On the morning of Thursday, July 12, 2012, Yahoo’s interim CEO, Ross Levinsohn, still believed he was going to be named permanent CEO of the company.
He had just one meeting to go.
That meeting was a board meeting to be held that day in a large conference room on the first floor of Yahoo’s Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters. Yahoo called the room “Phish Food” — a funky room with lots of glass and white leather couches and chairs.
The agenda for the meeting: Levinsohn was going to brief the directors on his plan for Yahoo, should he be named permanent CEO.
Levinsohn walked into the room; all of his top executives followed.
There was Jim Heckman, Levinsohn’s top dealmaker, who’d spent months negotiating a huge deal with Microsoft. There was Shashi Seth, Yahoo’s top product management executive, already planning a long-needed update to Yahoo Mail and the Yahoo homepage. There was chief financial officer Tim Morse, who’d just completed a critical, company-saving deal to sell a portion of Yahoo subsidiary Alibaba. There was Mickie Rosen, a News Corp. veteran whom Levinsohn had hired to run Yahoo’s media business. And there was Mollie Spillman, whom he’d just made CMO.
Heckman, Seth, Morse, Rosen, Spillman, and handful of others sat off to the side.
All of them believed that the meeting was a formality — that Levinsohn was going to get the job.
They had good reason to be confident. For the two months prior, the chairman of Yahoo’s board, Fred Amoroso, had made it clear that he was going to do everything he could to make sure Levinsohn and his team would be running the company for the foreseeable future.
Amoroso told Levinsohn this in private. He told Yahoo employees this during an all-hands meeting in May. He’d even joined a sales call to express support for Levinsohn to Yahoo advertisers — an oddly hands-on move for a chairman.
In June, Amoroso helped Levinsohn recruit a high-profile Google executive named Michael Barrett into Yahoo. During the recruiting process, Amoroso promised Barrett that Levinsohn’s “interim” title was only temporary — that it was safe to leave Google.
Levinsohn had another reason to be hopeful: For the past few months, he’d been speaking with two of Yahoo’s most important new directors, Dan Loeb and Michael Wolf, almost every day. As important as it was for Levinsohn to have Amoroso’s support, he needed Loeb’s more. Loeb ran a hedge fund called Third Point, which owned more than 5 percent of Yahoo and had, only months before, forced the resignation of Yahoo’s previous CEO. Wolf was an important ally for Levinsohn to have, too. Wolf, a former president of MTV, was consulting for Third Point on media investments when Loeb asked him to join the Yahoo board and lead its search committee for a new CEO.
Levinsohn began his presentation. It was going to be a doozy, as he planned to seriously alter the direction of Yahoo.
He wanted it to stop competing with technology businesses like Google and Microsoft and focus entirely on competing with media and content businesses like Disney, Time Warner, and News Corporation. As part of this transition, Levinsohn wanted to spin off, sell, or shut down several Yahoo business units. He said doing so would reduce Yahoo’s head count by as many as 10,000 employees, and increase its earnings before taxes and interest by as much as 50 percent.
In fact, Levinsohn announced during his presentation that he and his team had already started down this road.
Levinsohn told the board that, under his direction, Heckman had begun negotiating a deal with Microsoft to exchange Yahoo’s search business for Microsoft’s portal, MSN.com, and large payments in cash. Levinsohn and Heckman had also been talking with Google executive Henrique De Castro about turning over some of Yahoo’s advertising inventory. There was also talk of unloading some of Yahoo’s enterprise-facing advertising-technology businesses into a joint venture involving New York-based ad tech startup AppNexus.
It was during this part of his presentation that Levinsohn began to feel the permanent Yahoo CEO job slipping away.
Others in the room got the same sinking feeling.
Wolf, the man in charge of the committee tasked with hiring a permanent CEO, began to question the wisdom of the deal.
Wolf asked, in a loud voice with a sharp tone, “I understand why this is good for Microsoft, but why is it good for Yahoo?”
Harry Wilson, another director brought onto the board by Loeb, joined Wolf in his criticism of the deal as “short-sighted.”
Their cross-examination of the deal eventually boiled down to one question: Had Levinsohn and Heckman made any irreversible commitments to either Microsoft or Google?
It was obvious to several people in the room that Wolf and Wilson wanted to make sure another candidate for the CEO job would not be forced to follow through on a deal they had not negotiated.
This was a bad sign for Levinsohn’s candidacy.
But Wilson and Wolf’s loud complaints about the Microsoft deal weren’t the worst sign for Levinsohn’s chances; Loeb’s behavior during the meeting was.
Loeb is the suited, slick, and handsome Wall Street type. He wears his salt and pepper hair short and messy-on-purpose. He’s actually from Southern California, and sometimes he puts off a surfer vibe.
During Levinsohn’s presentation, Loeb looked bored. He wasn’t paying full attention. As the interim CEO talked, Loeb stood at the back of the room and played with his BlackBerry.
One person in the room remembers watching Loeb texting for a while and then, “during the most important part of the presentation,” getting up and going to the bathroom for ten minutes.
This person remembers thinking: “Oh, OK. Sorry, Ross, you’re not CEO anymore.”
After the meeting, Barrett, the Google executive Amoroso had helped Levinsohn poach, called Levinsohn to ask how it went. Levinsohn told him he no longer felt like he was getting the job.
But who was?
That night, Levinsohn flew to Sun Valley, Idaho, where investment bank Allen & Co. holds an annual retreat for big-name media and technology executives.
Over the weekend, Levinsohn played a guessing game with venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, Square CEO Jack Dorsey, and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. With each of them, Levinsohn and the other Silicon Valley bigwigs ran through a long list of names, trying to figure out who might be getting the job Levinsohn had so hoped for. For each name they came up with, they came up with a persuasive reason why that person could not be it.
