There comes a moment in every very ambitious person’s life when she sees with perfect clarity that the path before her is blocked. For Marissa Mayer, Google employee No. 20 and Silicon Valley’s reigning “geek queen,” this moment occurred last year, when her former boyfriend, Google co-founder Larry Page, kicked her off the company’s elite operating committee, to which she had been appointed the previous year.
Page had taken over the running of Google’s day-to-day operations from Eric Schmidt, the company’s longtime CEO, in April 2011, and immediately launched a major renovation of the company’s structure and priorities. Mayer was bruised in that reshuffling. For about a dozen years she had presided over “search”—which is to say everything the user saw, felt, and experienced when navigating Google—but now she was shunted away from that core business and put in charge of “local”—maps, restaurant recommendations, and the like. This was arguably a demotion and at best a lateral move. And when Page overhauled the operating committee, or “OC,” Mayer’s reduced status was made both explicit and public. The committee was renamed “the L-Team,” after the boss, and he pushed Mayer off in order to make room for a handful of others, including Android and YouTube masterminds Andy Rubin and Salar Kamangar. “She was not included,” says her friend Dylan Casey, who left Google last year. The L-Team is Google’s Sanhedrin, a group of insiders that decides strategy and vets acquisitions. If you’re on it, you have a hand in shaping Google’s future—and, therefore, the future of global technology. If you’re not—well then, you have Google on your résumé and a net worth estimated at $300 million.
Mayer was not happy, according to people who know her. “Marissa is very, very, very driven,” says Brian Singerman, a former Googler who is now a partner at Founders Fund, a venture-capital firm. But at the office, she kept her cool. “She was a trooper,” is how someone familiar with the situation described her. “She worked through it.”
Google loyalists said the move was part of the reorg, plain and simple. “That was what Larry thought was best for the company,” says Casey. Others said it was political, a punishment for Mayer’s inability to play nicely with other VIP Googlers, and bloggers began to wring their hands anew over the larger question of sexism in tech. Two other people removed from the L-Team were also women; one of them, Shona Brown, who ran business operations, “is a freaking Rhodes scholar,” says a former Googler, “another one of these rock stars.”
Then there was the delicate matter of Mayer’s public but never widely reported relationship with Page. (“Most local journalists know the gossip, relish it,” vented Nick Denton on Gawker in 2006, but “wouldn’t dream of working it into an article,” so anxious are they to protect their access to Google’s top tier.) Although some of Mayer’s former colleagues insist the affair had no bearing on their friend’s corporate profile, others disagree, pointing to the hard facts: Under Schmidt, Mayer was on the committee; under Page, she was booted off. “It’s got to have some impact,” says Dave McClure, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley who knows Mayer slightly. “It gave her access to strategy and thinking at the highest levels. And it probably made it more difficult for her to advance. I don’t know too many other senior female executives who went out with the CEO who were still there after they stopped going out.” Page got married in 2007. Two years later, Mayer married the investor and lawyer Zachary Bogue.
She may have been stymied at Google, but Mayer, at 37, was already one of the most visible tech personalities in Silicon Valley. “She is, for all intents and purposes, famous,” says Casey. She was popular with the press for her accessibility in an industry notorious for its reclusive, or stammering, geniuses. She threw parties at her penthouse atop The Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco, to which everyone yearned to be invited. And throughout Silicon Valley and among the groupies drawn to its idiosyncratic nerd glamour, she was as well known for her hobbies—notably a taste for high-end fashion and a large collection of Dale Chihuly handblown glass—as she was for her tech cred. In a world still struggling to leave behind that age-old bias—girls can’t do math—Mayer was everyone’s favorite exception, fully girl and fully geek, a former ballet dancer who stayed up all night writing code. And one who seemed driven to make her own path when the men around her wouldn’t oblige. Frustrated at Google, she did what any strategically savvy executive in her place would do. She publicly shored up her brand while privately contemplating her next move. She tweeted her whereabouts from Davos and Vail as she kept things going at work (notably, overseeing the acquisition of Zagat listings). She got herself a seat on the board at Walmart. And she checked a big item off her Life List, one that might have been a professional obstacle for another kind of woman: She got pregnant.
