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Marissa Mayer Has a Secret Weapon (wired.com)
192 points by mikeleeorg on July 23, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 88 comments

Halfway through the two-year program, Mayer herself would lead the group on a summer trip to visit international Google outposts. (I accompanied the trip in 2007; we went to Tokyo, Beijing, Bangalore, and Tel Aviv. This year, one of the cities included Jakarta.) It would be a bonding experience for each year’s group of APMs — bonding with each other and to Mayer.

Why do I get the feeling that the author is referring to newly hatched Velociraptors rather than human beings?

It's not like this "bonding" will mean they recognise Mayer as their den mother for life or something.

I'm a current APM and just went on the trip with Marissa in June. I didn't know her well before the trip. Older APMs spoke highly of her mentorship, but I was expecting her to be less involved with our class simply because she's been doing it for 10 years and things change. Google's a bigger company etc.

But she took time to get to know us, share stories from the Early Days, give advice about the valley, sing karaoke — even with a baby on the way! She seemed genuinely invested in each of us, and it's hard not to reciprocate and respect her for that. I laughed when I read the article because "den mother" is not an unfair characterization :)

But that said, most APMs from my year aren't ready to jump ship to Yahoo!, at least for now.

What happens on the APM trip stays on the APM trip.

You an APM now then Jenny? Is that what you are upto over in Googlererland?

Yeah--I just finished my 2 years as an APM and I'm now a product manager (same job but without the 'A'). Hope all is going well with you! Love the name change!

Come back and tell us about it sometime. Turing Festival is going great guns.


Looks fantastic! I will have to make it next year :)

There are so many people leaving comments that entirely miss the point here.

We will have to wait at least 6 months to really start seeing if Mayer is able to grapple with the listless behemoth that is Yahoo. Most of that time will be her getting up to speed and laying her own foundation on where the company should go. So don't expect to see much in the surface for at least that long.

Digging further into the content of the story, in many ways this can be considered a valuable resource she has been building for many years.

People will follow a good mentor if there are special opportunities on offer. There are many people at Google and other places that are not satisfied with their options. To these people, money is not as satisfying as control and advancement. If Mayer is able to offer key people better options, many will be inclined to at least explore the idea.

Don't hang on to this idea that Yahoo is the place to suicide your career and/or company via acquisition. That's the old and current Yahoo. If Mayer is able to overcome that old inertia, then Yahoo could easily become a very hot place to be again. A good analogy is to think of an old, massive forest. It's all old trees that are half dead and centuries of undergrowth. A fire finally comes along and sweeps through. All of the undergrowth and dead trees are burned away. Now many young and vibrant plants can grow again, animals come back in abundance, and the whole forest ecosystem is better than ever. And please, hold off on the fucking criticisms of my version of forest ecology. It's an analogy.

So the point here is that if Mayer can start changing things finally, then there will be all kinds of interesting new things that people close to her could benefit from over the next few years.

I doubt that even 6 months is enough time given the issues at Yahoo. May Yahoo shareholders show some restraint and patience to see this out as the long-term challenge that it is before jettisoning yet another CEO.

You have a most excellent point. I'm sure we won't see significant changes for a while, and this is a very long game that must be played. The critical adversaries Mayer will have is the flip floppish board at its head and the shareholders, as you say. Do you know if there were any changes in the board with her hiring? It would be interesting to know which members supported her and which didn't.

I don't think the board can be called floppish anymore, unless we see it again some time soon. We have to keep in mind that when Daniel Loeb came into the picture, he not only forced Thompson out, he forced the board to change members. It's not the same board as it used to be. And THEN they brought in Mayer.

I doubt it. They've shown questionable judgement merely by hiring Mayer, whose accomplishments at Google are not especially respected among those with inside knowledge, and whose priorities will shift wildly after she gives birth in October. The board will terminate her in 2013 after 7-8 lackluster months. Then they'll start shopping Yahoo to be broken up and sold as parts.

"and whose priorities will shift wildly after she gives birth in October."

Are you insinuating that she'll focus more on her family than her job?

For the baby's sake, let's hope so!

As a parent myself, I know that the first few months of parenthood are difficult and life-changing, regardless of how many nannies one might afford.

And yet I have never seen anyone post their concerns when a Male CEO becomes a father. I wonder why that is...

