A punching glove breaking glass

The View from Above the Glass Ceiling

J P Systems interviews its owner and President Jackie Mulrooney, who most would decidedly say has shattered the glass ceiling.  With over 84 million in contracts awards and 38 years at the helm of J P Systems, growing her Healthcare IT consulting firm has taught her a few things about smashing glass ceilings. The glass ceiling is a colloquial term for the social barrier preventing women and minorities from being promoted to top level jobs in management. 

Q. What enabled you to break the glass ceiling when so many women view it as a formidable barrier?

A. The important thing about glass ceilings is what you believe about them. Do you believe that the opportunity to shatter them is not out there for you?  If so, then you really won’t try.  If you believe that this ceiling does not apply to you, then you can devise a way to get there.  Belief in yourself is key.  Attitude is key. Training is key. Also key is having common sense, understanding where money comes from, how it can come to you and how to keep what you make.  You must own a business that provides a product or a service that people need. It should be something that they need both in good economic times and in bad.  Waiting to be promoted as an employee from lower level ranks in a large company is a very slow road.  Start your own business.

Q.  How did you learn these business success principles

A.  I had a series of mentors starting when I was 23 years old. I extensively read books and attended seminars on success, attitude, sales and marketing.  I then practiced these principles by selling products.  At first, I was really quite shy and afraid to meet new people or speak in front of a group. I would avoid the other people in the seminars before the class started.  To remedy this, I built up my confidence and read books on public speaking and went to Toastmasters until I learned how to make a speech and not be intimidated by a group of strangers.  I regularly attended meetings on business communications and sales techniques.   Success is born where preparedness and opportunity meet!

Q. What led you to start J P Systems?

A.  I moved to Washington, D.C. in 1979 for a contract programming job after I graduated with a B.A. in Computer Science, Pre-Med and Chemistry.  I was treated with respect at college but there was not much respect for women in technical jobs in 1979. It was doubly hard to keep changing contracts every 3 to 6 months.  With each new contract came an entirely new set of clients with whom I had to build credibility.  As an employee I spent 4 years working on contracts for different clients at almost every exit on the Washington, D.C. beltway.

In 1983 there were not many people qualified to design and write software. There was a ready market for programmers with plenty of opportunities.  I passionately studied sales and marketing principles and found a mentor. With the help of my mentor, I decided to go out on my own and market my services, concentrating on designing databases.  If I failed, the jobs would always be out there for me. I found my first ten clients.  I soon became the President of the Washington Independent Computer Consultants Association. There were only three of us women at the time in the entire metro area who owned our own computer consulting company.  I never had to go back and get another W-2 job. 

Q. What was the workplace like for women in the 1970’s?

A.  Gender discrimination was everywhere and was the norm.  Men resented having women in the workplace as we were seen to take jobs away from men who had to support their families.  Women were accepted as long as we did not make as much money as men since we were ‘taking food out of the mouths of their children”.  Single parents and divorce were rare then.  Men as the head of the home were the wage earners.  Women were often expected to stop working outside the home when they got married or when they had their first child. 

These underlying attitudes still persist. For example, when a married woman travels far from home for a long time to work a job, she is seen as having abandoned her family. When a man travels out of town to work a job, he is seen as having made a noble and necessary sacrifice for his family. He is commended for going the extra mile. She is criticized. 

I was a tall, thin blonde who was noticed for how I looked.  It was difficult in general for women to be valued for who they were professionally.  Once I spent the money to fly to Boston for an interview in 1980. The two young men sent to meet with me about the job had been joking on the way over that I was going to be some good looking tall blonde.  When they saw that I actually was, they couldn’t stop laughing about their little joke.  Being laughed at to your face is no small thing when you are single and in between contracts. It wasn’t a bit funny to me. It was mind boggling that they were so openly superficial.  Needless to say, I did not move to Boston. When these types of things happen to you, you have to talk to yourself, build yourself back up, and say “That is your loss.”

I did not let other people’s attitudes stop me. I worked on contracts with start and end dates where cost control was key. I worked very hard and got my work done on time and within budget. I excelled at my work and got noticed.  I strived to make my clients look good to their bosses.  I managed to be aware of political challenges on projects and learned to duck out of the fallout if things went south. 

I listened hard to what my clients needed and learned to anticipate their IT needs. Often the clients did not have the technical or verbal ability to put their technical needs into words. PC’s had not been invented yet, and the average person did not know how to use a computer, or what could go wrong with software development projects. I learned to read between the lines of their problem descriptions and devise solutions before they could even come to terms with their challenges. I learned I had a natural talent for requirements analysis. I used this to my advantage and was able to estimate software development costs accurately.

Q. What is different for you now on the other side of the glass ceiling?

A. When I first applied for a credit card right after college, I was turned down for a lack of credit history, despite the amount of money I was making.  I thought, “You will regret that.”   Now, when I walk into the bank and start to wait in line, the branch manager stands up, comes out of their office and says “Ms. Mulrooney, we wouldn’t want you to wait in line. Let me take that deposit for you. What else can we do for you?” 

I came to Washington D.C. in 1979 with only $300 cash in my pocket. My first month’s rent was $390 dollars. “Well, there goes my entire life’s savings – poof!” I thought.  Now I don’t pay rent anymore. I own my home. My lifestyle is owned and not rented. 

I was laughed at and told I couldn’t do things.  But I came to believe in myself. When no one else took me seriously, I learned to take myself seriously. No one is laughing now. They are asking me for jobs instead.  I don’t have to listen to critics and scoffers anymore. 

I wanted to create what I never had: a safe place for women to work where they were taken seriously as professionals and valued for what they could accomplish, not for what they looked like. I feel I have done just that at J P Systems, Inc.