Designing Woman: Marissa Mayer, VP of Search Products and User Experience

Posted by Wayne Kalyn on June 14, 2011
Designing Woman: Marissa Mayer, VP of Search Products and User Experience
She had 12 job offers in her hip pocket when, one Friday night in her Stanford dorm room, Marissa Mayer stumbled on an e-mail message slugged, "Work at Google?" It was 1999, and the fledgling search company had only seven employees-and its conference room was a Ping-Pong table. She had been entertaining an offer from McKinsey, but wowed by the brilliance of founders Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and their team, she accepted an engineer spot at Google. Her reasoning: She felt she'd learn more from failing at Google than succeeding someplace else. Nine years have passed and Mayer hasn't looked back-or failed. Now VP of search products and user experience, she manages 150 product managers who direct the efforts of nearly 2,000 software engineers. She has designed and launched Google Earth, Google Trends, Google Toolbar, Google Alerts, Google Images, Google Health, Google Lab, Google News, and Google Books. "I always put the user first when I get ideas pitched to me," says Mayer. "I like to think of my mom and wonder if she would be able to get an idea right off the bat."

We caught up with Mayer on a frantic afternoon-she has no other kind-to ask what makes her, and Google, tick.

Q: You've launched countless products during your nine years at Google. What's the secret to your success?
A: The way you find really successful innovations is to release five things and hope that one or two of them really take off. We like to put products out there early, see what users say about them, find out about additional features they'd like to see, and then build those out. We anticipate that we're going to throw out a lot of products. People won't be able to remember those, but they will remember the ones that matter.

Q: Pundits say the tech bubble never burst at Google. They mention the Levis-and-Pumas dress code, the four-star cafeteria, employee lounges for workday chilling, and the flat hierarchy where people are, at times, their own boss. True?
A: We have retained a lot of the good things about tech culture before the dot-com mayhem, but there is a key difference between Google and companies that are no longer with us: profit. From the very beginning, we've been committed to a business model that makes money. Sergey [Brin] once said that he wanted to differentiate himself from every other losing dot-com president- so he could get dates. Making money was the way to do it. I liken the bubble bursting to a forest fire-to mix metaphors. It helped clean out the brush and overgrowth in the industry, and the trees that survived were healthier. There were a lot of weird things happening in the late '90s and early 2000. Selling pet food on the Internet at outlet prices? Pet food is heavy, so it's expensive to ship. It's better to buy it at the grocery store down the block.

Q: You preach that great ideas-and the products that spring from them-come from all parts of a company. So the odds are good that the next great idea for Google could come from an administrative assistant as much as you or Larry Page?
A: Every great company needs to set up a system so everyone can contribute ideas-some of which will rise to the top in a Darwinian way. Some of our ideas come from the top down, because they fit into our overall strategy; some come from our users. Google Maps came from an acquisition. We discovered four engineers in Australia who were amazingly good at map interfaces. We teamed them up with JavaScript experts here at Google-and Google Maps was born. Ideas can spring from someone trying to solve a problem in their own life. Engineer Krishna Bharat found himself consumed with reading news about 9/11. Everyday he'd log on to the same 15 news sites and read stories about, say, anthrax, to get different perspectives. To make it easier for himself, he created a tool that would gather the news from a bunch of sources and cluster them together. He passed the tool along to fellow Googlers to use and someone said, "Hey, this might be great for our users." Voila: Google News.

Q: Give us one example of how Google users have helped the company.
A: There's one Google zealot-we don't know who he is-who occasionally sends an email to our "comments" address. Every time he writes, the email contains only a two-digit number. It took us a while to figure out what he was doing. Turns out he is counting the number of words on the home page. When the number goes up, he gets irritated, and he emails us the new word count. As crazy as it sounds, his emails are helpful. They remind us to keep things simple, not to introduce too many links. It's like a scale that tells you you've gained two pounds.

Q: What is the coolest tool on Google-the one that makes your heart beat a little faster?

A: Well, for me, it's search in general. When I do a search, it's always exciting to see if the right thing comes up. I love Google Alert, which supplies email updates on the latest online results- whether it's a developing news story you're following, keeping current on a competitor or industry, or staying abreast of what's being written about you or your friends. If somebody changes jobs, you'll know about it right away-and you can send him a note of congratulations. Google Trends is also very cool. It lets you see what the world is searching for. I've been trying to see if it's an accurate predictor of the presidential election. The way I see it, the searches on Trends essentially mirror people's mind share. How much they search for something is roughly equal to how much they care about it.

