Why Google's Execs Fear Losing Marissa Mayer

Last Updated Mar 7, 2009 9:55 AM EST

It's gotten to the point that Google is generating so much news related to our industry every day that we could devote our entire media blog to the Mountain View-based search giant alone. But that would be wrong. So, for now, we'll just try to summarize some of the recent, most salient developments once a week or so. (As I write this, from Las Vegas, I have just noticed that my colleague Cathy Taylor published a piece on Google today also; please check hers out before reading mine.)

Unlike most companies, Google rarely seems to seek publicity; the company isn't much into press releases, press conferences or any of that B.S. Most product announcements simply come via internal blog posts.

The company's conceit is that it operates as a "bottom-up" culture, where anyone's idea is as good as anyone else's. "Here at Google the words of every colleague, from associates to vice presidents, carry the same weight so long as they are backed by data," says Jonathan Rosenberg, SVP of Product Management, in a post immodestly titled "From the height of this place."
There are those who disagree -- such as those cheeky lads over at Valleywag, who have been labeling Marissa Mayer, VP, Search, and one of the most public of Google's executives, a "failure."
Let's consider the Wag's argument, as expressed by the ever-talented Owen Thomas: "In dictating the appearance of Google's Web pages, Mayer freely admits she makes subjective decisions. In more than a decade on the job, she has not yet codified her design instinct into a written style guide. Instead, Mayer's whims, which managers under her must make a study of, are what rule.

"Mayer may be talented. But her personal ties to Google's top management and her exerscise of arbitrary power are a betrayal of Google's supposedly meritocratic values -- a betrayal obviously tolerated at the very top of the company."

At this point, it is worth remembering that Mayer is one of the original Googlers, partly by virtue of the fact that she was then one of the co-founder's girlfriends, but also that she is herself an engineer, and an idealistic one at that.
As I was reflecting on Owen's critique of Mayer quoted above, I was reminded just how utopian those who have built the web as we know it remain, despite what must have been many disappointments along the way, this past decade and a half. Their shared world view is based in the superiority of logic over subjectivity, and as Jonathan conveyed in his post, the belief that "data" will ultimately win any argument.

(At this point in this post, I am obliged to reveal that I know both Rosenberg and Thomas, that I have worked with them both in the past, that I respect both of them a lot, and am always pleasantly surprised when I come upon anything either of them has written, because it is invariably well-informed and provocative.)
Sadly, however, I have never met Marissa. I've heard from the grapevine that she can be difficult to work with, and it is fairly clear to me from the profiles written about her that she is a narcissist, at the least, and may, like all of those who reside at the "heights" of Google, suffer from a mild case of the grandiose fantasy that any of them actually are somehow smarter, wiser, or more worthy than the rest of us mere mortals, who do not have eight or more zeroes behind our net worths.

All of which is to say I doubt I would like Mayer even if I did meet her, except for one small, tiny, messy detail, and that is her instinctive reliance on her feelings in order to keep Google's home page simple, clean, and faithful to the primary colors that, in the end, just may prove as responsible for Google's success as all of the algorithmic logic built into its search functionalities.

You see, logic has its limits in this world of ours. It can do marvelous things, but it cannot solve life's greatest dilemmas all by itself. (And sustaining a successful business model is indeed among life's greatest challenges.) Subjectivity represents a far messier part of our collective human experience, residing less in our brains than in our hearts, as well as in far less glamorous biological reservoirs of our emotions.

Those inside Google who think the company has thrived strictly on the basis of logic and data-supported initiatives, and therefore dismiss writers, singers, artists and other non-logical beings as irrelevant, are precisely the people Paul McCartney was trying to reach when he wrote one of his greatest songs, "The Fool on the Hill."
What I am suggesting is that for Google to grow out of its infancy into a force that lasts into the future, and truly becomes a force for good, these logicaholics will need to come to grips with the orthogonal power of art. Given the all-boy network that presides at the top of Google (and all of Silicon Valley's other shooting stars), even though she may be imperfect, perhaps in inexcusable ways, Marissa Mayer appears to be for the rest of us the best hope that art still will have its day.

I am certainly not the only person to sense this. Maybe that's why the boys at the top of GOOG (and they are all boys) do not want to lose her. They sense she knows something they have not yet quite been able to quantify. Remember, I have never said that Larry, Sergey, Eric or Jonathan were stupid; they're not.

But if they let their only artist-in-residence escape, however flawed she may be, they will be left naked as the day they were born, able to calculate but clueless about how to connect. That is not a successful path to the future...

Because the Internet, my friends, has never been about technology. It is about connecting.

My case is closed. This post, upon the advice of my editor, is meant to draw violent criticism and controversy. So please start heaping it on as soon as you can. I will be most appreciative.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.