It’s a Product Manager’s World. We Just Live in It.

Decoding the tech world.
Dec. 11 2013 3:56 PM

The Age of the Product Manager

Marissa Mayer’s “flaws” are part of what makes her a new, better kind of CEO.

Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer speaks at the opening of the Microsoft Center Berlin on Nov. 7, 2013. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer speaks at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit on Oct. 17, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Ballmer by Adam Berry/Getty Images; Photo of Mayer by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Fortune

A new Vanity Fair profile of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer describes someone who is not a manager of people so much as a manager of ideas. As a Google product manager and later executive, Mayer was credited with enforcing a rigid vision across Google’s user-facing properties; she became the linchpin of integration between products, and she kept tabs on every engineer and designer, high and low. She is also accused of being stubbornly single-minded, ignoring others’ opinions, disrespecting seniority and prestige, and being more focused on vision than on necessary compromises or Yahoo’s quarterly earnings.

David Auerbach David Auerbach

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer based in New York. His website is http://davidauerba.ch.

Mayer is far from perfect, but you will never find a great product manager with all those strengths and none of those weaknesses. In the case of someone like Mayer or Steve Jobs—who was accused of many of the same flaws—those strengths and weaknesses make for far better results than the executive alternative, whether it’s a corporate hatchet woman like HP’s Carly Fiorina, an overpaid functionary like Citi’s Vikram Pandit, or an unrepentant economy wrecker like Lehman’s Dick Fuld, not to mention undistinguished wheel tillers like Apple’s John Sculley and his current reincarnation, Tim Cook. Whatever Mayer does with Yahoo, she at least has a fighting chance to revive the company, something that could never have been said of her predecessors.

Mayer’s approach is not so different from that of Jobs. Though a CEO, Jobs had a far greater involvement in the creative side of Apple than his counterparts did, and Apple’s boom came with Jobs combining a high-level vision with concrete ideas about user experience and design. Jobs had excellent programmers, excellent designers, and excellent raw technology. But unless you can coordinate and reconcile many individual visions, large-scale projects will drown in competing agendas and the incompatible ideas of people on different teams. Many sources have stressed how intimately involved Mayer has been in the details of the user experience both at Google and Yahoo, which often frustrated individual contributors. In his own profile of Mayer, Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson saw this style of comprehensive product management as a defect, but the truth is quite the opposite. Her confidence and meticulousness are far more valuable than the business connections of the overentitled, macho executives she replaced.

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Jobs and Mayer are exceptionally visible figures and not representative of a typical high-quality PM, but I want to draw attention to how their most valuable skills have very little to do with the traditional values people associate with an executive. Their skills came from working in the trenches, not in boardrooms.

In fact, Google has acted as an incubator for many product managers who have gone on to be major forces in the tech world—not just Mayer, but Bret Taylor (Google Maps co-creator and later CTO of Facebook), Paul Buchheit (a lead developer of Gmail and Google AdSense, and now a partner at Y Combinator), and Emily White (incoming COO of Snapchat). And Mayer was integral in nurturing that talent as founder of Google’s Associate Product Manager program, which Wired called “an incubation system for tech rock stars”—including Taylor, who was one of Google's early APMs.

The product manager ideally does not take credit for the deep skills of the people with whom she works. Instead, she works as a peer to draw the necessary connections between them and keep them in sync. She pays attention to the existing self-organization of small groups of smart people and sympathetically exerts soft power to try to leverage their skills on a larger scale, without wrecking what they already do well. She does not build from the ground up, but helps fit pieces together—horizontally. (This less dominant, more agile approach—call it “peer-to-peer managing”—may be part of why teams with more women seem to have higher collective intelligence.)

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