Whom had Wolf and Loeb so clearly already decided on?
Finally, late Sunday night, Levinsohn got a call from a friend of his at Google.
This person asked: Had Levinsohn heard that Marissa Mayer had interviewed for the Yahoo job the Wednesday prior?
Levinsohn realized everything all at once.
Levinsohn now knew who Yahoo’s next CEO would be.
Soon, so would everyone else.
On Monday, July 16, four days after Levinsohn’s last board meeting, Yahoo made it official: Thirty-seven-year-old Marissa Mayer was Yahoo’s new CEO.
The board had indeed already made Mayer an offer by the time Levinsohn went into that final meeting to present his plan for Yahoo.
After the news broke in public, Levinsohn admitted to friends that he was disappointed. He had really wanted the job, and believed he would have done very well with it. He also felt bad for the team he put in place, who would now have to report to an unfamiliar leader.
But Levinsohn was also at peace. If he had to lose out to someone, at least he lost out to an icon.
There is no one else in the world like Marissa Mayer.
Now 38 years old, she is a wife, a mother, an engineer, and the CEO of a 30-billion-dollar company. She is a woman in an industry dominated by men. In a world where corporations are expected to serve shareholders before anyone else, she is obsessed with putting the customer experience first.
Worth at least $300 million, she isn’t afraid to show off her wealth. Steve Jobs may have lived in a small, suburban home with an apple tree out front, but Marissa Mayer lives in the penthouse of San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel.
While rival CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Google wear flip-flops, hoodies, and T-shirts, Mayer wears Oscar De La Renta on the red carpet.
Mayer calls herself a geek, but she doesn’t look the part. With her blonde hair, blue eyes, and glamorous style, she has Hollywood-actress good looks.
Young, powerful, rich, and brilliant, Mayer is a role model for millions of women. And yet, unlike Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, Mayer resists calling herself a feminist. She even infuriated working mothers across the world when she banned Yahoo employees from working from home.
Widely admired by the public at large, Mayer has many enemies within her industry. They say she is robotic, stuck up, and absurd in her obsession with detail. They say her obsession with the user experience masks a disdain for the money-making side of the technology industry.
There is some truth to what they say.
And yet, a year after Mayer took over Yahoo, the company’s stock price was up 100 percent. Engineers wanted to work for Yahoo again. More importantly, so did sought-after startup CEOs like Tumblr founder David Karp, who agreed to sell his company to Yahoo for $1.1 billion.
Most CEOs of Mayer’s stature — people running multi-billion-dollar public companies the size of Yahoo — are gregarious, out-going types — the kind of person who might have been a politician if the world of business and money hadn’t beckoned. Baby-kissers. Back-slappers. Schmoozers. Mayer is not that type. Peers from every stage of her life — from her early childhood days to her first year at Yahoo — say Mayer is a shy, socially awkward person.
How in the world has she overcome such a disadvantage to rise so far, so fast?
To a public casually interested in her career, Mayer’s career before Yahoo — spent entirely at Google — is remembered as one success after another. It wasn’t.
Mayer started off at Google spectacularly well, designing its homepage, creating its product management structure, and becoming the face of the company. She became one of the most powerful people at one of the world’s most powerful companies.
But then, suddenly, her peers were promoted past her. Responsibility for the look and feel of Google’s entire suite of consumer-facing products, including the Google homepage, was taken away from her. She was moved to a less important product: Google Maps. She was removed from a council of executives that met with Google’s CEO. To industry insiders, this sudden change was a demotion for Mayer. Was it actually? If it was, why did it happen? How did Mayer recover?
Mayer’s move to the top of Yahoo during the summer of 2012 was a shock for almost everyone — including the people who convinced her to do it. How did the board pull it off?
Then there’s the biggest question about Mayer: Can she save Yahoo?
Marissa Ann Mayer was born on May 30, 1975 to parents Margaret Mayer, a Finnish art teacher and homemaker, and Michael Mayer, an environmental engineer.
She grew up in Wausau, Wis., with a sports-playing brother, Mason Mayer. It was a middle-class upbringing. She went to public schools and worked a summer job as a grocery clerk, but her family had enough time and money to enroll her in countless activities.
Most press photos of Mayer today show her on a stage, speaking with an interviewer in front of a large crowd or a TV audience. She’s usually wearing a designer dress — probably from her favorite designer, Oscar De La Renta — and looking strong, confident, and in charge of the moment.
But Mayer, now 38 years old, wasn’t always so larger-than-life. She describes the child and teenage version of herself as “painfully shy.”
Indeed, the Mayer you see in photos today is not the one remembered by the peers she grew up with in the small town of Wausau. For one, her style involved more T-shirts, sweaters, and jeans — nice clothes, but nothing flashy. And while Mayer has always presented well in front of an audience, her peers don’t remember her as extroverted or larger-than-life.
One of those peers is named Brian Jojade. He took Advanced Math with Mayer in 8th grade. He remembers Mayer as someone who hated social attention. Once, Jojade called the local radio station and told them it was Mayer’s birthday. He asked the DJ to read her name out on air. Jojade, who had a small crush on Mayer, figured hearing her name would make her laugh. It didn’t. “She wasn’t amused at all. You could just tell it wasn’t fun for her.”
Otherwise, Jojade’s overriding memory of Mayer is as the “professional” girl who sat in the front of the classroom and “always worked hard and made sure no matter what she was going to do, it was going to get done right.”
Mayer’s Wausau West High School classmate Elize Bazter says she best remembers Mayer as the girl who was “kind to everyone” but would dodge conversations on her way to go study somewhere else.
