Marissa Mayer Is in Over Her Head at Yahoo—and That’s Just How She Likes It

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July 17 2012 6:05 PM

Marissa Mayer Is in Over Her Head

That’s just how Yahoo’s new CEO likes it.

Marissa Mayer
Marissa Mayer is leaving Google to become the new CEO of Yahoo.

Photograph by Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images.

One evening in the spring of 1999, Marissa Mayer got a recruiting email from a tiny search company. “I was in a long-distance relationship at the time, so I was pathetically eating a bad bowl of pasta in my dorm room by myself on a Friday night,” she once told me. Mayer was then a computer science graduate student at Stanford, and she’d been getting bombarded with offers from some of the world’s biggest tech firms. “I remember I’d told myself, ‘New emails from recruiters—just hit delete.’ ” But Mayer found Google interesting. She’d heard about the firm from one of her professors, and her graduate work—she’d been building a recommendation algorithm for Web pages—meshed with the company’s technological aims.

On the day Mayer interviewed at Google, the company only had seven employees. Most of them were software engineers, and all of the engineers were men. Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, saw that Mayer would fit right in to the geeky boys' club (during the interview, they all chatted about a data-analysis method known as k-means clustering), and they quickly offered her a job. Mayer, though, wasn’t instantly sold.

“I had to think really hard about how to choose between job offers,” she said. Mayer approached the choice analytically. Over spring break, she studied the most successful choices in her life to figure out what they had in common. “I looked across very diverse decisions—everything from deciding where to go to school, what to major in, how to spend your summers—and I realized that there were two things that were true about all of them,” she said. “One was, in each case, I’d chosen the scenario where I got to work with the smartest people I could find. … And the other thing was I always did something that I was a little not ready to do. In each of those cases, I felt a little overwhelmed by the option. I’d gotten myself in a little over my head.”

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After weighing her options, Mayer chose Google. After an amazingly successful 13 years with the company, where she oversaw the look and feel of some of the company’s most high-profile products, she’s decided to move on. On Monday, Mayer announced that she’s going to become the new CEO of Yahoo. (She also revealed that she’s pregnant.)

Deciding to lead Yahoo certainly is in line with Mayer’s second requirement for successful decisions—she’s got to feel more than a little overwhelmed by taking on the Web’s most chronically troubled company. The problem has to do with the first of Mayer’s life-choice criteria. Though a lot of smart people have moved through its ranks in the past—and certainly many brilliant people still work there—Yahoo has never been the smartest company in tech.

Yahoo’s problem in recent years has been that it’s never been the best at anything. Rather than trying to define itself, the company has flitted from one new Web fad to another. First it was an online directory, then a search engine, then a portal, then a media company, then briefly a Web 2.0 social-networking juggernaut, then a social-powered media company—and for the last couple years, it’s been all of those things at once. Its fortunes waxed and waned with the ad market and the particular interests of its many leaders, but Yahoo never found an answer to the first question any company has to answer: Why do we exist? What problem are we trying to solve? If she wants to attract the tech world’s smartest people to Yahoo, Mayer first has to figure out what it should do.

I don’t have a lot of confidence that she can pull that off—not because I doubt Mayer’s abilities but because the problem looks impossible. Tech turnarounds are rare. When companies hit the skids, they usually stay there. The only recent exception is Apple, and Apple’s story isn’t easily replicated. In 1996, when Steve Jobs returned to the company he founded, he remade it from the ground up—he killed dozens of superfluous products and began working on brand-new initiatives that would eventually pay off big. The key word there is “eventually.” Because no one expected much of Apple, and because it could always count on a loyal fan base, the company survived on many years of middling returns before Jobs’ big initiatives paid off.

But Mayer doesn’t have the same leeway at Yahoo. There’s certainly room to cut a lot of fat—look at all these dozens of pointless products, from Yahoo! Education to Yahoo! Notepad to Yahoo! Wallet—but in a hypercompetitive advertising market, she’ll be expected to come up with killer products to replace what she cuts, and she’ll be expected to do it quickly. (If she kills without creating new things, Yahoo’s ad business will suffer, its stock price will fall, and it will have a hard time hanging on to its primary asset: its workers.)

Coming up with killer Web apps is not easy, and not a task that Mayer had much experience with at Google. Mayer’s most prominent role was as the czar of the firm’s user experience—for most of the company’s history, decisions regarding Google’s Web design flowed through her. In keeping with Google’s culture, she tried to synthesize her own sense of style—she’s a fan of bright Marimekko prints, and she once commissioned glass artist Dale Chihuly to build an enormous, vibrant sculpture for the ceiling of her San Francisco apartment—with Google’s reliance on data. Once, when her team couldn’t decide on which shade of blue to use, they decided to test users’ reactions to 41 different blues. This didn’t sit well with traditional-minded designers at the firm, and it suggests a level of cautiousness that one doesn’t associate with carefree innovation.

At Yahoo, Mayer won’t be able to rely on data to come up with the next big thing. But that gets to her big strength: More than any other tech executive, she is an enthusiastic, shameless consumer, the sort of person who can easily identify with what regular people, not software engineers or media execs, want from the Web. When you ask other Googlers to talk about her strengths, you’ll always hear some version of, “Marissa is the voice of the user.” That’s a perspective that Yahoo has long been missing. For years, the company has operated to please advertisers, partners, and internal bureaucracies, and it has forgotten about users in the process.

And even while I have severe doubts that Mayer will be able to turn Yahoo around, I’m excited to see what she can do with the place. Yahoo has long been headed for failure. Now, at least, it will be an interesting failure, not a depressing one.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.