They should. There are indications that becoming a parent lowers testosterone levels in men.

If you want to pretend, for political correctness' sake, that we're not largely slaves to our hormones, have fun with that.

I wrote some of the best, most creative code of my life in the first 6 months after my son was born. I was focused, and yet could work on multiple project simultaneously very effectively.

I got hardly any sleep, so if that is "being a slave to my hormones" I'm all for it!

Either way, I think it is fair to say that the effects or parenthood are very unpredictable.

You'll need to offer studies establishing a causal relationship between testosterone levels and technical/business success for the difference to mean anything.

For all we know lower testosterone levels may lead to a heightened business acumen.

It obviously does not affect everyone in the same way, but as a generalization, I would say that becoming a parent clearly makes one a more responsible person.

Surely you're not suggesting that she will be less capable to head Yahoo after she becomes a mother? The first few weeks / months are difficult, but after she adjusts to the 'new normal' that is parenthood, she should be right on track.

Having a baby doesn't seem have slowed down Sarah Lacy. If anything, she's turned it up a notch.

The APM program is a time limited (2 year) program that is fairly "up or out", in the model of McKinsey-esque programs.

If you're someone that Google has decided is an "up", I highly doubt Google is going to let these people go so easily. These people are already being aggressively retained with bonuses and the like.

If you're an "out", well, by definition Yahoo won't be that interested.

And the "ups" that "became outs", so to speak, are people who are of such strong personal conviction that they turned down gobs of money in 2007 from Google to, say, take a riskier position at Facebook or do their own thing. In those cases, it's unlike more gobs of money from Yahoo in 2012 will convince them to jump ship, unless Marissa can offer things to recruits that she couldn't offer to recruits at Google. (This seems unlikely - there was little Google couldn't offer the APMs it lost.)

Based on that logic, no good APM would ever leave Google. Somewhat surprisingly (apparently?), some people don't think money is everything and look at other things too.

Here's a pitch for you:

You can stay at Google, be successful and make good money. But here at Yahoo we have this search engine. We want YOU to make it better and more profitable than Google is. Look - we'll pay you plenty of money to come, but I'm sure Google will offer you just as much ore more to stay. But if you succeed in this role - which everyone assumes we won't even attempt - then you will be a legend in Silicon Valley forever.

Good bosses carry you long way forward. And this is not an understatement. Just look at what happened to the VP's in GE when Jack Welch was the CEO. They all went on to become CEO's of some very big companies.

You can go far in life by following a very successful boss. And there may well be more promotion opportunities / more responsibility available at yahoo under Marissa than staying at Google. Or perhaps they've already made a million or so and own a home; why not take a flyer and see where it goes? I think you massively underestimate personal loyalty to someone who it sounds like went way out of her way to look out for these folks' careers. Because if someone did that for me I'd be loyal.

The lower levels of a company are like undergrad... you go there for the reputation of the company/school.

The upper levels are like grad school... you go for the reputation of the boss/professor.

Upvoted. The best advice I received was: "Go where the boss is good and where you can go well with the boss."

Fair enough. Being a good boss who actually mentors their employees is a secret weapon anywhere. :)

As a former APM who went with the author and Marissa on the trip mentioned and now running a YC-backed startup (Optimizely) I can't speak highly enough of the APM program. Marissa did a tremendous job building a program that gave me the skills to be successful as an entrepreneur on my own.

APM Program : Big Companies :: YCombinator : Startups

I was an APM intern last summer. It really was an amazing experience, and it taught me a lot - most especially that I have no idea what I'm doing.

APMers have a great deal of respect for Marissa, and she invests heavily in the program. There's no doubt Marissa knows how to recruit talent really well. That said, it's not as if current APMs will be clamoring for jobs at Yahoo. For better or worse, most seemed to be motivated by status and learning opportunities. If Marissa can offer both at Yahoo, then it could be enticing.

most especially that I have no idea what I'm doing

So why not apply to YC instead of learning how to not innovate?

The APM program teaches you quite a bit about how to innovate - in a large company. YC teaches you how to do it by making your own startup. It depends on what you want.

Can't reply to him so I'll reply to myself. Where is the evidence of innovation? If Google is doing such a great job of innovating, why do they buy companies instead of spending their hoard of cash to innovate from within?

(It takes a few minutes for a reply to be allowed.)