Wausau West had a class schedule system where, instead of periods, the day was broken up into 20-minute “mods.” Classes lasted for 40 minutes or an hour. That meant there were 20-minute breaks during everyone’s day. Bazter said most upperclassmen would use the time to congregate in the school’s commons.
“You could study,” says Bazter, “but mostly it was talking and eating and gathering with your friends.”
Not for teenage Marissa Mayer.
“She would be the person to come down, get something to eat from the kitchen or the vending machines, and then she would go to the library or the science lab to study. She wouldn’t be the one to stay and sit there and converse for 20 minutes.”
Bazter says the image she thinks of when she remembers Mayer is of her “in school, books in hand, walking down the hallway to do something else.”
None of this is to say that Mayer had a sad, lonely time growing up in Wausau. She didn’t. Mayer is fond of Wausau.
When she got married to a San Francisco banker named Zachary Bogue in 2009, she held two ceremonies: One was in California, and a second at her childhood church, Immanuel Lutheran in Wausau.
As a kid, Mayer’s peers in school had no idea what to make of her. Likewise, Mayer says she was “painfully shy” around them. But teachers? Teachers were Mayer’s kind of people.
In 2010, Mayer returned to her hometown to be inducted into the Wausau School District’s “Alumni Hall of Fame.” At a luncheon held in honor of her and 25 teachers retiring that year, Mayer gave a speech that the school district recorded in a video.
In the video, Mayer stands at a podium in a blue designer dress with a yellow corsage pinned on. She begins the speech by thanking her teachers, “each of whom changed my life forever.”
Then she begins to list her teachers by name. As she does — “… Mr. Freedly, Mrs. Stay, Mr. Flanagan …” — you can see on Mayer’s face how important these people were to her growing up. About six names in, the timbre of Mayer’s voice actually breaks toward a sob, and she has to catch herself with a breath and a small gulp. She can’t stop her eyes from swelling with held-back tears, though.
Most teenagers fondly recall sneaking into high school their senior year for a prank — setting chickens loose or toilet-papering the hallways. Mayer once snuck into her AP Lit teacher’s classroom to decorate it like a jungle because she was so inspired by the teacher’s lesson on “Heart of Darkness.”
Mayer’s fifth-grade teacher at Stettin Elementary, Wayne Flanagan, remembers that Mayer refused to leave his classroom the last day of that school year. She did not want to go to middle school.
She told Flanagan she was worried that she wouldn’t make it there, with all the new kids and teachers she’d have to meet.
Flanagan says Mayer the little girl was “a home person; she liked to be safe and know where she’s at.”
Flanagan, who says it was obvious even then how far Mayer would go, told the reluctant little girl, “Oh, I think you’re going to make it fine.”
Still, she wouldn’t go. Eventually Flanagan called Mayer’s mother to let her know where her daughter was.
Certainly the people Mayer spent most of her childhood with were a particular kind of nurturing, mentoring adult: coaches, teachers, counselors, and instructors.
As a little kid, she was in Brownies. She took piano lessons. She played volleyball and basketball. She went to swimming and skiing lessons. She took ballet for as many as 35 hours a week during middle school and high school. Her mother says ballet taught her “criticism and discipline, poise and confidence.”
In high school Mayer was also on the curling team. She was a “pompom” girl and a debater. She was on the precision dance team.
Mayer was so busy in part because her mother, Margaret Mayer, pushed her to be.
Flanagan, the fifth-grade teacher, says Mayer’s mother would frequently stop by school to check on her daughter’s progress. He says he “got to be good friends” with the Mayers. “They were concerned about her and that she was making the right progress. And she was. And she knew that — that her parents were supportive of her.”
In one way, Mayer owes her career to the relationships she was able to form with teachers.
Statistics show that many high school girls do not feel like they belong in math or science classes. In 2003, 84 percent of high schoolers who took the SAT and said they wanted to major in computer science were boys — obviously, that means just 16 percent were women.
Mayer says she never felt that bias at Wausau West.
“It wasn’t until I was a professional woman mentoring other girls in math and science that I learned that openly liking math and science is unusual for girls. It’s actually considered far too nerdy and far too much for the boys.
“Wausau schools were so supportive that I never felt strange for a second about pursuing math and science and being good in them.”
Mayer credits her teachers for helping her become less shy.
They did this by showing Mayer that she could “organize” more than just her backpack, desk, and homework — that she could organize people, as their leader.
Mayer’s childhood piano teacher, Joanne Beckman, remembers Mayer being very different from other children in that she was someone who “watched people” in order to “figure out why they were doing what they were doing.”
“A lot of kids that age are very interested in themselves,” Beckman says, “She was looking at other people.”
By “looking” at her teachers, figuring out why they were doing what they were doing, Mayer overcame her “painful” shyness with peers by taking on the teacher’s role.
Even when she was in fifth grade, Mr. Flanagan could see the pedagogical side of Mayer developing. He thought she would become a teacher someday.
In high school, Mayer took a leadership position in every club she joined. She became president of the Spanish club, treasurer of Key Club, and Captain of the debate team.
One of her closest friends from Wausau, Abigail Garvey Wilson, says, “When Marissa became captain of the pompom squad, she wasn’t in with that clique of girls, but she won them over in three ways.”
“First: sheer talent. Marissa could choreograph a great routine. Second: hard work. She scheduled practices lasting hours to make sure everyone was synchronized. And third: fairness. With Marissa in charge, the best dancers made the team.”
In 1993, Mayer applied to, and was accepted into, 10 schools, including Harvard, Yale, Duke, and Northwestern.
To decide which one she would go to, Mayer created a spreadsheet, weighing variables for each.
