Having a baby is the least of her worries

By Mic Wright on July 17th, 2012

Marissa Mayer is a woman. She has a womb and there’s a baby in it. Neither of these facts has any real bearing on her move to Yahoo! to become chief executive. Under-utilised and seemingly unloved under the new regime at Google, it makes sense that Mayer has moved on to new challenges and there are few as big as turning Yahoo! away from the iceberg of irrelevance it has been steaming towards for the past few years. Yahoo! sheds chief executives like Madonna sheds younger boyfriends.

Mayer joined Google in 1999 as its twentieth employee. She was one of the 15 employees who first kicked around the infamous informal mantra “don’t be evil” and one of three who created the money-making machine that is Google AdWords. Yet the media coverage surrounding Mayer’s move has been unnecessarily focused on her gender and pregnancy, as if carrying a child might suddenly render her useless.

That Mayer is set to have a child shortly after she takes on the mewling, vomiting, faeces-covered bundle of flesh that is Yahoo! is fairly unimportant. Her choice to work through her maternity leave and cut it short has been the subject of much comment but ultimately it is just that: her choice. You don’t read reports on the elevation of a man to the chief executive seat that comment on his childcare arrangements or whether he plans to bring offspring into the world. It isn’t relevant.

Mayer is a talented executive with some serious chops when it comes to navigating the turbulent waters of tech corporate culture. Larry Page made a big mistake when he became Google’s boss last year: he left Mayer in a backwater and denied her a board seat. She was always going to look elsewhere if Page and Brin failed to recognise her integral role in many of the company’s successes.

By shoving Mayer aside, putting her in charge of the company’s maps and location products, Google started a countdown clock. It was only a matter of time before she jumped to another firm. Some will question whether Yahoo! really was the next port to sail to after leaving Google’s safe harbour. But this isn’t some dumb blonde. Facebook already has its own arse-kicking Silicon Valley siren in Sheryl Sandberg, Microsoft is a management monstrosity and Twitter is too small a playground for someone like Mayer.

Yahoo! is the biggest challenge in the sector, a venus fly trap for talented chief executives. Mayer is a sharper, more nimble operator than many who have stepped up to deal with the firm’s corrosive culture and horrific lack of innovation but she will still struggle. Arresting the slump will be a horrifically tricky task and Yahoo! must learn to create compelling consumer products again. Flickr has lost to Facebook, Delicious has been done away with. The new killer Yahoo! brand is yet to be invented, despite some experiments.

Google taught Mayer to make decisions based on data rather than sentiment. It is a focus that Yahoo! desperately needs, but Mayer will have to go further and harder than she has ever before to make a difference to an ailing business battered by better, bolder and younger competitors. Though more prurient Silicon Valley observers tittle tattle about how Mayer plans to decorate her nursery as well as redecorating the board room, the baby is the least of her worries.

Babies evolve and innovate naturally. Yahoo!, on the other hand, suffers from arrested development.