The article lists some of the bigger successes from the APM program. There's also a lot of smaller ones you'll never hear about.

Strategies for innovation don't have to be mutually exclusive. Google has decided talent acquisitions are one way to continue innovation. They've also decided the APM program is another, which is why it continues to this day.

Google's blessing is that it has a naturally large audience for showing new features/products. Its curse is that innovation has to be planned more carefully, both from a technical and a product point of view. That's where APMs do really well.

I re-read the article but missed the innovations that occured within Google. What were they?

The ones included in the article are Gmail, Toolbar, and Chrome.

"The ideal applicants must have technical talent, but not be total programming geeks — APMs had to have social finesse and business sense."

I would just like to note I met some of said APMs in a gathering in Tel Aviv and they were all cordial, knowledgeable in their topics of work and helpful. After speaking in passing with one of them I was contacted in less than a week by the VP responsible for the topic in EMEA - I don't know if it's typical for a Google employee, but my casual impression was all that article said and more.

This article really lends credence to the idea that Mayer was hated inside Google. She set up her very own Waffen-SS of unskilled, inexperienced credit takers who were undoubtedly at odds with the rest of the company or at least the technical talent.

This article also has a good example of the blatant anti-intellectualism used in tech management:

"The ideal applicants must have technical talent, but not be total programming geeks — APMs had to have social finesse and business sense."

Obviously anybody 'too geeky' couldn't possibly have social finesse or business sense, but these APMs, with less than 18 months experience, were supposedly the uber-elite commandos at everything. The article goes further with the common theme of trying to confuse the source of technical talent. It claims that "Yahoo will be hiring great managers and product people" which will (of course) solve the problem that "the best techies have gone elsewhere."

Business schools espouse the same kind of inner-circle-ism: anoint the inexperienced, give them access, and tell them they are special and they will be under your control. B-Schools do it to get people to pay $100k+ for a degree program while Mayer seems to have done this for power. It's not a bad strategy political-wise, but it only works in the short term.

Why is this downvoted? While the tone (especially of the first para) could be improved, the author has a point. It is hard to escape the implication that these youngsters who "must have technical talent, but not be total programming geeks" end up with far more power in the organization than hard core engineers with similar experience ever could. I am not saying that's the way it works at Google, but that is the impression the article gives.

(If the article is true) It looks like the best way to get promoted at Google is to be "not too geeky" and join the APM program than join as an engineer with the same level of experience, where the chances are you'll get assigned to some creaking legacy code bug fixing with not much chance of creating an impact on the organization. Middle Management vs Engineering as the fast track career path in large companies. Not much of a contest.

I've worked with a couple of these APMs and they were awesome. I've never experienced or heard of this credit-jealousy around APMs that you're describing (I have seen it with other employees though).

Obviously, I'm just one data point.

since I didn't say anything about anyone's feelings (including jealousy, for credit or otherwise), I suspect you maybe reacting to another post(possibly the OP)?

I wonder how Googlers who weren't selected as APMs feel about having to compete with these pre-designated golden boy and -girl elites?

I also wonder whether many APMs display any sense of clubby entitlement? Probably not many of them do, but in any group like that there are usually a few here and there.

Cliques and entitlement? At Google? Unspeakable.

Ok, that one made me laugh.

Do we have any APM's here on HN that might be willing to comment?

APMs are definitely a clique while they work for Google, but after they leave they are just a network of friends and contacts. I think this article is overplaying their loyalty to Marissa. Nobody I've ever met thought Yahoo would be a good place to work and I doubt that will change much in the near future.

I never had the impression that APM was anything "elite". It's a rank somewhere around the SWE-3 level of project management. I'm sure there are APMs who get great opportunities, just as there are SWE-2's and -3's that land on the best projects pretty randomly.

If you want to be a PM, Google probably isn't the best place for you, just as you probably wouldn't work for a steel company to write software.

tldr: Marissa Mayer is strongly connected to lots of extremely smart people. Wired needs clicks, so they call this a "Secret Weapon." Hardly.

It seems to me that Wired missed a more important aspect of all this. Yes, having started the APM program at Google means she has lots of useful relationships. But more importantly, it means she's solved this problem before.

It's a lot easier to attract top college tech talent to a company that's already ranked #1 by some as the most desired employer for college grads. It's something else to get them to go to Yahoo, in a market where Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and others are all hiring.