She picked Stanford. Her plan was to become a brain doctor — a profession that doesn’t draw much on the leadership traits Mayer was quickly developing.
But soon enough, Mayer would find herself once again overcoming her shyness by taking charge of a room full of peers, pushing them to work for hours.
Soon enough, she would find herself at the front of a Stanford classroom, interacting with people in the way that came most natural to her — teaching them.
Teaching was her calling.
The summer before Marissa Mayer went to Stanford, she began asking herself a question that would guide her through college and for the rest of her life.
What does Zune think?
That summer, Mayer attended the National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia. It was nerd heaven. Picture science labs housed in wooden cabins shaded by trees. Mayer especially loved one experiment where they mixed water and corn starch to make a sloppy goo-like substance that seemed to defy gravity.
One day, a post-doctoral student from Yale named Zune Nguyen spoke to the campers as a guest lecturer. He stunned all the smart kids in the room with puzzles and brainteasers. For days, the campers couldn’t stop talking about his talk.
Finally, one of Mayer’s counselors had enough.
“You know, you have it all wrong,” the counselor said to Mayer and the campers. “It’s not what Zune knows, it’s how Zune thinks.”
The counselor said that what made Nguyen so amazing wasn’t the facts that he knew, but rather how he approached the world and how he thought about problems. The counselor said the most remarkable thing about Nguyen was that you could put him in an entirely new environment or present him with an entirely new problem, and within a matter of minutes he would be asking the right questions and making the right observations.
From that moment on, the phrase: “It’s not what Zune knows, but how Zune thinks,” stuck with Mayer as a sort of personal guiding proverb.
In the fall, Mayer went to Stanford and began taking pre-med classes. She planned to become a doctor. But by the end of her freshman year, she was sick of it.
“I was just doing too many flashcards,” she says. “They were easy for me, but it was just a lot of memorization.”
She says she wanted to find a major “that really made me think” — that would train her to “think critically, and become a great problem-solver.” She also wanted to “study how people think, how they reason, how they express themselves.”
“I had this nagging voice in my head saying ‘It’s not what Zune knows, but how Zune thinks.’”
Mayer began to answer the voice in her head — and find a course of study that helped her learn how to think — when she took an introductory computer science class: CS105.
Mayer was engrossed by the challenge of programming — taking a problem and using her mind to solve it.
During the semester, she entered a class-wide design contest for extra credit. Calling on the same part of her brain that made her such an excellent pompom choreographer, Mayer made a screensaver featuring exploding fireworks. In a class of 300, Mayer came in second.
The design was good enough that Mayer’s CS105 professor, Eric Roberts, would also use an adaptation of the screen saver as an assignment for the next several years.
Roberts was also impressed enough with Mayer’s exploding fireworks that he invited her and a few other top finishers over for dinner at his house. He became her mentor, as once again, Mayer bonded with a teacher.
Mayer had also found her major.
Mayer opted for symbolic systems — a combination of disciplines straight out of Zune Nguyen’s head: Linguistics, philosophy, cognitive psychology, and computer science classes.
Symbolic systems has become a famous Stanford major in Silicon Valley. Besides Mayer, other alumni include LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; former senior vice president of iOS software at Apple, Scott Forstall; and Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger.
Mayer’s teacherly leadership streak came out in a big way when she took Philosophy 160A, then considered a “weed-out course” for prospective symbolic systems majors.
During Philosophy 160A, the students break into study groups of a half dozen or so students, and the groups are assigned problem sets. Mayer’s group — just like all the others — put off doing their problem sets until the day before they were due.
So that semester at Stanford was full of all-nighters for Mayer and her Philosophy 160A group.
Mayer ended up in a group that included Josh Elman, now a venture capitalist. Looking back on those study sessions, Elman remembers “times when people in the group were bouncing off the walls.”
He says, “Marissa was always like, ‘OK, back to work. Let’s get this done.’ She was focused on making sure we got the right answer quickly.”
“It felt like she was the smartest student in the room — and the most serious. You always knew those two things about her. Very smart. Very serious.”
The social dynamic of the group was typical for Mayer. As usual, she commanded the room — organized the group’s work in an all-business fashion — but was otherwise shy, and somewhat reclusive.
In the years ahead, this combination — Mayer’s willingness to be authoritative and demanding the way a teacher would, with a “painful” fear or reluctance of being personal — would cause problems for Mayer.
One Stanford classmate interpreted Mayer’s shyness as being “kind of stuck up.”
“She would do her work and then leave. When other people would stay and hang out and have pizza, she’d just be out of there because the work is done.”
Indeed, Mayer doesn’t seem to have had a very active social life in college.
One person who lived in her dorm said she appeared to always be “down to business” and “not much for socializing.”
“She wasn’t one of those people into making new friends around the dorm. She was always doing something more important than just chilling.”
The simplest explanation for Mayer’s social behavior at Stanford remains that Mayer was, as she has said many times, “painfully shy.”
Later at Stanford, Mayer found herself in a group setting that was less social, more comfortable, and more familiar for her. As an upperclassman in symbolic systems, she was tapped to teach a class.
She took to it naturally.
Computer science professor Eric Roberts, still Mayer’s mentor, supervised her teaching. He says she was “unusually good at it” and “extremely effective.”
After Mayer taught a course in the spring, Roberts took a survey of her students. The results were astounding: They loved her — even if she did sometimes talk “a mile a minute.”
Roberts asked Mayer to stick around Stanford to teach another class over the summer; she readily agreed.
“She loved teaching,” says Roberts.
Of course she did. Stanford students called her “stuck up” when they were her classmates. But when she was their teacher, they thought she was great.
