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Continued: Yahoo's Marissa Mayer's challenge

  • Article by: DAVID AUERBACH , Slate
  • Last update: August 29, 2013 - 8:58 PM

At the time of Mayer’s arrival, many executives at Yahoo were corporate hacks, not technical types. For them, to be replaced by a technical woman is doubly threatening. If technical women can do the work of male businessmen, we might not need male businessmen anymore!

One of these male businessmen is Jim Heckman, another of Yahoo’s recent casualties - in the Business Insider piece, he’s described as Levinsohn’s “top dealmaker”: “Jim Heckman breaks glass. He’s squinty-eyed and caffeinated. He makes deals. He uses your first name. He quotes the comedian Daniel Tosh of Tosh.0.”

Jim Heckman knows a lot about sports. He is, according to evidence, a macho blowhard. He wanted Yahoo to be “like a cable TV provider.” He is your worst nightmare as a boss.

He is also aggrieved by Mayer’s ascendancy, judging by the 500 words Carlson spends on his plan to ax the ad tech department and change Yahoo into a content provider, which led to Mayer firing him “within 24 hours.”

(Since Carlson reports intimately on Heckman’s disastrous final meeting with Mayer, his source had to be one of the two. It sure wasn’t Mayer - it’s an “unauthorized biography” - so we might safely conclude it’s Heckman, which might account for Carlson’s unsuccessful attempt to portray Heckman as the victim of a culture clash.)

Another male businessman, former Yahoo executive Michael Katz, is also aggrieved, which is why he’s currently suing Yahoo for firing him while “celebrating the second night of Hanukkah.” (For those not familiar with the Jewish faith, that’s a bit like complaining about being fired while observing the 10th day of Christmas.)

And then when you read about yet another male businessman, the VP who publicly threatened to fire whoever had leaked some corporate presentation, you realize that Yahoo was stuffed to the gills with this sort of nonsense before Mayer arrived.

These aren’t incidental details. They speak exactly to the sort of people Mayer is deposing, and to why they certainly could never have saved Yahoo, just bled it dry while it withered. I suspect one of the final quotes in Carlson’s piece is dead-on: “If 1/8Mayer3/8 hadn’t come in, all the smart people would have left.”

Mayer faces a very difficult task with Yahoo, but she at least has a chance of success. In terms of comprehensive product vision, Mayer is as close to Steve Jobs as anyone in the tech world today.

Buying Tumblr, for example, makes sense because she’s buying what Yahoo really needs and what Google does not have: a sticky, entrenched social user base. The world values Steve Jobs and Marissa Mayer more than it does the likes of Steve Ballmer and John Sculley.

So do the rank and file. That’s why “just a few weeks in, Yahoo employee morale and productivity hit a high not seen in a decade,” as Carlson writes. Mayer was so much better than what had gone before that the receding tide of corporate imbecility was itself enough to elevate her to savior status.

As to why Carlson buries that lede, I can’t say. After 5,000 or 6,000 words, Carlson gets around to portraying Mayer as effective and driven, but most people will have stopped reading long before that point. That does Mayer a greater disservice than her “controversial” decision to have her picture taken for a magazine.

There was one interesting thing I learned from Carlson’s article: Mayer was inspired in high school when she read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” with a great teacher.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll know it’s about a wary ingnue in the corridors of corporate and imperial power who encounters a grotesque, power-mad egomaniac with delusions of grandeur, who has set up a personality cult around himself despite having deserved nothing of what he’d come into in his career, until he is overthrown by the “brutes” he’d attempted to control and suppress.

Remember that the next time you read a business-press takedown of Mayer.

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