This is a different problem altogether.

Nope. In both cases the problem is, "this company can't attract the kind of talent it needs." The underlying issues might be different, and the solution might also be different, but the problem is the same.

The Yahoo case looks like a more difficult problem precisely because the APM was so successful. In hindsight it looks obvious. But it wasn't obvious in 2002.

Exactly. My reaction to this article was somewhere between "Duh!" and "Wasn't recruiting one of the big arguments in favor of hiring her?"

Implementing a rotational leadership program in the mold of GE, Nielsen, Abbot Labs, et al was definitely a great accomplishment for Mayer. I would hesitate, however, to call this a "secret weapon." She would be wise to implement a similar program at Yahoo, but implying that significant APMs would follow her from Google out of 'den mother' loyalty is ridiculous.

Every time I've seen a good exec move from a company, over the next 6 months you see people follow them. Every. Single. Time.

To say that it is ridiculous for this to happen to Marissa is in my books the same as saying that she is not a good executive. People will follow her. The only question is who, and what their impact will be.

Especially given the currently depressed state of Yahoo stock, and the potentially enormous upside of the stock options that will undoubtedly be available.

Every time I've seen a good exec move from a company, over the next 6 months you see people follow them. Every. Single. Time.

Exactly. Now that she is a CEO, her old direct reports can follow her over and be in higher positions than they were at Google. They can have more control than they had at Google and implement their collective ideas as they see fit.

I agree. As people move up, there often lurks a desire to "get the band back together."

First, as the article clearly states, many of the APMs are no longer at Google. So, there's no universal notion of jumping ship from Google to go to yahoo.

Second, I think it's ludicrous to dismiss the value of the connections and impression that someone like Mayer would make by heading up such a program at such company. In short, she's got one of the best networks of talent, many of whom feel indebted to her. I'd expect at least a few of them will be glad to come to Yahoo, if Mayer calls.

I completely agree with your point, also made in the article: It would be not be surprising if some of these baccalaureate APMs wind up at Yahoo.

As the article pointed out, however, It’s not surprising that a high percentage of APMs go elsewhere. APMs are chosen for their ambition and independence. Those traits are often at odds with working at a big company

A successful executive at any organization could be expected to bring along X number of of loyal reports if they move laterally. It seems likely though that the especially ambitious and independent individuals discussed would be less likely to do so. This could be compounded by the reported personal difficulty some individuals had while working with her (Douglas Edwards' book http://www.amazon.com/Im-Feeling-Lucky-Confessions-Employee/...).

In all, the headline sensationalized the situation: she developed an employee incubator program at Google and some of the graduates will probably end up at Yahoo.


Are you an employee or an employer? If the former, how did you get your current job? If the latter; how did you find your last hire?

The viability of this depends on whether she can sell the idea of Yahoo Reborn. To do that, she's going to have to cull a huge number of bad actors from the existing management, PM, engineering, and design staff -- across the board.

The last big move like this I'm aware of was Steve Jobs' Apple take-over, where he managed to turn Apple into a bigger NeXT, and either shunt all the classic Mac OS people to the sidelines, or force them (as much as possible) to adapt.

It wasn't a perfect transition (see: Carbon vs Cocoa and attempts to retire Carbon internally), but it was a pragmatic one, and it worked.

I'm not holding my breath, but it would be a major coup if she can do the same. Unfortunately for her, and unlike Apple's acquisition of NeXT, Yahoo didn't acquire her previous employer -- this would have greatly facilitated the wholesale replacement of entire dysfunctional teams from a new, better talent pool.

While I agree with the first 3 paragraphs of your opinion, I don't understand why Yahoo HAS to acquire Google to make your argument count? NeXT was not on its way to become the next-big-one. It was mostly Steve Jobs who changed things at Apple with other people's help and contribution.

If Marissa Mayer is as good as the general consensus is and has built connections with all these other smart people, I don't see why it would be a surprise if she turns Yahoo around as a genuine competitor. I don't think that she has to achieve this via some 'coupe'. After all, Yahoo has paid her massive amounts. I am sure they believe in her and respect her decisions rather than be upset with it.

Yahoo is very attractive right now.