Now, less than a year after news of her being sidelined at Google, Mayer arrives at two auspicious milestones virtually at once. Twelve weeks ago, she was named president and chief executive officer of Yahoo Inc., making her one of twenty female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and the only one to take the job while pregnant. At Yahoo, Mayer has her work cut out for her. Yahoo is a foundering brand suffering from a dramatic talent drain and years of chaos on its board and in its upper ranks. Its second-quarter results were grim, with U.S. search queries down 17 percent from a year ago and time spent on its content pages down 10 percent. The Yahoo stock price has been bumping along all year between $14 and $17 a share, about half of what it was five years ago. Mayer has to turn this around—and fast.
And last week, on September 30 at 10:22 p.m., her first child was born, a boy, weighing nearly nine pounds. “Name TBD,” she wrote in an e-mail she sent to a large circle of friends. “Suggestions welcome!” The e-mail was signed, “With love and happiness, Marissa & Zack.” It is, perhaps, a blessing that she doesn’t think much, she has said, of the high-achieving mother’s mantra, “balance.”
In celebration of the new arrival, Mayer’s friend Craig Silverstein, Google employee No. 1, who also left the company this year, is thinking about building Mayer a homemade diaper cake: three tiers of diapers in three different sizes, stacked around an empty cardboard tube and decorated all over with toys, onesies, and burp clothes. Mayer has made them for many of her friends’ babies and once showed him how, Silverstein says. “She had a whole recipe. She helped me make one. We went to five different places to get the right toys. You spend all night putting it together.” At the tippy top, Mayer likes to put a plush toy octopus. Silverstein calls the diaper cake “the perfect Marissa baby present”: “It has usability at its core.”
Now that the nation’s most notable geek girl has become its most visible CEO mom, there’s quite a bit of talk among America’s professional women about how she’ll manage. So far, she’s not showing any interest in the conversation. No high-profile CEO in crisis-management mode wants to appear distracted; were Mayer a man, she’d surely be expected to hand out cigars and get back to work. So it’s difficult to begrudge her reluctance to air her dirty diapers in public, and, indeed, the news out of Yahoo since her arrival there has been strictly business. (Mayer has declined to speak publicly about the birth; “Marissa is focusing her energy internally,” said a Yahoo spokesperson in an e-mail.) In her first several weeks, Mayer has hired some people—a new CFO, a new marketing chief, a new head of human resources, a new publicist—and fired some others. She freed up $4 billion in cash, holding money from the sale of part of Yahoo’s stake in the China-based e-commerce site Alibaba instead of returning it to shareholders, creating expectations that she’ll soon announce some major acquisitions. And she’s focused on boosting morale, giving employees free food in the Yahoo cafeteria and making quality-of-life improvements at the corporate gym and the parking lot. But what little she has said about her domestic plans has been endlessly masticated, for she appears to exist as a living, breathing rebuttal to the Atlantic’s recent “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” cover story. (For what it’s worth, “I don’t think she’s going to be an absent mom,” says Silverstein. “Family is really important to her.”) When Yahoo announced Mayer’s appointment on July 16, the Internet was cautiously pleased. But when, in a carefully orchestrated maneuver later that same night, Mayer tweeted that she was expecting, interest in her blew up. She had already given an interview to Fortune on the subject, to be published simultaneously: She included a link in her tweet. Fans and followers responded especially to the question of Mayer’s baby leave and her apparent failure to pay due respect to the overwhelming, exhausting, life-changing challenges with which she was about to be confronted. “I like to stay in the rhythm of things,” she told Fortune. “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long, and I’ll work throughout it.”
The debate was as immediate as it was inevitable: Was this good for working women or bad? Does Mayer’s display of ambition at the very moment of her blossoming motherhood show that a woman can, indeed, have it all? Yes, wrote Hanna Rosin for Slate: “Yahoo for Yahoo.” But others were not so sure. Mayer’s disregard for the preciousness of the mother-infant bond would not only harm her child—“Poor Marissa,” intoned a Christian blog called Wise Family Living—but also set a terrible precedent. Even a member of Angela Merkel’s cabinet felt compelled to weigh in: “I respect this personal step being taken by Ms. Mayer,” said Kristina Schröder, Germany’s family minister. “But I regard it with major concern when prominent women give the public impression that maternity leave is something that is not important. Maternity leave is absolutely important and not just from a medical point of view.”
