Marissa Mayer: Queen of Silicon Valley

Marissa Mayer's technological prowess has shone through from childhood to her Stanford years. Her work at Google and Yahoo makes her one of the greatest innovators of our time

At the age of 39, Marissa Mayer has achieved more than most dream of, having worked her way up from the ranks of Google to the boardroom of Yahoo

Marissa Mayer’s technological prowess has shone through from childhood to her Stanford years. Her work at Google and Yahoo makes her one of the greatest innovators of our time

Marissa Mayer is a rock star. At just 39, the $300m CEO has already conquered a dynamic and growing industry. Mayer earned her stripes at industry behemoth Google. She signed on in 1999 as its first female engineer, and went on to take charge of the look and feel of its most important products. She was a significant presence at the company, and ensured her staff churned out product after product to keep Google ahead of the competition. She also implemented many of the corporate governance methods that established the search engine as a global business leader.

With a CV like that, it’s little wonder struggling rival Yahoo so desperately sought out Mayer’s help in 2012, when it lured her away from Google with one of the largest pay packages in Silicon Valley’s history. Ever since the dotcom bubble burst, former industry leader Yahoo has struggled to negotiate the various identities and roles of an online portal. Yahoo wasn’t quite sure what kind of company it wanted to be, and while its executives spent the better part of a decade trying to decide strategy, the $34bn firm’s best and brightest moved on to greener pastures. Google, Facebook and Apple all surpassed Yahoo by ploughing billions into R&D, acqui-hires and major startup deals. With that in mind, Mayer’s unenviable task has not only been to help Yahoo regain pole position in the tech world, but also to repair its broken corporate culture.

Marissa Mayer CV

Born
May 30, 1975
(Wissau, Wisconsin)

Education
BS in Symbolic Systems
(Stanford University, 1999)
MS in Computer Science
(Stanford University, 1999)
Honorary Doctorate
(Illinois Institute of Technology, 2009)

Experience
1999: Google (Engineer, Designer, Product Manager and VP)
2012: Yahoo (CEO)

A smart bet
The product of an idyllic, small-town American upbringing, it’s fair to say Marissa Mayer never expected to be tasked with rescuing one of the globe’s biggest tech giants. Throughout her youth, Mayer was dismissed as shy and antisocial. Yet the small-town Wisconsin girl wasn’t afraid to showcase her deep affinity for maths and science. After making her way to Stanford, Mayer excelled at philosophy, and decided to devote much of her time to the study of symbolic systems – which has since become a mandatory course for any aspiring Silicon Valley technician. She went on to earn a Masters in Computer Science, with a specialisation in artificial intelligence, interning along the way for UBS’ research lab in Zurich and landing no less than 14 job offers fresh out of grad school. The majority of those offers came from well-established and respected R&D firms. Instead, Mayer decided to bet on a scruffy start-up called Google.

When Larry Page and Sergey Brin convinced Mayer to join Google, the fledgling company had just 19 employees. She was interviewed across a ping-pong table the firm used for conferences, and agreed to sign on to lead its user interface and web server teams. She was Google’s first female engineer. Yet Mayer was confident she was surrounding herself with the best and brightest, and that Google had the ability to really take off – but only if the firm’s tiny team was willing to put in the work.

During her first two years at Google, Mayer regularly worked 100-hour weeks overseeing the site’s aesthetics. She found a niche as the guardian of Google’s characteristically crisp and clean user format. She obsessed over pixels and colour shades, and placed the consumer experience above all else. Her name ended up on the patents for some of Google’s most important products – and by 2005, her work had seen company’s search numbers skyrocket from a few hundred thousand per day to over a billion. Mayer was promoted and handed full control over the look and feel of Google’s heart and soul: its search engine.