Mayer excelled the rest of her years as an undergraduate at Stanford. After she got her bachelor’s degree, she stayed at the school to get a master’s in computer science, with a speciality in artificial intelligence.
As graduate school drew to a close, word got out about Mayer’s teaching ability.
She soon faced a choice.
Should she become a teacher, and step full time into a role that had always suited her so well?
Or should she challenge herself and work somewhere in the technology industry?
Taking A 2 percent Chance On Google
When people ask Mayer why she joined Google after getting her masters in symbolic systems at Stanford, she likes to tell them her “Laura Beckman story.” It’s about the daughter of her middle school piano teacher, Joanne Beckman.
Mayer begins: “Laura tried out for the volleyball team her junior year at high school. At the end of the tryouts, she was given a hard choice: bench on varsity, or start on JV.
“Most people, when they’re faced with this choice, would choose to play - and they'll pick JV. Laura did the opposite. She chose varsity, and she benched the whole season.
“But then an amazing thing happened. Senior year she tried out and she made varsity as a starter, and all the JV starters from the previous year benched their whole senior year.
“I remember asking her: ‘How did you know to choose varsity?’
“And she said, ‘I just knew that if I got to practice with the better players every day, I would become a much better player, even if I didn’t get to play in any of the games.’”
The moral of Mayer’s story is that it’s always better to surround yourself with the best people so that they will challenge you and you will grow.
“My quest to find, and be surrounded by, smart people is what brought me to Google,” she says.
And that’s the overriding reason why Mayer joined Google. But quests for self-improvement aside, it’s also true that Mayer almost missed her chance to join the company that would make her rich and powerful someday.
Late on a Friday in mid-April of her last year at Stanford, Mayer sat at her computer, eating pasta and reading emails.
She already had 12 job offers to choose from, and wasn’t looking for any more hard choices.
So when yet another pitch from a recruiter popped up in her inbox, she tapped on her keyboard’s delete key to get rid of it.
Only, she missed.
Instead of hitting delete, Mayer hit the space bar and opened the email.
That email’s subject line: “Work at Google?”
Mayer read the email and remembered a conversation she had with Eric Roberts who was still a mentor years after she took his computer science class for non-majors. The prior fall, Roberts listened to Mayer talk about the recommendation engine she’d built, and then told her she should meet with a pair of Ph.D. students who were working on similar stuff. Their names: Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
Mayer realized that Google was their startup. Trusting Roberts' recommendation, she replied to an email she had meant to delete, writing that she’d like an interview.
She got one, and met with engineer Craig Silverstein. Silverstein blew her away with his smarts. In the Laura Beckman analogy, he was varsity.
Google offered Mayer a job. She seriously considered it.
Her reservations were that she had planned on taking a job at consulting firm McKinsey, where her clients would be Silicon Valley companies.
Google was a riskier career choice. In her typical, precise way, she’d crunched the data and had decided that the company only had a 2 percent chance of succeeding.
Also, some small part of Mayer was worried about Google’s weird name, which she imagined would be the punch line of family jokes for years to come.
She got over it.
“The turning point for me,” she says, “was realizing that I would learn more at Google, trying to build a company, regardless of whether we failed or succeeded, than I would at any of the other companies I had offers from.”
For the next 13 years, Marissa Mayer worked at Google.
Marissa Mayer joined Google as a programmer and rose to become the executive in charge of the way Google search and many other popular Google products looked to Web users.
She became a senior vice president, with thousands of Google employees reporting to her and hundreds of millions of people around the world using products she helped build. The job made her worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But then something strange happened to Mayer, and people in the industry wondered what went wrong.
Google in its early days was a fun place to work, energized by incredible success and perks like free food. But it was also a grinding, stressful environment.
On Mayer’s second day at Google in 1999, she went to the kitchen for a snack at around 11 A.M. There, she bumped into Larry Page, then CEO of the company. He was standing in a corner.
“I'm hiding,” he said. “The site is down. It’s all gone horribly awry.”
He was exaggerating, of course. Google was actually doing too well at the moment.
In 1999, Google.com was a cleaner-looking and faster search engine than any of the others on the Web, and it was rapidly taking share from older search engines like AltaVista and Lycos. In fact, the site was down that day because Google had just signed a deal with Netscape to handle search queries from Netscape.com. Google only had 300 computers serving search results, and it asked Netscape to send just a fraction of its traffic. Netscape ignored the request and sent all of its users.
Down went Google.com.
Google went back online that day, but only after hours of work from Mayer, Silverstein, and her new colleagues. She went home at 3 a.m.
Perhaps because of long nights like that one, Mayer and Page eventually grew very close. At one point during Mayer’s early years at Google, she and Page started dating.
Long hours would prove the norm for Mayer. During her first two years at Google, she worked 100 hours a week as a programmer.
Mayer thrived working the tough hours. She only needed four hours of sleep a night, and when she was awake, she would work harder than anyone. She found a niche at Google: guardian of the clean, easy-to-use look and feel of Google products. She obsessed over pixels; their hue, shade, and placement. She co-authored a handful of patents, including an important one for Google: “Graphical user interface for a universal search engine.”
By 2005, Mayer moved into management, overseeing the look and feel of Google’s most important products.
She was very good at it.
During her first several years at Google, Mayer had been able to continue teaching at Stanford. She taught 3,000 undergraduates by the time she was promoted, so the part of managing that has to do with leading, teaching, and organizing came easy to her. She enjoyed working with younger Google employees so much that she even started teaching classes at Google.
She created a mentorship program called “APM” which stood for “associated product manager.” Each year Mayer would select junior Google employees for the APM program, give them assignments, and teach them classes. Then, at the end of the program, Mayer would take the entire APM “class” on a weeklong trip abroad to Google offices around the globe.