Sheryl Sandberg might agree. Sandberg, who grew friendly with Mayer when they both worked at Google, is the chief operating officer of Facebook and has been promoting a message recently that is, for her, somewhat new. Women must be able to integrate their identities as mothers with their identities as professionals or they’ll never be happy at work. And then they’ll never succeed at the highest levels. “Before this,” Sandberg said in a speech at Harvard Business School earlier this year, “I did my career like everyone else does it. I never told anyone I was a girl. Don’t tell. I left the lights on when I went home to do something for my kids. I locked my office door and pumped milk for my babies while I was on conference calls. And people would say, ‘What is that sound?’ I would say, ‘What sound?’ ‘I hear a beep.’ ‘Oh, there’s a fire truck.’ ”
For all her bravado, Mayer seems to be playing by Sandberg’s old rules, and while her reluctance to air her inner conflicts may reflect strategic concerns, it’s also a big part of who she is. Since her earliest days at Google, and despite a canny performance of her own “girliness,” Mayer has refused to make the Woman Question part of her public persona. She doesn’t want to talk at all about how being a woman—in tech, or at Google, or in upper management—makes her different from the guys in the room or deserving of any kind of special consideration. “I’m a geek,” is what she always says. She expresses gratitude to high-school science teachers who praised her aptitude and never added, parenthetically and destructively, that she was unusual for it. She insists that in college, she never noticed that she was often the only female in the advanced computer-science courses. In Mayer’s view, the reason so few girls grow up to be computer scientists is that too few high-schoolers of any gender are exposed to computer science. If it turns out that after widespread exposure to computer science, “we still have an imbalance, we can deal with that then,” she said in an interview with NPR’s Laura Sydell earlier this year.
Recently, that kind of compartmentalization has become harder to pull off. At a tech conference in San Francisco in September, Mayer was onstage judging a competition among start-up companies looking unmistakably female—which is to say, hugely pregnant. She wore it well, in a black dress and slides, managing to appear chic-er, neater, and more petite than her rumpled and slouching male counterparts. Indeed, the most notable thing about Mayer’s appearance that day was the extent to which her body language failed to corroborate her physical condition. She indulged in none of the posture shifting, belly caressing, and back massaging that so often signals late-term discomfort. As puppyish entrepreneurs from seven start-ups paraded before her pitching their products—an electric car, an online apartment-rental service, an app that listens in on phone conversations—Mayer sat ramrod straight in a massive leather chair wearing expressions that ranged from blank to dyspeptic and doling out infrequent, grudging smiles. She asked fewer than five questions. “Can you talk about integration with [Apple’s] Passbook?” “How are you planning on scaling?” “What kind of accuracies are you seeing?” Then, flanked by bodyguards, she retreated behind a velvet curtain, helped to decide the winner (an online service that sends auto mechanics on house calls), and was whisked off into the cold, damp night.
What her pregnancy meant, and her new motherhood now means, remains a complicated question—for Yahoo, for her hothouse-circuit Silicon Valley fame, and for the much broader interest in her among ambitious, ambivalent professional women across the country. Mayer’s base salary is $1 million a year, not including enormous cash performance bonuses, stock grants, “make whole” compensation, and other sweeteners—all of which is to say that while American women may wish to see themselves, their maternal joys, and their workplace dilemmas reflected in Mayer, it is not a sensible comparison for most. Mayer is a superstar. She will work out her conflicts, however difficult, with the luxury of more-than-ample resources, keeping her own true feelings about her situation to herself. As a bottom-line matter, her maternity is an issue only inasmuch as it gives a foundering company some juicy buzz and makes critically ill Yahoo seem temporarily vital again.
But putting a pregnancy at the center of a story of corporate ascent is remarkable in itself. That the Yahoo board—and Mayer herself—have so successfully capitalized on it may be evidence, at last, that fertility, intellect, and big ambition can sometimes co-exist. Together they can even be a kind of selling point.
