June 9, 2015

Summary - "Marissa Mayer and the fight to save Yahoo" by Nicholas Carlson

Marissa Mayer and the fight to save Yahoo by Nicholas Carlson

[Very interesting book that reveals current affairs of Google & Yahoo]

In the fall of 1992, two graduate students in Stanford’s computer assisted design program downloaded Mosaic and started to tell each other about all the cool web pages they were found with it. Finally, one of those two students, David Filo made a list of all the sites he liked. He shared it with his friend Jerry Yang and Jerry made a list too. Filo combined the lists and in early 1994, Yang published the list on a web page hosted for him by Stanford. At first, Yang called the site Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web. Then, David and Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web.  That was the beginning of Yahoo - Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.

Both of them were not business people. Perhaps the only reason Yahoo ever became a business at all was what happened in October 1994. That’s when Marc Andersen’s start-up, Netscape, launched an even more consumer friendly version of the Mosaic browser, called Navigator. A millions of people tried the WWW for the first time, they went straight to Yahoo to figure out where to go.

Softbank, a massive Japanese conglomerate headed by an energetic golf-loving industry titan named Masayoshi son invested $5 million in Yahoo at a $40 million valuation. Masayoshi son was instrumental in expanding expanding Yahoo to the international arena, and  the same person was instrumental in Alibaba's huge success during its initial days..

[The book goes on with details of different stages that had been handled by different CEOs. It is quite interesting to know about the Microsoft takeover attempts and the drama that happened behind the scene. Just skipping to the section where a Marissa Mayer story starts]

In 1993, Mayer applied to and was accepted into, ten schools including Harvard, Yale, Duke and Northwestern. She decided to go with Stanford for premed. During the pre-MED days, she got bored “I’m just doing flash cards. This is easy, Too easy. It’s just a lot of memorization”.
Everything changed when she took CS105 (introductory computer science class) where she came in second in a class of three hundred. 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 specialty in AI.

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 is about the daughter of her middle school piano teacher, Joanne Beckman.

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 to JV (junior varsity). ‘Most people when they are faced with this choice, would choose to play - and they will 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 were benched their whole senior year. When asked Laura why she chose bench on varsity, she said, “I just knew that 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 the games”.

The moral of Mayer’s story was that it’s always better to surround yourself with the best people so that they will challenge you and you will grow.

Even though she had a good offer from McKinsey, she went with Google’s internship (not even full time job). After the internship, Google hired her as a coder. She threw herself into a big project: building a system for Google that would allow it to serve the right ads with the right searches.

But then a funny thing happened. After Mayer had been working on the project for weeks, another Google engineer Jeff Dean offered to help. In a relative snap, Dean built a better system than the one Mayer had been working on for weeks.

There was no shame in Mayer getting outcoded by Dean, But for her, the experience provided a truth. She realized that she was never going to be as good at programming as Dean - r even in his class. Eventually, Google was going to be full of people who were at his level. If she was going to prove she belonged at Google, she was going to have to find other ways.

While working on different search results, she found Serif fonts are more readable, but sanserif were more legible. Mayer took the research to Larry Page and argues they need to make a change. Page agreed. The letters on Google’s search results pages lost their serifs.

Mayer had found her niche, an area where she could prove she belonged: improving and guiding the development of Google’s UI (user interface). It perfectly suited her degree in human-computer interaction. Less than a year after being hired as a junior coder, Mayer was in charge of the meetings that determined how Google.com would look. and she was literally settings the agenda on the products Google would make. More important, she had proven to be a crucial part of the team.

Mayer found that the Page’s mind sets very attractive to be around. She and Page played board games together. Other Googlers began to hear about the relationship. There was a rumor that Page and his cofounder, Sergy Brin had been invited to have dinner with the queen of England and that Page had brought Mayer as his date.

Slowly everyone started to figure it out. The relationship was very discreet. There were absolutely zero displays of affection between Mayer and Page at the office.

In 2002, Mayer noticed her new boss was having a problem hiring the right kind of people into Google. She told him: stop trying to hire MBAs to be product managers and start hiring computer science graduate with an interest in business.

In 2003, CEO Eric Schmidt made official what was already a fact. He put the mayor in charge of the look and feel of Google’s consumer products, including search. In 2005, he made her VP and her face & bio went up on Google’s website.

One time, one her APM (associate product manager) brought a product to her for review and she told him, “ This page is too busy. What you need to do is look at every font on the page, every font size. And every time you see a new color or new font size, you add up a point. I want this page below five points. That became a rule - no pages with more than five points. With the help of mental scaffolding, process and rules, and mimicry she pulls it off.

Around 2005, Mayer came into her office visibly upset. She and Larry had broken up. In 2007, Page married a Stanford graduate student named Lucy Southworth. For the same year, Mayer met Bogue, who played football at Harvard and was a banker in San Francisco and they got married.

One peer Mayer’s style irked in particular was Salar Kamangar. Kamangar joined Google as its ninth employee. He drafted the original business plan and handled financing and legal early on. Younger than Mayer, he rose along with her at Google, and became VP before her. They clashed often.

In 2000, Krishna Bharat who started the Google news service, invited Amit Singhal to join Google. Singhal studied in India (B.Tech) and got MS from UMD, but continued his PhD at Cornell and his topic of interest was searched. Before joining Google, he was a research fellow at Bell Labs (ATT). His hire almost immediately paid off. Soon after joining, Singhal decided the code Google used for figuring out how to rank its search needed a major overhaul. It had been written by Sergey Brin and it was very sloppy. Singhal rewrote the whole thing in two months, adding huge improvements to relevancy and speed. In 2006, Singhal was named as a Google Fellow, an award with a prize in the million of dollars. He earned a nickname around the campus: King of the Ranking.

Almost from the start of the universal search project, Singhal and Mayer didn’t get along. The surface issue that the two disagreed over most was: should Google allow only algorithms to determine the ranking of its search results, as Singhal argued? Or should Google sometimes uses human editors to curate its result, as Mayer argued?

Ultimately the contest between Singhal and Mayer was not over any one issue. It was about authority. Singhal believed that the engineers who created the hard-core technology powering Google search could more than handle user interface design, which is Mayer’s area. How hard could it be to draw mock-ups? Not hard as developing an algorithm. Singhal and Manber (his boss) wanted engineering to own the Google’s product. They felt the product would improve faster, if they didn’t have Mayer bottlenecking the whole process.

Page got involved with the ongoing issues between Mayer and Singhal.  Page believed that made Singhal more capable of pushing Google products to their technological limits. Page summoned Mayer into a one-on-one meeting and told her she was done working on Google’s search.

In Dec 2010, Page announced that a decade after going the CEO job up to Eric Schmidt, he was going to take it back. He formally took control in April 2011 and dissolved the operating committee and created a new council of executives who would report to him and Mayer was not named to it.

Around this time, yahoo was looking for a CEO replacement and the deal went well. She became the CEO of Yahoo.

When joined as CEO,Yahoo board was expecting Mayer to do a big lay-off; however, she resisted that move which irked the board.

Even though Yahoo share price got tripled during her period, it was mainly due to Alibaba's huge growth that Jerry invested during its incipient days.

The rest is history.

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