When it came to developing Google products, Mayer had a bigger challenge.
Mayer has never been someone who easily relates with others. That’s why people call her robotic or “stuck up.” This trait is why people sometimes walk out of meetings with her feeling deeply insulted by a perceived slight.
But being in charge of how Google products should look, Mayer’s job was, basically, to relate with Google’s millions of users. How would she do that?
In the end, it proved to be an advantage for Mayer that empathy doesn’t come naturally to her. It forced her to be intentional about figuring out what users want and how they behave.
She came up with two clever methods of relating.
The first is that she would recreate the technological circumstances of her users in her own life. Mayer went without broadband for years in her home, refusing to install it until it was also installed in the majority of American homes. She carried an iPhone at Google, which makes Android phones, because so did most mobile Web users.
Mayer’s second method was to lean on data. She would track, survey, and measure every user interaction with Google products, and then use that data to design and re-design.
Mayer’s design-by-numbers approach to product development was not always popular.
Famously, a lead designer named Doug Bowman quit Google over it.
In a farewell blog post, Bowman wrote: “… a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.”
Bowman went to Twitter.
Mayer’s obsession with data-driven design would only gain more and louder critics over the years. But Mayer’s methods also made her one of the Internet’s most effective design and product development leaders during her years at Google. People at Google credit her with the success of not just Google search, but also many others, including Gmail, Google Maps, and Google News.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin says: “Marissa makes the decisions she feels are right, and history proves that she probably calls it right.”
Fame and Glory
As Google became a world-famous company, Mayer began to get attention from the media. Newsweek called her one of the “10 Tech Leaders of the Future.” Business 2.0 named her to the “Silicon Valley Dream Team.” Now-defunct technology news site Red Herring said Mayer was one of “15 Women to Watch.”
Then, in 2004, Google went public. Its stock price soared. This made Mayer and hundreds of her colleagues rich in an instant. The media’s fascination with Google kicked up several notches. Mayer, in charge of the look of Google’s most important product, and a rare photogenic woman in the technology industry, was a natural subject of the media’s fixation.
Mayer also boosted her public profile by deciding to spend her new riches conspicuously. She bought the $5 million penthouse suite at the Four Seasons in San Francisco, and another home closer to Google’s Mountain View campus. She started throwing fabulous parties at both, jumping feet first into San Francisco’s high-end social scene. Guests at her homes would see expensive original artwork from famous artists, like the 400-piece glass installation Mayer commissioned from Dale Chihuly.
Mayer did not mind the attention. In fact, she asked Google public relations staff to get her more of it, but in the right outlets.
Mayer’s eagerness to be known by the public may appear to contradict her claim that she suffers from shyness. It doesn’t. She describes her shyness as a need to withdraw from social situations almost as soon as she enters them. Being featured in a glossy magazine does not require her to interact with every reader, so she probably doesn’t have as much anxiety about it as she does making small talk at a party.
Plus, there is such a thing as overcompensation.
By the end of the decade, Vogue magazine would profile Mayer, and describe her as “the 34-year-old mega-millionaire, Oscar de la Renta-obsessed, computer-programming Google executive who lives in a penthouse atop the Four Seasons.”
Outside Google, her star was never brighter. Inside Google, however, where wealth was supposed to be quietly spent, and engineers were supposed to rule, Mayer would soon be under siege.
At the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011, Marissa Mayer’s remarkable career suddenly lost momentum.
First, in Oct. 2010, Mayer was removed from the top of Google’s search organization and put in charge of Google Maps and other “local” products.
Technically, this was a lateral move, if not a promotion, because Mayer retained her vice president title and she was, at the same time, given a seat on Google’s Operating Committee — then CEO Eric Schmidt’s roundtable of top executives from the company.
In reality, it was a demotion. Mayer was no longer in charge of what Google’s most important product looked like or how it worked. At Google, there is search, which generates nearly all of the company’s revenues and profits, and then there is everything else. Running Google search, Mayer was managing the most important product at the world’s most important Internet company. Running Google Maps, she was not.
Still, there was the mitigating factor that Mayer was on Google’s Operating Committee, and she therefore reported directly to CEO Eric Schmidt.
That went away too.
In December 2010, co-founder Larry Page announced that a decade after giving the CEO job up to Eric Schmidt, he was going to take it back.
When Page formally took control of Google in April 2011, he dissolved the Operating Committee and created a new council of executives who would report directly to him. This group came to be known as the “L-Team.” Mayer was not named to it.
Then, to make matters worse for Mayer, Page put another Google executive, Jeff Huber, in charge of “Geo/Local,” the group Mayer had been tasked to run only months before. Mayer now reported to Huber, who joined Google in 2003 — four years after her.
Mayer’s loss of authority was felt across the company. One former colleague says that prior to 2010, Mayer was always able to “get what she needed” from management.
“If her boss [Google senior vice president of product] Jonathan Rosenberg didn’t approve of something — didn’t give her head count or didn’t give her an acquisition or whatever — she’d just go right above him and get what she needed.”
That now stopped.
“She would try to do something and HR would say that’s not the kind of thing she could do anymore.”
“That whole paradigm broke apart.”
Another former colleague says, “When I first turned up, Marissa was very powerful at Google. Marissa used to issue edicts and everyone did them. Over time that proved not to be so true.”
Another way to track the rise and fall of Mayer at Google is to look at the company’s own, public list of executives in the “About Google” section of Google.com.
In November 2005, Mayer’s name and bio finally appeared on Google’s management page. By May 2011, her name was off the site.
What happened to Marissa Mayer’s career?