Including Mayer, Yahoo has had five CEOs in the past year. Before the board settled on her, it had, according to news reports, already courted David Rosenblatt, of DoubleClick fame, and Jason Kilar, of Hulu. And so despite its public pledges of support for Mayer the mom, the Yahoo board wasn’t really showing its feminist side, in hiring her, so much as it was praying Hail Mary. “People—men and women both—are more likely to put a woman or minority candidate into a top position when the company is distressed,” Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, says, referring to a phenomenon called the “glass cliff.” “This is a job that kind of nobody wants. The company sucks.” Mayer may have what it takes to run Yahoo, in other words, but her appointment is also a gimmick. She doesn’t want to talk about being a woman, but being a woman—and a pregnant one at that—probably helped her get the job.
When faced with a difficult decision, Mayer likes to create a spreadsheet. She went to Stanford as an undergrad, switching from pre-med to an esoteric major called “symbolic systems,” which is a mixture of philosophy, brain science, and artificial intelligence (anybody anywhere can do pre-med, she thought), and then continued on, getting an advanced degree in computer science. She entered the job market in the spring of 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, and got more than a dozen offers—from several dot-coms, including Google (she interviewed with Page and Sergey Brin at a Ping-Pong table), and one from McKinsey & Co.
“I like to do matrices,” she told NPR. “One option per line, different facets for each column. Salary, location, happiness index, failure index, and all that.” That spring, her matrix pointed her toward Google. “To my credit, I actually gave Google a hundred times more likely chance of succeeding than any of the other start-ups [from which she got offers], because I gave them a 2 percent chance of success. I gave all the other start-ups a .02 percent chance of success.” Google also met two of Mayer’s other conditions for maximizing personal success: Always work with the smartest people you can find, and always be in a little over your head. On her first day of work, Mayer helped hang a vinyl google sign between two balconies in the company’s second-floor offices on University Avenue in Palo Alto.
Mayer started as an engineer but was soon made a product manager; she was one of the earliest guardians, in other words, of the Google brand. In particular, Mayer was charged with protecting the home page—that iconic, blank, seemingly immutable interface between the powerful Google search engine and its public. All home-page managers live with a constant tension: The home page needs to showcase a company’s coolest, best, newest stuff, but it also needs to remain, always, recognizably itself. Over the years, Mayer oversaw dozens of large and small changes that improved the user experience at Google: the ability to type in queries in foreign languages; the enlarging of the search box; the graphical doodles that occasionally grace the logo (one of her favorites was a Les Paul guitar that played when you ran your mouse over its strings); and, eventually, universal search, which allows users to see results in all categories at once. Craig Silverstein says Mayer’s job amounted to something like quality control: “She brought a rigor to the process of how you make changes. There’s a lot of changes that people want. Marissa held the line.”
Mayer likes to work in what she calls a Darwinist environment, where the best ideas, and people, rise because they deserve to rise; when people fail it’s because they aren’t good enough, smart enough, or haven’t tried hard enough. And as she rose through the ranks at Google, she data-tested everything. Early in her career, she researched serif fonts against sans-serif fonts, discovering that “serif was more readable and sans serif more legible”; Google results are thus displayed in sans serif. She went on to test infinitesimal variations in the amount of white space between the Google logo and the first answer in a search-results list, finding that users liked less white space better. She tested the light-blue backgrounds on Google ads against a yellow and found not just that yellow worked better but that yellow ads made users happier with the site overall. In an effort to create coherence among all the different blues on different Google pages and products, Mayer once famously tested 41 shades of blue. “Design,” she said at the web-developer conference Google I/O, “has become much more of a science than an art.” This philosophy, more than anything else, led Google’s designer Doug Bowman to quit in 2009. “I won’t miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data,” he wrote in a blog post.
Those who succeed under Mayer tend to share her cutthroat worldview: Winners win. “She will outwork you; she will outwork anybody,” says Casey, a former professional cyclist who rode on U.S. Postal with Lance Armstrong and later worked with Mayer at Google for half a dozen years. Indeed, Mayer has said that she pulled 250 all-nighters in her first five years at Google, and has been dismissive of people who, as she puts it, “want eight hours of sleep a night, three meals a day.” Casey remembers sitting in Mayer’s office, perseverating about a project they were working on and worrying over office politics—how was he going to get around so-and-so, what would so-and-so say, that sort of thing. The entire time, Mayer was facing away from him, answering e-mail on her computer and nodding her head. Finally, she spoke. “Why are you running around the organization looking for people to tell you no?” she asked. “You know what to do. Just go do that.” It was an empowering directive, Casey says. As a manager, Mayer lays out expectations and then allows people to sink or swim, he adds. “If you achieve excellence, you’ve met expectations,” Casey says. “You should be relieved, not elated.”
