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.