Sunday, April 26, 2015

Searching for Marissa Mayer

by Drew Martin
If you are artistic and creative, and would not touch an MBA-type with a ten-foot-pole but still want to get some insight on the business world, then I would recommend picking up a copy of Fast Company. It has a personal side to the people who get ideas rolling into working businesses. On the cover of the May 2015 issue is a flawless picture of Marissa Mayer, the computer engineer who became the 20th employee at Google, and who is now the CEO of Yahoo!

Yahoo! won me over back in the day with their "quilting" commercial. In it a punk rocker is having some alone time in his band's practice room. We see him peacefully quilting until his three other band members walk in on him and start hysterically laughing. The next scene we see him searching "clubs" on Yahoo! and a moment later we see him on the porch of a southern mansion, quilting with fawning southern belles. As a guy who sews, it hit home, and it also captured what new communities the world wide web was forming at that time.

Yahoo! was good but then Google came along and buried it. I still have and use my original Yahoo! email address. I have two actually. I also have a couple Gmail accounts but I use my Yahoo! more for some reason.

So I have seen Yahoo! rise and fall, rise and fall. A lot of people have liked kicking it when its down, and predict its ultimate demise with or without Mayer on board. To sum up the Fast Company article, Mayer has done a stellar job, and the company has been catching up. Through their push for native apps, they have created a few nice to have but not need to have products.

I had never heard Mayer speak so I decided to do some catch-up myself. First I watched her keynote speech at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It was awkward, stiff and most things fell flat. But then I followed that with a video posted in 2006 of her speaking to a small group at Stanford
, her Alma Mater, and it was fascinating. She is a clear, articulate, and intelligent speaker. Her Finnish (mom's side) pixie features are contrasted by a wacky laugh and a raspy voice that sometimes approaches Marge Simpson. Then I watched a 2012 interview with her by NPR correspondent Laura Sydell. In it she is just as fascinating to watch. When you hear her speak you know she got to where she is through her intellect, and hard work. Although she started out at Stanford to become a pediatric neurosurgeon, she ended up getting a BS, and then an MS in computer science for artificial intelligence by focusing on symbolic systems. 

Mayer is a minimal sleeper and says shes used to pull an all-nighter once a week when she worked at Google. I appreciate her ability to keep a focused conversation on track. Multiple times Sydell tries to get her to speak about her female experience, and women in coding, but Mayer doesn't grant that angle. Instead, she talks about the need to have more coders and diversity in general, and talks about being gender blind. Likewise, she prefers the "clause" be dropped when others speak about her own achievements.

When asked about burnout, Mayer offers that she thinks burnout is really more about resentment, and she would rather focus on rhythm than work-life balance, and gives a few examples from her experiences where she had to deal with this issue as a manager.

Despite being turned off by the CES Vegas speech, I looked into a couple of the apps discussed and installed some of them on my phone. Yahoo! Weather is quite brilliant actually because it pulls from their acquired Flickr database to serve up locally relevant images for the city locations, and gives credit to the photographer. Their reasoning is obvious; so you can take a look at recent images from that location, but I think people use weather searches for more social reasons, such as getting a bit closer to someone in a far away location. I have done this even when the weather report was just the high and low numbers. With the images of that place, it makes it that much more intimate.

The other app I downloaded is Yahoo! News Digest. It is a really slick and cool approach to serving up news. It shows seven or more stories, with additional reads and sources tucked nicely into the design. When you finish with the string of stories, a completion dial satisfyingly fills up and you are left with a takeaway quote. The stories are loaded/refreshed every morning and evening. I just went through tonight's articles and was left with the following quote from the photographer Diane Arbus, "Taking pictures is savoring life intensely every hundredth of a second."

While some people struggle to make connections between art and science, Mayer embraces the synthesis. Her mother is an art teacher and her father is an engineer. She sees her career as a continuing combination of those two fields, and encourages the serendipitous collision of ideas to create what she calls the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Effect. After spending some virtual time finding out more about Mayer I second the Fast Company heading Don't Count Yahoo Out - How CEO Marissa Mayer Will Defy Her Critics.