Mountain View, California: In December, Marissa Mayer was vacationing in Africa when her boss, Jonathan Rosenberg, emailed her asking if she was leaving Google Inc.
It wasn’t a routine query. As the gatekeeper of Google’s home page, and one of the company’s most ubiquitous and closely watched public faces, Mayer controls the look, feel and functionality of the Internet’s most heavily trafficked search engine. Rumours of her possible departure had lit up the blogosphere and offices across Silicon Valley.
None of it, she assured Rosenberg, was true. And Mayer, who is Google Employee No. 20 and the company’s first female engineer, still says she isn’t leaving; she says she has gone out of her way to inform Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, as well as CEO Eric E. Schmidt, that she is staying put. “It could not be further from the truth,” she says of gossip about her departure. “It made me realize that people don’t understand me.”
People may not understand Mayer, but as the “it girl” at one of the world’s hottest companies, she is very hard to ignore. A popular guest on TV news programmes and talk shows, a Google-booster often quoted in print, and a rapid-fire presence on San Francisco’s social scene, she is the rare executive who has become—at least in the sometimes cloistered world of computer geeks—a celebrity.
It girl: Mayer is the rare executive who has become a celebrity. Noah Berger / NYT
As such, she has invited attention—and in some cases, derision—in the last year for such actions as creating spreadsheets to find the perfect cupcake recipe, attending lavish ballet, art and fashion galas, paying $60,000 (Rs30.42 lakh) at a charity auction to have lunch with Oscar de la Renta, and hosting breezy, dying-to-get-invited-to parties at her $5 million penthouse in San Francisco. Her live-out-loud lifestyle seems so un-Silicon Valley, but at the same time perfectly in tune with what Google is all about.
“I refuse to be stereotyped,” she says. “I think it’s very comforting for people to put me in a box. ‘Oh, she’s a fluffy girlie girl who likes clothes and cupcakes. Oh, but wait, she is spending her weekends doing hardware electronics.’”
Yet Mayer, 33, plays a pivotal, serious role at Google. Almost every new feature or design, from the wording on a Google page to the colour of a Google toolbar, must pass muster with her, or legions of Google users will never see it. She is one of the few Googlers with unfettered access to and influence over Brin and Page, and Valley wags wonder whether Google’s familiar white home page will even look the same if she leaves the company. “Knowing Marissa, if she were considering leaving Google, she’d do it in an orderly way,” says Rosenberg, who is Google’s senior vice-president for product management.
Others have a different view. Matt Rabinowitz, a close friend who has known Mayer since their days on the Stanford debate team in the early 1990s, says he thinks she might move on. “Her quirkiness aligned beautifully with this moment in history when Google took over the Internet,” he says. “If she keeps growing at Google, she will stay there. There is nothing else like it now. She is in a position of leverage.”
“That said,” he adds, “I don’t think she will.”
When Mayer joined Google after graduating with a master’s degree in computer science from Stanford in 1999, the company was a shoestring start-up where nobody expected to get rich quick, let alone become billionaires.
She started out writing code and overseeing small teams of engineers, carving out a niche for herself by developing and designing Google’s search offerings.
An engineer at heart, she also had something that many of her peers did not during Google’s early days: a keen sense of style and design. She adored bold blocks of colour against a white background, much like the Marimekko prints that once hung in her childhood home in Wausau, Wisconsin. Her San Francisco penthouse has a similar, but more expensive, aesthetic.
As vice-president for search products and user experience, Mayer has wedded her personal tastes with an ability to manage her bosses, including a capacity to easily communicate and champion ideas with Brin and Page, both of whom are also friends.
Since joining Google, she has introduced at least 100 products and features, many of which have thrived: Google News, Gmail and Image Search, for example. Others, such as Orkut, have had a harder time finding an audience in the US.
“She is a catalyst for winning ideas,” Rosenberg says. “Marissa has been through the evolution of the Google playbook. She is part author. That is very important because she understands the design aesthetic of Google.”
In meetings with subordinates, Mayer comes across as a zealous copy editor or meticulous art teacher correcting first-semester students. With so many new recruits, she reasons, someone has to teach them how Google does things.
Students of Google’s culture wonder whether Mayer and her management style would flourish outside the insulated world where her tenacity and curiosity mirror the company itself. “She clearly has what it takes to be a great manager at Google, but I don’t know if that translates into being a great manager at Hasbro,” said John Battelle, author of The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture.
Any transition, too, could be particularly challenging as the reputations of Mayer and others who were hired early on are so closely intertwined with the company. “You get comfortable being wealthy, getting attention, living in the bubble,” Battelle said. “It will be interesting to watch at which point they declare ‘who am I?’ by their definition, not Google’s.” Mayer says she is vexed by how some perceive her. “I am not a girl about town,” she says. “It isn’t how I project myself. It is how other people choose to project me.”
Perhaps. But it also happens to be true that she enjoys talking about herself. Last summer, in an interview with Yelp, a website that tracks restaurants and other local services, she gushed over her favourite dry cleaner and shoe repair shop, and where to find the best pineapple malts in Palo Alto.
Mayer also seems relatively carefree about her privacy. While photographs of her and her fiance Zachary Bogue, a private equity executive, are instant Internet fodder, she says she rarely turns down requests for her picture from Drew Altizer, a photographer she knows and often sees on the party circuit. “Drew is trying to pay me a compliment,” she says. Whatever Mayer chooses to reveal about herself publicly, Craig Silverstein, Google’s director of technology and a close friend, says that none of it is self-serving.
“Marissa doesn’t care about the chattering classes,” he says. She likes shopping, fashion. And she is not going to stop just because people don’t like that.”
Besides, Mayer says, there are some things that she hasn’t previously revealed about herself and that the media have overlooked. Like her self-described athletic prowess. “It hasn’t shown up anywhere that I am really physically active,” she says. “I ran the San Francisco half marathon this year. I did the Portland marathon. I went skiing just yesterday. I’m going to do the Birkebeiner, which is North America’s longest cross-country ski race. That just shows you how much there are gaps.”
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES