The Innovation Lessons Marissa Mayer Will Take to Yahoo [Video]

7/17/12Follow @wroush

Timothy Koogle, Terry Semel, Jerry Yang, Carol Bartz, Tim Morse, Scott Thompson, Ross Levinsohn, Marissa Mayer.

One of these names is not like the others.

When you list the eight people who have led Yahoo since 1995, counting the interim leaders Morse and Levinsohn, the obvious anomaly is Mayer. At 37, she’s the youngest person ever to take the reins at the company—Yang was 39 when he became CEO in 2007—and only the second with an actual computer science degree (Bartz was the first. Yang’s degree is in electrical engineering; Thompson’s degree turned out to be in accounting).

But more importantly, she’s from Google, the company that probably did more than any other to decimate Yahoo’s core search and advertising businesses. (Today Google owns 66.8 percent of the U.S. search market, while Bing and Yahoo fight over the dregs.)

That’s partly just a reflection of Google’s maturation. At 14 years old, it’s Silicon Valley’s new equivalent of IBM, Hewlett-Packard, or Microsoft: the training ground sending executives off to run places like Facebook (Sheryl Sandberg), AOL (Tim Armstrong), and Twitter (Dick Costolo). But for Yahoo’s board to offer the top spot to Mayer could also be seen as an admission that Google is one of the only big companies in the valley these days that’s solidly profitable and capably run—its only real rival being Apple.

So, what is it that makes Google so successful? (The company’s first-quarter net revenues were $8.1 billion, about eight times those of Yahoo.) And how might Mayer bring a little bit of the Google magic to Yahoo?

To find out, I went back to a video I captured of a talk Mayer gave at Stanford University in April 2011. She was speaking to a group of college-age entrepreneurs from around the country who had assembled for an “Entrepreneurship Bootcamp” organized by the Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students (BASES). It’s an unusual piece of Mayerana because it’s not about some new Google search product, but about her own thinking on how to choose a career, how to build products, how to scale up a company, and how to keep employees happy.

Below, I’ve edited the 42-minute talk down to about 10 minutes. It’s a useful resource for anyone wondering what kind of CEO Mayer might be. As the leader of large chunks of Google’s workforce—at various times she’s overseen search products, Gmail, Google News, Google Images, and location services—she’s clearly thought a lot about how a technology company can scale up and get big projects done without burning out its key engineers.

Whether she’ll be able to apply any of these lessons at Yahoo–and help the company and its beleaguered employees start innovating again—is now the biggest open question in Silicon Valley.

Here’s the video (which I recorded on my iPad, so forgive the amateur cinematography). Right below are some of the money quotes.

Marissa Mayer on choosing the right job: 

Work with the smartest people you can find … They elevate you. They make you think in a new and different way … Do something you’re not ready to do … I realized I would probably learn more failing at Google than I would succeeding somewhere else.

On Google’s philosophy of product design:

You can try to vault your way to [the product consumers want]. I call this castle-building … If you get it right and you land on something people want, you get a world wide `wow.’ The problem is, if you miss, you have a really awful dud, and a dud that it took a couple of years to build. At Google we have a different philosophy. We have a philosophy that innovation really involves iteration—that you want to bird-walk your way to the perfect product.

On hiring:

Technology all about the people. It’s all about the ideas. Which means hiring is really, really important.

On women engineers in the workplace:

We’re always really focused on having a good gender balance at Google. The goal is to have 25 percent of the technical workforce at Google be women … We realized that not only should we recruit women, but we should make sure we should build a workplace that was good for technical women.

On decision-making styles:

Google has been a great place for consensus-based decision making. But over time, consensus-based decision making has been confused with unanimous decision making … Decision-makers still need to hear everyone, but it’s not about unanimous decision-making, which can really slow you down.

On driving employees hard while helping them to avoid burnout: 

I’ve been working 80 to 120 hour weeks the entire time. People say, `How is that possible?’ I think it’s different for every person. My theory around this is that it’s important for every person to find their personal rhythm. Burnout isn’t about working really hard for a really long period of time. Burnout is caused by resentment. So the important thing is to know what you really need [and for managers to respect that.]

On never getting to the bottom of your to-do list:

When you are doing a startup or scaling a business, there’s going to be an infinite number of things that you could do. And making sure that you prioritize the important things and spend your time there, and sort of celebrate the fact that you are not going to get to certain things at the bottom of the list, is really freeing.

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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