Yahoo by numbers

1995

Founded

12,200

Full-time employees

84%

Rise in income, Q1 2014

$4.67bn

Annual revenue (2013)

$3.33bn

Gross annual profit (2013)

$35.7bn

Market capitalisation

Perhaps more significant than Mayer’s product contributions, however, were the corporate policies she implemented to help develop the culture at Google. Mayer turned heads and broke corporate precedent by negating middle managers and working directly with the lowly Googlers who were actually pushing the buttons. She also singlehandedly drafted a mentoring programme that’s since become a gold standard among tech firms: the APM scheme. Each year, Mayer handpicked a number of junior employees for the programme, which would see them take on a number of extracurricular assignments and intensive evening classes. The scheme helped Google cultivate its own in-house talent, and has since assisted over 300 engineers advance into leadership roles across the company. Meanwhile, to ensure her new managers possessed a true understanding of the company’s target audience, Mayer decided to recreate the technological circumstances of Google users throughout the office. Mayer refused to install broadband until the majority of American homes had done so, for example, and carried an iPhone because that was the globe’s most popular. She religiously charted every interaction between users and their Google products, and used that data to aggressively redesign seemingly minute aspects of the site and its thousands of apps. Her fierce attention to detail would go on to drive countless designers into the ground; however, Google’s rising popularity justified every strenuous peculiarity.

After Google went public, Mayer and her colleagues became rich overnight – and the media started taking an extreme interest in the tech firm’s leading lady. She was a different kind of tech boss. She wasn’t ashamed of flashing her cash, and was a bright, young female face in a sea of stereotypically unassuming men. Newsweek named her one of the ‘10 Tech Leaders of the Future’. Business 2.0 put her on its ‘Silicon Valley Dream Team’, and Red Herring called her one of ‘15 Women to Watch’. She clawed her way up every single list at Forbes, and by the end of the decade, Mayer had even nailed the cover of Vogue. Yet as Mayer’s public profile blossomed, she was about to suffer a lateral career move at Google that would go on to set the stage for her departure.

Searching for a hero
As the head of Google Product Search, Mayer was in charge of the company’s flagship product. Yet due to a convoluted set of circumstances (both personal and professional), in 2010 she was moved by then-CEO Eric Schmidt to head the firm’s local and geographical products instead. From the outside looking in, it certainly appeared to be a demotion. She was no longer reporting directly to the CEO’s inner circle, nor was she in charge of Google’s single-largest product. Yet Mayer has retrospectively described the perceived slight as a vital “learning experience”.

In her old post, she had supervised 250 product managers; now, she had over 1,100, and oversaw 20 percent of Google’s total headcount. Her teams were responsible for rolling out immensely popular products like Google Earth, Google Maps and Street View.

She also learned how to handle acquisitions. In 2011, she secured Google’s 10th-largest ever deal when she purchased survey site Zagat for $125m. What’s more, the acquisition inadvertently changed Google’s modus operandi, in that the portal no longer merely wanted to curate information – Google wanted to own it.

Major acquisitions since Mayer’s appointment

$10m

Snip.it (Social Network), Jan 2013

$30m

Summly (News), March 2013

$1.1bn

Tumblr (Blogging), May 2013

$50m

Qwiki (Video production), July 2013

$40m

Xobni (CRM), July 2013

Yet while Google was beginning to solidify its position as the globe’s leading tech firm, former ironclad Yahoo was taking on water faster than ever. At the end of the 1990s, Yahoo was the globe’s leading point of entry onto the web. Shares peaked at $118.75, and the giant scooped up every start-up it could get its hands on. Then, the dotcom bubble went splat. Suddenly, investors couldn’t stomach the idea of a company that did little more than curate a catalogue of risky ventures – and by the end of 2001, shares in Yahoo had plummeted to a worth of just over $8. As investment disappeared, so did the innovation. Board members failed to resolve the company’s various conflicting identities as a web tool and media source, and by 2011, a decade of reactionary management had all but doomed Yahoo to extinction. Yet for all the company’s faults, one particular investor still saw a glimmer of hope.

Third Point’s Daniel Loeb has always been an infamously active investor; therefore, when the fund manager decided to swim against the tide by purchasing a five percent stake in Yahoo in 2011, everyone knew he must be up to something. Most analysts struggled to work out just what it was Loeb saw in the criminally mismanaged company. Yet Loeb reckoned there were two massive advantages Yahoo was still clinging hold of: a 700 million-strong user base, and a blossoming investment in Asian e-commerce giant Alibaba. With a 24 percent stake in the firm (worth an estimated $10bn), Loeb seemed to think there was something in Yahoo worth saving. He went on to engage in an aggressive letter-writing campaign that saw him and fellow fund managers added onto the board, while convincing them to fire their fourth CEO in as many years. Loeb said he wanted to find a chief that would place more emphasis upon the cutting-edge products users so-craved. That’s exactly what he found.