"Especially given the currently depressed state of Yahoo stock, and the potentially enormous upside of the stock options that will undoubtedly be available." -- http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4282459

"Strictly on market cap alone, there is a lot more headway in YHOO. It's much easier to image their stock (and thus stock options) tripling in the next few years than GOOG. Microsoft ran into this problem when Google was still small." -- http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4283129

Likewise, implying that Mayer was somehow innovative in starting a program that was already widespread in large companies—that is ridiculous. I have yet to hear anything about Melissa Mayer that is actually innovative or impressive.

Mayer's secret weapon is knowledge of Google internal product roadmap, esp gmail. Well I guess that's not much of a secret either.

Any turnaround at Yahoo is going to have to build on the backs of user sign up which mean yahoo mail will need to start killing it against gmail. I would be surprised if we didn't see a revamped and rebranded (cough ymail) email launched at a big press event in the next 5-6 months.

I wonder if the Sparrow acquisition was accelerated when she left because Google decided they needed to accelerate their gmail roadmap too.

Sure hope they fix Yahoo Mail. I read my Yahoo inbox through GMail via POP now, which seems silly.

Why male?

People work at Google because it's Google, not because they want to work for Marissa Mayer.

The idea that Google's best and brightest will now jump ship to work at Yahoo seems unlikely.

Peons work at Google because it's Google, but the people this article is talking about (and the people Marissa Mayer needs at the moment) will go where the opportunity is.

Is Yahoo where the opportunity is?

I know a lot of APMs. Most of them are actually still at Google, but the ones that leave usually do so to found or be the first PM at a startup.

Strictly on market cap alone, there is a lot more headway in YHOO. It's much easier to image their stock (and thus stock options) tripling in the next few years than GOOG. Microsoft ran into this problem when Google was still small.

Right, but people who are still at Google are usually there for reasons other than the money. They like their coworkers, or they believe in the company's mission, or they feel that they are not in a position to take a big risk in their life right now. If they jump from Google to Yahoo now, they are taking a risk, moving from a company with strong product/market fit in their core businesses to one that's an also-ran in their core businesses, and for - tripling of their stock options? If they're willing to take on that sort of market risk, why not jump to a startup where the stock could potentially go up 3000x in the next few years? Or a fast-grower like Twitter or Facebook where the stock might triple, but the company already has product/market fit and doesn't need to stumble around searching for it?

This argument is used a lot and I don't really understand it. If you are really confident that Yahoo's stock will triple but you like Google better you could just buy shares (or options) to hedge that.

On a purely economic basis you probably are right. But employee options are granted, not purchased, and I suspect you work harder if you have skin in the game.

Also, from a self-actualization perspective it may be preferable to by VP of Worldwide Widgets at Yahoo than Director of EMEA Widgets at Google.

The best and brightest will work where they see opportunity and sufficient reward for the risk.

So what does this APM program actually consist of? How are people selected for it? What actually happens in those two years? How do people leave it? How is it different from similair programs at other BigCo s?Would any present/former members of this program like to comment?

I interviewed for an APM role in 2010, but didn't get the offer. So at least in terms of selecting people, I think the process is pretty standard.

A friend of my cousin saw the title of the link, then he said "What do they mean? Do they also talk about gossip in here?"


APM was just her way of creating a power base in a large organization, in Yahoo, APM is the opposite of what she needs since she is the big cheese now.

Regardless, all the fru-fru management speak is useless unless Yahoo can figure out what their product is, which it seems to have never been clear ever since it gave up on search and being the defacto easy to use web subject directory. They lost on search. Text based subject directories as simply not sexy to management types, who chose to ignore that is what most of their traffic was for when they were more popular. At this point its just a huge product-less enterprise running on fumes and coasting to a stop.

Best luck to her and yahoo, but all their and hers assets are meaningless until she, with her team, finds first needed thing for yahoo - vision. Hopefully they succeed.

While that is a very interesting point, she'll have to leverage it soon and with some impressive finesse to make it have any practical effect. It's still going to be one hell of an uphill climb.

With her product focus, I really hope Yahoo! starts investing in Flickr again...that was a great aquisition/product at the time and could be great again.

Yahoo should simply have an incubator. Pay 100 engineers full salaries for a 50% stack.

They tried that (with Brickhouse) and then shut it down as soon as the going got tough.

you take your best people wherever you go. Especially when they're your friends.

What does Yahoo do now?

If the secret weapon is a baby, I don't wanna hear about it!

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