There’s something about Mary McDowell

January 10, 2012

Nokia’s head of Mobile Phones, Mary McDowell, talks about mobiles, murder mysteries and whether the company is ready for its first woman CEO

Mary McDowell has what might be quaintly called Midwestern values. That’s usually a mixture of what people like most about Americans, including friendliness, honesty, hard work – and not getting too big for your britches.

As Nokia’s Executive Vice President in charge of Mobile Phones she’s been responsible for transforming a core division of the company into a remarkable success story, and leading her team through some tough discussions and decisions:

“One of the tests of a leader is whether you can give enough space to give smart people to be creative and to drive things – and not have it be all about yourself.

I like to have diverse teams with different mindsets, and I like to have robust and challenging conversations because that’s how you get to the heart of issues.”

But that doesn’t stop her joining in, grabbing the karaoke mic and breaking in to her other favourite past-time, which is singing: “Basically, I torture my staff at the Christmas party,” she says. She is an avid Glee fan, dreams of having enough spare time to sing alto in a choir, and loves reading murder mysteries “at least a couple a week.”

Hobbies aside, McDowell grew up in Chicago with an engineer father and a science teacher mother, and naturally gravitated towards a career in technology.

“After I graduated, I started working for Compaq computers with every intention of quitting after two years and going to law school. When I joined it was a company of 2,500 and growing really fast. There was lots and lots going on, and I got so hooked into the opportunities I decided technology was where I needed to stay.”

Giving the commencement address at her alma mater, the University of Illinois College of Engineering, in May 2010 she told the students:

“I thought the only reason people didn’t major in engineering is because they didn’t have high enough scores to get accepted.”

Since that point, she has mellowed slightly: “I’ve since learned that there are other smart people who just didn’t have the good sense to major in engineering.”

But, her fundamental point remains:

“I still think people like you who understand how things work have an advantage.”

Now McDowell is one of only a handful of top women in the industry – but you won’t find her showing off in a red pantsuit, or delivering a televised homily on female emancipation. She’s open and friendly, but self-deprecating about her accomplishments. She doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy being the center of attention – she’d rather talk about her role in the larger Nokia team. Most importantly, she wants to fix things. She likes to get the job done.

“I’m pretty analytical. So I do break things down to ask – how do we solve a problem?”

McDowell began her career as a systems engineer, and worked her way up through the ranks at HP-Compaq, serving five of her 17 years at the company as senior vice president and general manager of the Industry Standard Server Group. She joined Nokia in 2004 as executive vice president and general manager of Enterprise Solutions, responsible for the development and marketing of Nokia’s business-oriented devices and services, and then led the Corporate Development unit, before assuming her current role as head of mobile phones.

Last year, while media attention focused on the launch of the new Nokia Lumia phones, McDowell was laying the groundwork for the expansion of Nokia’s next billion strategy.

A major part of McDowell’s strategy has been moving away from the idea that Series 40 devices were a “low-end business cash cow” towards smarter, aspirational, phones for everyone:

“We’ve planted the seeds for Series 40. These are not the dumb phones…they are as smart as possible. In reality, the distinction between a smart phone and a feature phone is fairly technical, and when a consumer thinks about a smart phone they think about accessing the internet, downloading apps, a nice display… and these are all things we can, and do, deliver with Series 40,” says McDowell.

If Nokia was somewhat slow to appreciate the demands for Dual SIM, McDowell rectified this – and boosted market share – by introducing a wide range of Dual SIM phones with added features like Easy Swap that means people can swap SIM cards without turning off their handset.

Understanding the importance of Dual SIM came about, partly, by going out into the field and listening to consumers. She understands that, “it’s all very well making decisions in headquarters, but when you’re really talking with someone it sticks with you.”

Last year, McDowell visited all five continents and took all her managers to India. In the first three months of 2012 she is due to visit China, Russia and Vietnam. These trips, and in-depth research, have had a profound impact on Nokia’s mobile phone unit:

“Look at the Asha 200, McDowell says. “Those came about because we spent time in Jakarta – and they were telling us ‘This region is mad for qwerty – everyone texts and IMs’. So they said, ‘What can you do that makes something colourful and compelling that responds to this need?’ These phones were really designed with those guys in mind….”

Research in India led to the development of loud speakers for better music performance, while meeting a beautician in Nairobi confirmed McDowell’s belief in in the importance of social networking and internet access for everyone:

“She told me she had 1,000 friends on Facebook. I thought, oh ok – I only have about 200. But it’s such an important part of how they live their lives, it’s how they connect – they have no access to computers, phones are their life line.”

Providing those services in an affordable and accessible way for people in growing markets is a key part of what makes Nokia different, and gives added value beyond the phones themselves:

“We’re ramping up the Nokia Browser, which provides great data compression. We’re hoping to do even more with that capability because the cost saving and access it can bring to consumers is huge.”
Nokia Browser compresses and downloads information from the internet by up to 90%, making it a highly cost-effective option for people in developing markets.

“We’re also ramping up Life Tools, and what started as focused on rural markets is now going to be focused on urban markets as well.”
Nokia Browser, Life Tools and Maps for Series 40 have become hugely popular, with Nokia Browser becoming the fastest growing Nokia service ever and Series 40 products accounting for a third of downloads from the Nokia Store (up from 13% in January 2011)

“One of the things were looking at is how do we embed ourselves more with partners, how do we support local internet services – and is there more we could do to tap into local tastes and preferences. We’ve been doing a lot of work to make applications supported better on Series 40.”

You’ll be able to get Facebook and other global services, she says, but in addition, “There are things that are peculiar to local markets, and were looking at how that to give that to people.”

As a member of the Nokia Board since 2004, McDowell is passionate about this emphasis on product.

“It’s been quite a journey,” she admits, “but I think it’s been very healthy in terms of distilling things down to the business essence. Nokia got so consumed with process and detail that we lost sight of products, and the process became the product and so if you ticked all the boxes that was a job well done, even if it wasn’t that great.

“Now what matters is what we create, and I think that’s really the right focus.”
Under Stephen Elop’s leadership, she is now surrounded by a more diverse team in terms of gender, nationalities, and thinking. Although good leadership should be “gender independent,” she adds that it is nice to have more women on the Nokia Leadership Team “even if it does mean we have to queue for the ladies’ bathroom.”

Would Nokia be ready for a woman CEO in a future stage of its journey? “Potentially, yes.”

Although she could talk all day about products and services, McDowell is perhaps most revealing when she returns to her one of her hobbies, reading murder mysteries. So far she has shunned the trend for dour Scandinavian detectives, or American PIs, in favour of good-old British killings written by authors like PD James or Elizabeth George.

“I like it where good takes on evil, and good wins,” McDowell says, “It’s just very satisfying.”

The main thrust of her commencement address to students at the University of Illinois was that, as engineers, they had the ability to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems – and simply ‘doing no evil’ was not enough.

“That’s really about sins of omission, and the opportunity to proactively do good. That’s what intrigues me about the business I’m currently running at Nokia,” McDowell says.

“It is a very good business, you can see it in the financial results. We’ve been a very good contributor to Nokia this year. At the same time we are having an impact on people’s lives. We’re the business people come to when people want to hear about healthcare for pregnant moms, or making sure the farmer doesn’t get ripped off when he goes to market.”

At an even more fundamental level, it’s about giving people access to what they want, and need, to live their lives: “How does a taxi driver earn a livelihood? He uses a mobile phone, it’s as basic as that.”

This article was written for Conversations by Nokia with Republic Publishing

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