Mayer’s time at Yahoo taken apart in new book

Nicholas Carlson pulls no punches in his study of high-profile tech boss Marissa Mayer

To the list of books about transformative technology companies and their visionary leaders we can now add one about Silicon Valley's wayward soul and would-be saviour: Yahoo's Marissa Mayer.

Mayer – or "Yahoo's Geek Goddess" as Vanity Fair has called her – is not the first well-known executive brought in to reinvent Yahoo, but she certainly arrived with the most fanfare. When Yahoo hired her from Google in 2012, she was only 37, making her the youngest woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.

Expectations were high, to say the least. In Nicholas Carlson's Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!, we learn that when Yahoo's new chief executive showed up for her first day of work, she was greeted by posters of her face, done in the style of Shepard Fairey's Barack Obama poster, complete with the word "Hope". At Yahoo, they have a term to describe things that don't feel like they should be part of the so-called user experience: "yawful".

Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! was excerpted in The New York Times magazine, and in many ways it reads more like an overgrown article than a book. This is partly a function of Carlson's informal tone and personality-driven approach. But it's also a function of the subject. Yahoo is a big company, but it's not what you would call an American institution or even really a relevant force in our culture. And it's not clear that there's much more of substance to say about Mayer that hasn't already been said in the many profiles of her.

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Fun to read

That’s not to say that the book isn’t a lot of fun to read or that Carlson isn’t steeped in his subject – an impressive feat considering Mayer refused to cooperate with him.

Carlson, chief correspondent for Business Insider, doesn't waste words lingering over details or musing on bigger themes. He favours the short paragraph and the brief biographical sketch.

“She was a pompom girl and a debater,” he writes. “She was on the precision dance team.” The result, to borrow the digital media cliche, is corporate history as snackable content.

Today's Yahoo is a sprawling hodgepodge of products and services, none indispensable. It is a company adrift, a well-capitalised mess. But, as Carlson reminds us, Yahoo was a pioneer in Silicon Valley. In its earliest incarnation, it was the digital equivalent of the TV Guide, providing an advertising-supported directory of web pages for the still nascent internet. Before it became Yahoo, it was called David and Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web, after founders David Filo and Jerry Yang.

They had no trouble monetising their new business. Yahoo nearly tripled its revenues from 1997 to 1998 and its founders became very rich, very quickly.

Things started to fall apart relatively quickly. Yahoo was the victim of larger economic forces, specifically the bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2001, but it also failed to evolve or innovate. As such, it gradually lost market share to its growing number of competitors.

Enter Yahoo 2.0, the first of many attempts to turn the company around. The names, at least, would get more creative. There was, for example, Project Godfather, the 2002 plan to rub out Yahoo’s competition in the internet search business.

In Carlson’s breezy retelling, these hapless efforts to recapture the company’s former glory amount to almost comic exercises in futility. Its string of well-compensated leaders can’t seem to get anything right. Presented with the chance to buy Google for $1 million in 1997, the company passed.

Mayer emerges from this book’s pages less as a geek goddess or even a computer science nerd made good, than as a kind of cyborg, a tone-deaf workaholic who has trouble making eye contact and requires only four hours of sleep a night. In other words, it turns out she’s no different from your stereotypical male tech executive.

Harsh judgment

Carlson describes her management style as “dictatorial” and her manner of speaking as “staccato verbosity”.

Carlson issues a similarly harsh judgment on Mayer's tenure at Yahoo. Wall Street seems to agree with that assessment. Yahoo has a market capitalisation of about $44 billion. But when you take out its investment in Chinese internet company Alibaba, its core business is currently being valued at less than zero dollars.

Mayer is still running Yahoo, though it's anyone's guess how much longer she will remain. One major stockholder said recently that the smartest thing for Yahoo to do would be to sell off its assets and return the proceeds to shareholders. Maybe the fight to save Yahoo is almost over. Or maybe the company is just coming to the end of another losing season. – (The New York Times News Service)