One explanation is that Mayer’s career stalled as 2010 ended and 2011 began because that is exactly when Larry Page decided he was going to become Google CEO again.
Because Mayer and Page had dated years before, some wonder if Page decided he could never allow Mayer to report directly to him because it would be unethical or show favoritism.
Everyone at Google had long known about the relationship, and no one ever made it an issue — it was too taboo to bring up.
One Googler explains: “Google is one of those places where, like a cult, there are things that are OK to talk about and things that are not OK to talk about. That was one of those things that was not OK to talk about.”
It’s actually hard to find someone at Google who was bothered by the fact that there once was a romantic relationship between Mayer and Page.
Perhaps this is because both of them have so publicly moved on.
In 2007, Page married a Stanford graduate student named Lucy Southworth. The ceremony was on Richard Branson’s private island.
That same year, a Google colleague emailed Mayer to say: “I’m bringing a boy I think you’d be interested in. Be cool.” The “boy” was Zachary Bogue. Tall and dark-haired, Bogue looks like he could be the star of “The Bachelor.” He had played football at Harvard, and was now a banker in San Francisco. In 2009, Mayer and Bogue married. Vogue covered the ceremony. Of their married life, he says: “We continue to do work in the evening. There’s never a distinct line between work and home. Marissa’s work is such a natural extension of her. It’s not something she needs to shed at the end of the day.”
It’s possible that Mayer’s romantic history with Page stalled her career at Google. But that’s not a widely held belief among Mayer’s former colleagues.
A more common explanation was that she may not have had the right kind of ambition to go much further.
There’s a philosophy that corporations exist to benefit three constituencies: shareholders, employees, and customers. At Google, there are two kinds of customers: the users of Google’s services and the advertisers who pay Google to be seen by users.
Mayer spent all her years at Google worried about just half of one of those constituencies: users.
To be fair, that was her job.
From Google’s earliest days, Mayer had always been tasked with making products that users love. And she pursued this task with a single-minded passion, sleeping four hours a night, working 100-hour weeks, grinding through back-to-back meetings without breaks.
But Mayer may have been a bit too single-minded in this pursuit — at least for the sake of her future at Google.
Compared to some Google executives who joined the company around the same time as Mayer, Mayer showed much less interest in learning about the business side of the company.
One former Google executive who worked in ad sales says, “I did not work with her, and that’s telling.”
This executive says that even before Mayer joined Google’s Operating Committee, she had an open invitation to join its meetings — out of respect for her importance to the company and in an effort to develop her career. But while Mayer would always show up for meetings about Google’s products, “she would never show up for a business review.”
By contrast, two of Mayer’s peers — Susan Wojcicki and Jeff Huber — “would make the time and be there because they were interested in expanding their horizons.”
By 2010, when Mayer’s Google career started stalling, Wojcicki and Huber were getting promotions. Both would end up reporting directly to Larry Page. Huber would become Mayer’s boss. Today, Wojcicki is considered one of the two or three most powerful executives at Google.
Mayer missed several of these types of opportunities. In the months before he became CEO again, Larry Page would hold two-hour, post-Operating Committee meetings on Mondays that were more focused on long-term strategy.
One executive who was flattered to be invited says, “I was pretty interested in understanding the connection between Chrome and Android.”
But Mayer would hardly ever show, “either because she was traveling or who knows.”
Several of the regular attendees at those meetings ended up with positions reporting directly to Page.
One of them was Sundar Pichai, now leading development of both Google’s Chrome and Android products. Pichai’s ascent had to be bittersweet to Mayer. He used to work for her, and she had promoted him. Now he was passing her by.
But a former colleague says Pichai was a perfect contrast to Mayer when it came to being involved with Google as a whole.
“Sundar would do anything to help the company. He was internally working cross-functionally to get results. If someone was offline and didn’t get the strategy he’d sit down with them one-on-one. He really put work into it. Marissa didn’t do that at all.”
One of Mayer’s former colleagues says she skipped all those meetings because, when it came to the business side of Google, Mayer was always “less interested.”
“She has a disposition toward the consumer side, and users.”
This trait undoubtedly shaped Mayer’s career at Google, and it would be very important later at Yahoo.
But more than her lack of interest in the business side of Google, and certainly more than her history with Page, there was one overriding reason for Marissa Mayer’s sudden decline in power.
Her great strength, her teacherly I-know-best leadership style had finally begun to grate on people at Google. Worse, it had begun to slow the company down.
Eventually, a group of Google engineers decided to try and do something about it.
John Battelle, who has put on several large tech conferences in the Bay Area, many of them featuring Marissa Mayer as a speaker, says of her: “I've never had a conversation with her when she wasn’t completely certain she was right.”
This pedantic style works when you are the traffic cop in a room full of designers and product managers, but it alienated some of Mayer’s colleagues over the years.
One peer it irked in particular was Salar Kamangar. Now the CEO of Google-owned YouTube, Kamangar joined Google as its ninth employee. He drafted its original business plan, and handled financing and legal early on. Younger than Mayer, he rose along with her at Google, though not as conspicuously.
Mayer and Kamangar clashed often.
The specific habit of Mayer’s that drove Kamangar nuts was her ability to speak incredibly fast, not allowing him to re-enter the debate.
“In an academic situation, that’s okay because the best ideas rise and you have discussion,” says one Googler, familiar with Kamangar’s complaints about Mayer. “But in a place where there are personal feelings involved, if you can’t win the debate regardless of how hard you try, because she will out-talk you, that’s a challenging situation.”
The rivalry between Mayer and Kamangar was so intense that when Kamangar was made a vice president before her, she threatened to quit the company. She got her promotion months later.
