I worked for Google as a software engineer from 2003 to 2008. I never worked directly with Marissa Mayer (and I didn’t know her socially either), but I saw enough to know that she was very driven and had a firm vision of what she wanted, worked out in the finest detail. She stuck to her guns. Her genius, like Steve Jobs’, was in managing the interface between computers and those difficult-to-fathom humans, making the tech as user-friendly and seamless as possible.
You’d think these were good things. Yet Mayer has gotten more criticism in one year as Yahoo CEO than Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer did in 10. Most recently she’s caught flack for posing for a high-fashion Vogue spread (accompanying a feature written by Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group). She’s been taken to task for “suffering from gender blindness” and for exhibiting a “princess” problem in refusing to “own up to her own ambition.” And in this much-talked-about Business Insider piece by Nicholas Carlson, Mayer is portrayed as “robotic, stuck up, and absurd in her obsession with detail,” at least according to her “many enemies within her industry”—some of whom Carlson evidently interviewed for his 19,000-word “unauthorized biography.” With section titles like “Questions persist,” “Mayer goes missing,” “ ‘Who is this woman and what is she actually saying?’ ” and (gasp!) “In the middle of all this, a baby,” the piece reeks of sour grapes from those she bested.
Let’s look more closely at the charges in Carlson’s piece. “Absurd in her obsession with detail” is reminiscent of how people described Steve Jobs—positively. Here, though, it’s an insult, closely related to being “robotic” and “stuck up”—and when was the last time you heard either of these words applied to men?
She has “many enemies”—as opposed to every other successful CEO?
She is always “completely certain she [is] right”—as opposed to your typical brooding executive, plagued with self-doubt, who stays up all night reading Sartre?
And so on.
Steve Ballmer kept his executives happy at the expense of Microsoft’s stock price, company morale, and innovation. By trying to right Yahoo’s sunken ship, Mayer knows that deadwood must be cleared away from the top down. Nothing short of a total regime change will produce even the possibility of a Yahoo renaissance.
The deadwood takes offense. Take Mayer’s immediate predecessor as CEO, Ross Levinsohn. Carlson is bullish on Levinsohn: “By the end of June—really, just a few weeks—he’d accomplished a lot.” “Levinsohn’s allies across the media, advertising, and entertainment industries wrote Yahoo directors letters recommending him.” But who cares if Rupert Murdoch thinks Levinsohn should run Yahoo? It certainly doesn’t make up for Levinsohn buying MySpace and passing on Facebook.
Normally, there’s more of a corporate-world omerta against the trash-talking in Carlson’s piece. Executive casualties have patiently climbed the ranks and outflanked their peers; speaking out will brand you as a tattletale, so better to wait around for the next ship to sail and get another plush job. That doesn’t apply this time. Mayer is an outsider, and as long as the culture sees her as more of an outsider than the tattletales tattling on her, the code of honor is invalid. (Read your Erving Goffman.)
Mayer is an executive outsider not only as a woman but also as a techie. Her background is not in business or marketing, but in the actual guts of product development and management. This makes her far more of an outsider to business culture than women like Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman. Creative, technically oriented outsiders are founders, not corporate ladder-climbers: David Packard, Walt Disney, Ted Turner, Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and even Bill Gates.
At the time of Mayer’s arrival, many executives at Yahoo were corporate hacks, not technical types. For them, to be replaced by a technical woman is doubly threatening. If technical women can do the work of male businessmen, we might not need male businessmen anymore!
One of these male businessmen is Jim Heckman, another of Yahoo’s recent casualties—in the Business Insider piece, he’s described as Levinsohn’s “top dealmaker”: “Jim Heckman breaks glass. He’s squinty-eyed and caffeinated. He makes deals. He uses your first name. He quotes the comedian Daniel Tosh of Tosh.0.”
Jim Heckman knows a lot about sports. He is, according to evidence, a macho blowhard. He wanted Yahoo to be “like a cable TV provider.” He is your worst nightmare as a boss. He is also aggrieved by Mayer’s ascendancy, judging by the 500 words Carlson spends on his plan to ax the ad tech department and change Yahoo into a content provider, which led to Mayer firing him “within 24 hours.” (Since Carlson reports intimately on Heckman’s disastrous final meeting with Mayer, his source had to be one of the two. It sure wasn’t Mayer—it’s an “unauthorized biography”—so we might safely conclude it’s Heckman, which might account for Carlson’s unsuccessful attempt to portray Heckman as the victim of a culture clash.)
Another male businessman, former Yahoo executive Michael Katz, is also aggrieved, which is why he’s currently suing Yahoo for firing him while “celebrating the second night of Hanukkah.” (For those not familiar with the Jewish faith, that’s a bit like complaining about being fired while observing the 10th day of Christmas.)
And then when you read about yet another male businessman, the VP who publicly threatened to fire whoever had leaked some corporate presentation, you realize that Yahoo was stuffed to the gills with this sort of nonsense before Mayer arrived.
These aren’t incidental details. They speak exactly to the sort of people whom Mayer is deposing, and to why they certainly could never have saved Yahoo, just bled it dry while it withered. I suspect one of the final quotes in Carlson’s piece is dead-on: “If [Mayer] hadn’t come in, all the smart people would have left.”
Mayer faces a very difficult task with Yahoo, but she at least has a chance of success. In terms of comprehensive product vision, Mayer is as close to Steve Jobs as anyone in the tech world today. Buying Tumblr, for example, makes sense because she’s buying what Yahoo really needs and what Google does not have: a sticky, entrenched social user base. The world values Steve Jobs and Marissa Mayer more than it does the likes of Steve Ballmer and John Sculley.
So do the rank and file. That’s why “[j]ust a few weeks in, Yahoo employee morale and productivity hit a high not seen in a decade,” as Carlson writes. Mayer was so much better than what had gone before that the receding tide of corporate imbecility was itself enough to elevate her to savior status.
As to why Carlson buries that lede, I can’t say. After 5,000 or 6,000 words, Carlson gets around to portraying Mayer as effective and driven, but most people will have stopped reading long before that point. That does Mayer a greater disservice than her “controversial” decision to have her picture taken for a magazine.
There was one interesting thing I learned from Carlson’s article: Mayer was inspired in high school when she read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with a great teacher. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know it’s about a wary ingénue in the corridors of corporate and imperial power who encounters a grotesque, power-mad egomaniac with delusions of grandeur, who has set up a personality cult around himself despite having deserved nothing of what he’d come into in his career, until he is overthrown by the “brutes” he’d attempted to control and suppress.
Remember that the next time you read a business-press takedown of Mayer.