Q: You've organized Google Movies outings for employees and their families. You don't have an MBA, but it sounds suspiciously like one of those team-building exercises that everyone learns about in business school. Does it work?

A: Sure does. The outings were started by Georges Harik, a Google engineer, and me. More than an MBA team-building exercise, this was something that grew out of our culture. Georges and I both loved movies so we were eager to share and organize
outings with our colleagues. They were a big success. In fact, most early Googlers counted on Google Movies as their Friday-night activity.

Q: Your favorite flick from movie night?
A: Fight Club. It helped us bond in the office. We went around the office quoting lines from the movie for a whole month.

Q: Speaking of fighting, do you wake up every morning thinking of ways to kick Microsoft's butt-like launching Chrome, your new web browser? Is that what gets you up in the morning?

A: What gets me up in the morning is having one of the most fabulous jobs in the world. I would come here even if they didn't pay me. (My boss is just nice enough not to take me up on that.) It's hard to think of doing something more meaningful than helping people get the best possible information and answer questions that are closest to their hearts. That being said, we need to be aware of what the competition is doing and the shifts in the industry. But some companies pay so much attention to what the competition is doing that it forces them to make bad decisions. As Omid Kordestani, our senior VP for global sales, says: "You don't want to be looking in the rearview mirror so much that you drive off the road." You need to stay focused on your core.

Q: If that's the case, why is Google developing the GPhone or working on renewable electricity technology? Isn't the company in danger of "driving off the road"?
A: First, tackling big problems is what Google does. The mobile phone platform will be incredibly important for search and information access in the future. Helping that technology along is in Google's-and our users'-best interest. For instance, we care deeply about the climate crisis. Wind works well, solar works well, and a lot of other alternative energy solutions work well, but the economics haven't been worked out. We try to look at problems and ask, "What would we like to see happen here?" Sometimes that means rolling out a product ourselves, or it could mean providing an incentive for someone else to do it. It certainly isn't a matter of Google trying to master everything.

Q: How does a new Googler, specifically an MBA, shoot up the ladder?

A: The race is really with yourself. We have a policy that allows you to nominate yourself for a promotion and raise, so you can climb the ladder that way. People who thrive at Google are eager to grab hold of more responsibility. There is a lot more work here than there are people to do it. Some people arrive at the company and feel overwhelmed by that fact. They'll say, "This isn't getting done, that isn't getting done. There's no one assigned to this. Wow, there is no product manager on Google Toolbar." Other people, the ones who really do well, say, "Look, there is no product manager on Google Toolbar. I can move over there and take on that responsibility and grow it into something really big." That kind of mindset leads to advancement.

Q: You've said the mission of Google is to be like a Swiss Army knife-clean, simple, the tool you want to take everywhere. How do you keep your very smart engineers from trying to add bells and whistles?

A: Google engineers focus on the user first. It's in the air and water here. Yes, we are busy taking everything to the next level-making searches faster and easier-but that's happening on the back end. The technology gets ever more sophisticated, but the interface remains simple and approachable. Our explicit mission is: Type what you want in the box, and we'll give it to you. The fact that you can search a thousand times as much information as you did a few years ago, or that Google can handle a thousand times as many searches as we did a few years ago, isn't reflected in the interface, which is still simple.

Q: You repeatedly mention taking the long-term view in terms of developing products at Google for the user. How does this square with the company's need-and every company's need-to report bottom-line growth every quarter?
A: We put a premium on the longterm happiness of the user. Too many companies forget that if you put the users first and serve them well, you'll build a very strong and healthy business. We're not going to take a $10 million ad buy and put another company's logo on the home page for the day. The equation is pretty simple: If we make our users happier, we get more search. If we get more search, we get more ad clicks. If we get more ad clicks, we get more advertisers. That's how you generate an upward spiral.

Q: In a company of engineers, where even some of the corporate counsel has computer science credentials, where do MBAs fit in? Should they have a little computer science tucked away in their back pockets?

A: If an MBA is working with an engineer, you bet she should. But we also have MBAs who are successful without any CS experience. They usually work in business operations, marketing, and customer support. They are very effective here. It takes a village to make
Google a success.

MBA Jungle, Winter 2008-2009

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