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Marissa Mayer's burden

Mayer’s pose was controversial because she 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.

Vogue

Mayer’s pose was controversial because she 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.

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. 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 a 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," 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.

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.

At the time of Mayer's arrival, many executives at Yahoo were corporate hacks, not technical types. For them, to be replaced by a technical woman is doubly threatening. If technical women can do the work of male businessmen, we might not need male businessmen anymore! The people Mayer is deposing certainly could never have saved Yahoo. I suspect one of the final quotes in Carlson's piece is dead-on: "If Mayer hadn't come in, all the smart people would have left."

Mayer faces a very difficult task with Yahoo, but she at least has a chance of success. In terms of comprehensive product vision, Mayer is as close to Steve Jobs as anyone in the tech world today. Buying Tumblr, for example, makes sense because she's buying what Yahoo really needs and what Google does not have: a sticky, entrenched social user base. The world values Steve Jobs and Marissa Mayer more than it does the likes of Steve Ballmer and John Sculley. So do the rank and file.

There was one interesting thing I learned from Carlson's article: Mayer was inspired in high school when she read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness with a great teacher. If you've read the book, you'll know it's about a wary ingénue in the corridors of corporate and imperial power who encounters a grotesque, power-mad egomaniac with delusions of grandeur, who has set up a personality cult around himself despite having deserved nothing of what he'd come into in his career, until he is overthrown by the "brutes" he'd attempted to control and suppress. Remember that the next time you read a business press takedown of Mayer.

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer based in New York.

© 2013 Slate

Marissa Mayer's burden 08/29/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 4, 2013 2:07pm]
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