When people don’t like her, friends say, it’s because they find her manner “too transactional.” And it’s no surprise that an executive so dismissive of excuses would be so uncomfortable with acknowledging the compromises or conflicts of her own life choices. For her, parenthood is not a special category of extracurricular activity. Mayer’s approach to questions of work-life balance is to give everyone—male, female, married, single, with children or without—the freedom to leave work for the things that matter most, whether it’s dinner with friends or marathon training or being on time for the soccer game. “I think that burnout happens because of resentment,” she has said. “That notion that, Wow, I worked 100 hours last week, and I couldn’t even have this thing that I really wanted.” As one of the most senior Googlers on staff, Mayer was notorious for demanding the respect of her peers and not taking kindly to arguments or disagreements from anyone up or down the chain of command, says another person who knows her. “She doesn’t listen as well as she speaks … I think she’s going to be a tough mom.”
Mayer, it must be said, is not the only high-ranking female executive in tech (see Virginia Rometty, Sheryl Sandberg, Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina), nor even the first female CEO of Yahoo. Around the time that Mayer was booted off the L-Team at Google, another high-powered woman was being kicked around at Yahoo. Carol Bartz, formerly chief executive of Autodesk, is, like Mayer, a female geek with a tough exterior. Bartz had been hired in 2009 to rescue the company; on a call with analysts soon after her arrival, she promised to “kick some butt.” Yahoo’s problems then were not so different than they are today: a depressed stock price; an exodus of the best talent to competitors, especially Facebook; a bloated organizational structure; and a rudderless sense of mission and purpose. Bartz was supposed to change all that. “She presented a take-no-prisoners image and was touted as someone with a reputation as a professional manager who could clean up the place,” wrote Kara Swisher in the tech-news blog AllThingsD. Two years into her tenure, after rafts of layoffs, Yahoo’s stock price was only slightly up and the board was at odds over whether or not Bartz had the vision to pull off the kind of dramatic rescue it thought Yahoo so obviously needed. A year ago, she left the company after blasting the following e-mail companywide: “I am very sad to tell you that I’ve just been fired over the phone by Yahoo’s chairman of the board.”
In the year since Bartz’s departure, Yahoo’s reputation has disintegrated further. Bartz’s replacement, Scott Thompson, resigned after five months in the wake of revelations that he had embellished his résumé. Under pressure from Daniel Loeb, whose hedge fund Third Point owns about a 6 percent stake in Yahoo, five board members resigned, three of them replaced by Loeb and his own picks. “It’s been a long time since Yahoo was relevant in Silicon Valley,” says Ries. If one of his friends had a Yahoo e-mail address, he adds, “I would think it was odd.”
How troubled is Yahoo? Nine months ago, the woman who was to be anointed Yahoo’s latest savior couldn’t even remember its name. At the Computer History Museum in January, Marissa Mayer took questions. In 1999, who were Google’s competitors in the search space? one person asked. Mayer approached the question as if it were a parlor game and she were being asked to name the seven dwarves or the capitals of the Great Plains states. She screwed up her face and began counting on her fingers. “Oh, let’s see,” she started. “AltaVista. Lycos. Infoseek. Dogpile. Ask Jeeves. GoTo.” Here she stopped and paused. For two full beats, she was stuck. And then: “Oh! Yahoo!” Mayer laughed. She has a husky voice, but her laugh is pure dork, a hybrid of giggle and snort. “That’s embarrassing.”
It wasn’t always this way, of course. In the mid-nineties, Yahoo was one of the most innovative tech companies in the country, and during the dot-com boom, its stock price soared from its IPO level of $13 per share to $108. But in hindsight, the company made some fatal mistakes: It initially failed to develop its own search technology, believing it could piggyback on the innovations of others. (Indeed, in 2000, Google was such a small fry that it actually paid Yahoo for the privilege of running its search.) And Yahoo imagined that it could continue to command big advertising dollars against its content in a dramatically shrinking ad environment.
