In the least surprising news of 2016, Yahoo is selling its core business to Verizon for a sad $5 billion. Everyone knew this was coming — but for some reason, the headlines keep blaming Marissa.
From 2010 to 2014, I was a Yahoo. I worked for the purple mothership from a satellite office in Denver consisting almost entirely of Yahoos brought in through the acquisition of Associated Content, where I worked from 2009–2010. I’ve lost count, but I think I worked for five CEOs at Yahoo. I started with Carol Bartz, and left during Marissa Mayer’s tenure.
I’m not interested in debating why Yahoo couldn’t turn around. But, in a month rife with headlines like these, I wanted to talk a little bit about what it was like for me to work for Marissa Mayer as one of 14,000 people in a huge organization, many levels down from the CEO.
Turnstiles and Self-Esteem
Working far from headquarters, I kept up with corporate news at Yahoo via Yahoo! Messenger (that was before Marissa axed the punctuation in the company’s name), chatting mostly with other community managers working on other products. On the day Marissa was announced as Yahoo’s new CEO, there was a collective fluttering of excitement like nothing I’d ever felt in my time at the company.
Overnight, it seemed like we collectively developed self-esteem. Our Walmart-priced stock began to rise, not into the rafters with Google and Amazon’s shares, but to a respectable, Target-pronounced-Tarjay sort of price point. I saw more purple in the office than ever before.
Before Marissa, working at Yahoo was an education in notoriety and shame. I liked that when I mentioned where I worked, people had heard of it — but I didn’t like the reaction “They’re still around?” or “Oh, I use them for my spam email.”
After Marissa, people started saying instead, “Oh, Yahoo, with Marissa Mayer! What’s that like?”
To truly understand how soul-crushing it was to work at Yahoo in pre-Marissa times, you should have been in Sunnyvale (I was, on a business trip) on the day Marissa announced free food in the company’s cafeterias. People scrambled to stuff themselves as if the announcement would be taken back in a day or two. The coffee shops were stripped of pastries. Yahoos packed multiple boxes at the salad bar and hoarded them in break room refrigerators. You’d think that the announcement Marissa made was a coming price increase for lunches, not free food. Good news at Yahoo was treated as suspect and likely to change at any minute.
Pretty soon, it was obvious that the new CEO was listening — really listening. A friend relayed this story: The Sunnyvale campus had a building with redundant turnstiles, which required a badge scan seconds after employees had scanned their badges to open the main doors. People complained about it when the building was remodeled years before, and kept complaining through several CEOs. After Marissa read an email griping about the turnstiles, they were gone the next day.*
Pride had come to Yahoo for the first time since the company’s heyday.
If you’ve never been a Yahoo, the acronym “d-r” likely means nothing to you.
If you’ve ever been a Yahoo, you may well have considered getting a tiny “d-r” tattoo. (No? Just me? Okay.)
The massive email list boasted more than 8000 subscribers. I’d heard of it before Marissa, but never joined. When news broke that Marissa was reading the list, I had to check it out — and I discovered what is, to this day, the thing I miss most about Yahoo.
Although most posts on d-r were petty and/or nonsensical — parking shaming, rants about food choices in the cafeteria, a long thread about how to learn to drive in snow for the first time — there was also a real sense of community. Sometimes it was a “misery loves company” sort of community. But, at other times, it was the biggest source of hope and imagination at Yahoo.
Marissa seemed to have an infinite capacity to read and respond to email; her emails were usually very brief, but when she saw a real issue brought up on d-r or an employee who was due congratulations for a life event, she always took time to send a quick sentence or two. When I sent d-r a picture of myself meeting Marissa’s mother-in-law at a Christmas party, Marissa emailed me off-list to say that she loved the photo and had shown it to her husband.
Hours after Marissa gave birth to her son, we were told by one of her lieutenants that she was sitting up in bed answering email. I believe it.
Another important point about d-r: There were bitter, vitriolic complaints about some of Marissa’s decisions there, especially her work-from-home policy update. She read them, often responded calmly, and, to my knowledge, never disciplined even the nastiest gripers.
The thing I cherish most about my time working for Marissa is her ability to make me feel seen, known, and heard, when she had no reason, in such a large company, to see, know, or hear one community manager working in Denver for a singularly unpopular Yahoo product.
I don’t even remember why I emailed her the first time, but what I do remember is that she responded at 1 AM PST on Sunday morning. Her son was just a few months old at the time. I carry with me a powerful visual of Marissa, awake in the wee hours of the night, bouncing her son on one hip and answering email with the other hand. That may or may not have been the actual situation when she wrote me back, but the image makes me feel calm and strong every time I call it to mind.