A new hope
After some aggressive courting, Marissa Mayer was named Yahoo’s new CEO in July 2012. Shockwaves echoed throughout the valley, and analysts mockingly tallied up the laundry list of problems she’d have to address.

As Mayer strode into Yahoo’s world headquarters for her first day of work, she was brutally frank with her new colleagues. She told them Yahoo was going to shut its doors for good within just a few years if it didn’t turn around soon. It wasn’t just a lack of innovation Mayer was battling, but also a broken culture. Things had gotten lax at the firm’s offices. Car parks didn’t fill up until after 10am, and they were empty again by 4pm. She started by conducting top-to-bottom meetings with all of the company’s leaders. She scrutinised everything and everyone, and axed all of the deals former board members had pursued. She began hiring new faces – including former Google colleague Henrique De Castro as her new COO, and a private equity investor named Jacqueline Reses as her new HR head. Start-up exec Kathy Savitt was brought on as CMO, and the old guard were slowly pushed out. Mayer had her team in place; now, she had to get results.

Fortune 10 most powerful women in business, 2013

1 Ginni Rometty – Chairman, President and CEO, IBM
2 Indra Nooyi – Chairman and CEO, PepsiCo
3 Ellen Kullman – Chairman and CEO, DuPont
4 Marillyn Hewson – CEO and President, Lockheed Martin
5 Sheryl Sandberg – COO, Facebook
6 Irene Rosenfield – Chairman and CEO, Mondelez
7 Pat Woertz – Chairman, President and CEO, Archer Daniels Midland
8 Marissa Mayer – President and CEO, Yahoo!
9 Meg Whitman – CEO, HP
10 Abigail Johnson – President, Fidelity Investments

Mayer’s change in direction started with the sale of some $7.6bn worth of stock in Alibaba. With cash in hand, the straight-talking CEO then turned to acquisitions. In her first 12 months, Mayer’s team spent over $100m on 21 companies. Later, in a particularly bold move, Mayer would go on to snatch popular blog site Tumblr for a whopping $1.1bn. Analysts hailed the move as a shift in industrial strategy, illustrating a newly placed emphasis on the prospect of user-powered ad revenues rather than an acquisition’s turnarounds.

In the midst of all that, Mayer also gave birth to a baby boy. But even the joys of motherhood couldn’t distract the CEO from the job she’d been hired to do. Mayer knocked down a wall in her office, had a nursery built and was back on the job within a fortnight. By the end of 2013, the firm was reporting a steady rise in profits. Yahoo share prices more than doubled, and the site is now racking up more web traffic than upstart Google for the first time in years. Engineers have adorned Yahoo offices with Obama-like posters that feature Mayer’s face above the word “hope”, and car parks are filled to the brim from 6am to 6pm. It appears the dying firm has found its salvation.

In April, a victorious Mayer announced that Yahoo had seen a remarkable 84 percent rise in income since 2013. “The company had finally returned to growth,” she said. Yet critics are still split over whether her long-term strategy will ultimately guide Yahoo out of the dark ages. After all, two years after taking the helm, it would be extremely naïve to assert Mayer’s performance at Yahoo has been flawless. She may be a woman of power, but she’s been heavily criticised for her lack of support in helping other women break through the glass ceiling of her industry’s heavily male-dominated hierarchy. Meanwhile, her cold, calculated style has continued to chase some of Yahoo’s most talented engineers into the arms of rivals like Google and Facebook.

Start-ups and the boom-and-bust nature of the web still pose enigmatic problems for Mayer’s company, and investors are still unsure whether Yahoo will be worth the sum of all its parts after Alibaba goes ahead with its impending IPO. Yet for all of the trials and tribulations Yahoo will undeniably face in the years to come, one simple fact cannot be denied: without Mayer, there probably wouldn’t be a Yahoo anymore. She was tasked with the impossible job of resurrecting the Titanic; but if she keeps playing smart, she might actually do it.

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