Another Mayer habit that annoyed colleagues was one she picked up straight from academia.
For many years at Google, Mayer insisted that if her colleagues wanted to speak with her, they had to do so during her “office hours.” Mayer would post a spreadsheet online, and ask that anyone who wanted to speak with her sign up for a five-minute window.
When Mayer’s “office hours” rolled around in the afternoon, a line would start to form outside of her office and spill over into the nearby couches.
“Office hours” are socially acceptable in an academic environment because the power dynamic is clear. The students are subordinate to the professor, usually their elder and mentor.
But Mayer’s office hours were not just for her subordinates, but also her peers.
So there, amid the associate product managers waiting to visit with Mayer to discuss their latest assignment or a class trip to Zurich, sat Google vice presidents — people who had been at the company as long as Mayer, and in some cases held jobs as important as hers.
What made the “office hours” even more obnoxious for some Google engineers and product managers was that all consumer-facing product launches or updates required Mayer’s sign-off.
“Her weakness was an unwillingness to delegate,” says Craig Silverstein, the Google engineer who hired Mayer years ago. “She doesn’t need any sleep. When you have four or five more hours in the day than most people do, you don’t learn to delegate because you don’t need to.”
The team who grew most frustrated with Mayer over the “office hours” and, more generally, the need for her to sign off on product changes, were the engineers in charge of Google search.
Several of Mayer’s former Google colleagues confirm that among the most put off was Amit Singhal.
While Mayer was in charge of the way Google Search looked, Singhal, was one of the engineers in charge of creating the algorithms that actually power the search engine. After he re-wrote Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s original code in 2001, he was named a “Google Fellow.” He’s a big deal inside the company.
One of Mayer’s former Google colleagues says that it was actually Singhal and three other search engineers who finally went to Larry Page and asked that Mayer be removed from the top of Google’s search organization.
“These four guys, they were constantly being hampered. They’d say: ‘We want to roll out this ranking change.’ Marissa’s like, ‘until I review it, you can’t launch it.’ They’re like: ‘But it’s been three weeks.’”
Finally, says this source, Singhal and the other engineers went to Larry Page and said, “Take your pick. Her, or us.”
In this person’s telling, Page made his choice and that’s why Mayer was moved out of search. She had become a bottleneck.
Other people say Page removed Mayer from her perch atop search after lots of input from lots of people.
Says one Googler: “What Larry saw as he became CEO was that Marissa has a tough user-interface that causes problems with other stakeholders.”
Another Googler familiar with those discussions says: “Everyone agreed that something needed to change.”
This Googler wonders if Mayer was unfairly punished in 2010 and 2011.
“Sometimes she got into trouble because she’s ambitious and a woman and that’s tough in a man’s world. People take potshots at her because she was very young and successful. I also think she’s young and learning and you sometimes don’t get things right.”
Another reason for Mayer’s career stall in 2011 was that Google, as a company, had grown up.
By 2010, Google had 24,000 employees. It wasn’t going to be the kind of place where, just because an executive had been there a long time and knew the co-founders personally, she was going to be able to get whatever she wanted.
“You couldn’t run the company like that anymore,” says one person who lived through the transition.
“As you grow you have to hire people who have done this stuff before, and having people who haven’t lord over them doesn’t work.”
So, by early 2011, Marissa Mayer’s progress at Google had stalled. But another, greater opportunity was about to come her way.
On the afternoon of Monday, July 16, 2012, Yahoo chief revenue officer Michael Barrett stood at a gate in New York’s JFK airport, waiting to board a plane to London.
Suddenly, his phone rang. It was a reporter. She said, “Oh my God. You have a new boss. What do you think?”
The reporter told Barrett the news: Yahoo had a new CEO. It was Marissa Mayer from Google.
Barrett was shocked.
Barrett himself had only joined Yahoo from Google less than a month before.
Barrett’s job at Google had been a good one. He’d only left because Yahoo chairman Fred Amoroso had told him that interim CEO Ross Levinsohn was going to get the full-time job.
As Barrett got back off the plane, he thought: What the hell happened?
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The story of how Marissa Mayer came to Yahoo begins in the summer of 2011.
That’s when Dan Loeb, the manager of a hedge fund called Third Point, decided he could make a lot of money investing in Yahoo if he could force a few people to quit its board and install a CEO of his choosing.
There were two simple reasons Loeb believed Yahoo was a worthwhile investment, despite a decade of mismanagement. The first was that 700 million or so people still went to Yahoo.com every month, even though the company hadn’t come up with a cool new product in years.
The second was that Yahoo had made a brilliant investment in two Asian Internet companies, Alibaba and Yahoo! Japan, and Loeb did not believe this investment was being taken advantage of by management.
So Loeb took a 5 percent stake in Yahoo and began a letter-writing, shareholder-activist campaign to unseat its CEO and several of its board members. In his letters, Loeb accurately pointed out that Yahoo had been mismanaged for a decade, and that it was largely the board’s fault. In December, Yahoo’s board hoped to appease Loeb by hiring PayPal president Scott Thompson to be Yahoo’s new CEO.
Loeb was not appeased. Publicly, he began lobbying Thompson to install new board members. Privately, Loeb asked a consultant he’d hired, former MTV president Michael Wolf, to begin looking for someone who could replace Thompson.
With this mission in mind, Loeb and Wolf flew to San Francisco for a series of meetings in January 2012.
One morning during their trip, Loeb and Wolf drove south to meet with venture capitalist Marc Andreessen for breakfast at his house. Famous for cofounding Netscape, the original Web browser company, Andreessen had gone on to found two other billion-dollar companies and a successful venture capital firm. By the winter of 2012, Andreessen had become Silicon Valley’s go-to wi