So far, despite a vow of “radical transparency,” Mayer has revealed very few specific plans to revitalize the company. In her first month, she promised to give all Yahoo employees smartphones, a gesture that demonstrates Mayer’s commitment to mobile, a longtime obsession of hers and the frontier for all contemporary technology companies. “Search,” Mayer wrote on the Google blog in 2008, “still isn’t accessible enough or easy enough. Search needs to be more mobile—it should be available and easy to use in cell phones and in cars and on handheld, wearable devices that we don’t even have yet.” Four years ago, Mayer was dreaming of mobile devices that respond to voice commands and eavesdrop on conversations, offering up answers to questions that had not yet been asked. Trained at Google—where the ethos is: Launch products early and often, fix them later—Mayer is expected to break through the bureaucratic layers that have ossified at Yahoo of late and draw fresh talent, especially into the ranks of engineers. “Tech people respect her,” says Sarah Milstein, a social-media consultant. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the most optimistic Yahoos hope that with her technical chops and her celebrity heat, Mayer can somehow transform drab Yahoo into thrilling Google. “Considering that the CEO seat has been vacated and filled so many times in the last year, it would be really easy for Yahoo employees to be cynical,” says one former Yahoo employee. “But they’re not. They feel that this is a good fit.”
So far, however, investors are less impressed. On her hiring, the stock price barely budged. “I guarantee you a hundred percent that if you put Mark Zuckerberg in that job, the stock price would have gone up,” says Ries. On the day after her son’s birth, the value of the shares actually fell.
In a talk at Stanford in 2006, Mayer offered up what she called her “Macs and Madonna theory,” an explanation of how those two brands could retain their cool after more than two decades of exposure and numerous errors of judgment and execution along the way. The answer, Mayer decided, was iteration. “When you make a mistake, you just iterate your way out if it or you reinvent yourself,” she said. “And I think that’s ultimately the charge that we have: to launch these innovations and then to make them better.” Mayer was talking at the time about Google, but she may as well have been talking about herself. In the six years since that lecture, Mayer has transformed herself from a woman who looked, dressed, and talked like a graduate student into a femme-bot tech exec deserving of a spread in Vogue.
Indeed, Mayer’s true genius lies in the constant cultivation of her own celebrity, always playing one side against the other in new iterations of her geek-girl persona. And however reluctant she may be to talk about her own nerd-to-icon-to-mom transformation as an act of savvy feminist shape-shifting, her skill at managing her own protean persona means that she will always be a gender-studies lightning rod, no matter how aggressively, and fluidly, she manages to toggle (or Twitter) expectations.
Mayer is the most fashion-conscious executive in Silicon Valley, a place where fashion hardly matters. She continues to insist that she’s just a geek even as she pays $60,000 at an auction to have lunch with Oscar de la Renta. Last year, at a Fortune cover shoot, Mayer was photographed in three simple outfits, all suitable office wear. But she wanted to be shot in an Alexander McQueen gown that she happened to have with her. (The photographer obliged by shooting 33 frames, one of which appears at the beginning of this story.) And just last week, the day after Yahoo completed the first stage of the Alibaba sale, Mayer tweeted a photo of herself at the opening night of the San Francisco Symphony, wearing a maternity gown by “my friend and brilliant designer Erdem.” Mayer travels the San Francisco party circuit and hosted President Obama at her house for a fund-raiser, but in 2009 she protested to the New York Times that she was “not a girl about town,” saying she spent her weekends playing with hardware electronics. Before audiences at Google headquarters, she has interviewed Lady Gaga and Martha Stewart, and last month she came in at No. 7 on Vanity Fair’s “New Establishment List,” behind her old bosses, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, but ahead of the singer Adele. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, at this moment, Mayer’s personal brand is hotter than her employer’s.
This newest version of Marissa, the mom-geek-CEO, will surely test Mayer’s iterative powers, for she’s playing to a tougher crowd, one that won’t be placated by tweets, Manolos, and rapturous praise for pineapple malts. Scrutinizing her every move is the rest of Yahoo’s activist board, eleven (mostly) men who will surely fire her if she can’t bring up the price of the company’s stock holdings. And back at home there’s Baby Boy Bogue, who doesn’t care about anything except when he next gets fed.