Women Engineers for several years. Can you tell us more about that organization and your role?
Julie: I joined the Society of Women Engineers when I first started working at Motorola, straight out of graduate school. Originally, I was looking at it as an opportunity to make friends as I had just moved to the Chicago area and didn’t know anyone. Early on, I was in charge of various committees, including events and a local forum. At the time, it was great to be able to meet other similarly-aged women who were also early in their STEM careers. I also enjoyed learning about other technologies, job functions and industries’ unique innovation roadmaps.
Your Edge Blog Team: At Zebra, innovation is one of our core values. Can you tell us a little bit about how you honor this value in your leadership style?
Julie: Innovation can lead to success in so many ways. It’s not just about new technologies, but also new value propositions, new processes, new marketing approaches and more – anything that can make your team more competitive and your organization stronger in the market. As a product manager, it is very easy to focus every minute of the day attending to urgent action items, such as answering customer questions, releasing investment funds for new projects, optimizing the supply chain or solving financial conundrums. So, I frequently ask my team members to document and articulate their ideas for future product solution roadmaps. We then schedule focused time to discuss strategy, market changes and other big impact items. I encourage people to speak up during these sessions, and I meet weekly with team members to discuss their ideas in smaller work environments where people feel more comfortable taking risks. I’m very much about experimenting, prioritizing the creation of “proof of concepts,” going after new markets and thinking about new growth opportunities. We have to prioritize time to think, be creative, be strategic, be thoughtful and look for improvements.
Your Edge Blog Team: Speaking of improvements, how do you see technology improving our lives moving forward? It has already become so prolific. What other benefits have we yet to realize? Or, perhaps, what benefits have we yet to fully realize, in your opinion?
Julie: Technology is continuing to enable a more connected, automated and data-driven society. The world of commerce continues to progress, allowing consumers a completely personalized shopping experience – how, when and wherever they want it. In huge part due to technology, we’ve developed and enabled an e-commerce supply chain that can meet these consumers’ needs. A completely connected workforce changes the game in every industry we compete in – and it isn’t just connecting associate to associate, driver to driver, nurse to nurse, but also associate to ladder, driver to pallet, nurse to EKG equipment. Likewise, what used to be magic, now really happens. Thanks to time of flight sensors, devices can calculate measurements. Thanks to optical character recognition, devices can read odometers and license plates. Thanks to computer vision, devices can distinguish an apple from an orange. Magic is a reality. Technology is continuing to free us up from mundane, tedious tasks to focus on optimization, efficiency, deeper understanding of operations as well as providing more time for human interaction, investigation, learning, creative tasks and even personal development. STEM clearly plays a role in creating our cool, magical technologies!
Your Edge Blog Team: What advice you give to young women and girls with professional STEM ambitions?
Julie: I also was fortunate to work for a spectacular woman during my time at Motorola who frequently gave me career advice as both her employee as well as a fellow female that I will never forget. She specifically told me to stick to my guns whenever I feel convinced about a certain topic or issue – to stay strong and forthright even when other strong “Type A” personality types may disagree with me. Be confident in your intelligence and gut and you can go far. Building on that, my advice to others is to be intentional, ask questions, keep learning, keep moving, stick up for yourself, be authentic to yourself and make sure you don’t take yourself too seriously.
Your Edge Blog Team: One final question…we like to look behind the stripes whenever we sit down with someone for an interview like this. Can you tell us a little bit about what you like to do when you’re not working?
Julie: I’m definitely a travel buff. Having lived in Brazil as a teenager, I gained quite an appreciation for learning about different cultures and seeing the many wonders of our world. My passion for travel also ties well into my interest in red wine. I enjoy learning about winemaking and visiting vineyards all over the world. This past January, I was lucky enough to be able to visit New Zealand before the shutdown. I even managed to spend a few days in Aspen, Colorado, hiking and biking this past September.