Marissa gave me permission to be a workaholic, a woman, a leader, and an interesting, complex human being, all at the same time.
She defied caricature. She defied typecasting. She never made herself smaller to help people feel more comfortable with a female CEO. She showed up at Christmas parties in a purple ballgown. When she fired an executive, she didn’t pretend it was a “mutual decision to part ways.” She made several decisions I didn’t agree with, but she never pretended they were somebody else’s call.
When I left the company, I emailed Marissa a slide deck showcasing a strategy I’d put together that was supposed to be presented to her, but never was. Even though I was no longer a Yahoo by the time I sent that email, she took the time to reply and to promise she’d review it.
Yahoo is a Failure, but Marissa is a Success
Marissa is an imperfect CEO, like all CEOs. Many of my fellow Yahoo alumni despise her vehemently. She laid off people I adored, and hired at least one executive I consider one of the least competent and least caring people I’ve ever worked with. Her performance ranking program was so badly implemented by Yahoo’s ugly layers of middle management that it deserved every bit of the mocking and criticism it got, both on devel-random and in the tech press.
Could Marissa have saved Yahoo, even if she’d never made a wrong decision?
I doubt it very much.
Although I worked with some of the best people I’ve met in my career at Yahoo, the company was also stacked with some of the least motivated. Many people at Yahoo seemed to have only one work-related skill, and that was “surviving layoffs at Yahoo.” Marissa was able to vanquish the chronically poor self-esteem in the organization for a little while, but eventually Yahoo’s organizational depression took hold again.
I dated a former Yahoo engineer for a while, and he told me:
“I left Yahoo because I realized this: So what if a hacker takes down Yahoo Mail completely? So the world has 50% less spam.”
That level of apathy — grown out of years of building products nobody cares about — is probably incurable. And unfortunately, bringing talented people into an apathetic organization accustomed to releasing crappy products doesn’t uplevel the organization. Instead, it mostly turns new, talented people apathetic, or sends them right back out a revolving door.
When Yahoo is sold to Verizon, so what? So one of the world’s many aggregators of news headlines from the Associated Press is under new ownership. So those spam emails are under new ownership. So maybe Tumblr gets spun off and gets a second chance. (I still really, really love Tumblr.)
But because Marissa was at Yahoo, I’m a different person than I was before she took the job. I have a different vision of the ceiling for my personal success. I have a realistic picture of the negatives that would come with a job like Marissa’s. But I know that, if I’m ever in a position like Marissa’s, I want to be the kind of CEO who answers emails from strangers six or seven levels down from herself at 1 AM on a Sunday morning, even when she has a new baby in the house. I want to be the kind of person who has time to hear people out, even when they’re saying things that hurt me.
Thank you, Marissa. I’ve thanked you before — on Twitter, in that last email I sent you, and many times silently in my own mind — but thank you again. Because of you, I view myself as a future founder. Because of you, I can picture exactly what that might look like for me.
I still want to be you when I grow up, and there’s not a headline Re/Code could publish that will change that.
(….well, except maybe “Marissa Mayer confesses: She’s the Zodiac killer.”)
*UPDATE: Welcome, HackerNews readers! An old d-r friend commenting on the Hacker News thread for this piece offered a correction, which I believe is accurate, to my turnstile story:
I remember it a little differently. This was Building D, where the executives sit. Before Marissa got there, there were plans to put an additional set of card-activated turnstiles inside the door. (This building is also where the Yahoo store is, and the main reception desk). Yahoo was plagued with leaks, and some people thought that adding an additional turnstile will keep people from tailgating in.
When Marissa got there, she took one look at the turnstiles and said, “this is stupid”, and ordered them removed. Not only that: there were card-activated gates in the parking lots, and those were gone too immediately. She didn’t want barriers to coming in to work.
And about devel-random, or “d-r”: I was pretty active on that. No one told Marissa about d-r, but just a couple of days after she got there, on a Saturday IIRC, she responded to someone on d-r. This sent shockwaves throughout the upper echelons, and soon senior management were clamoring to get on d-r. Most of them dropped out, exhausted by the volume; but she stuck around.
Miss you too, Marissa. Life is long & the tech world is small. May we meet again someday.
(I’m gonna go ahead and call my “Marissa is always listening” point proven now — I didn’t tweet this at her or contact her about it in any way.)