Marissa Mayer & Yahoo. What's missing


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I've read more than a dozen stories about Marissa Mayer's move to Yahoo. Many of them miss the fundamental point. Let me get this straight first though - I think Marissa Mayer is an awesome choice for Yahoo and she has a lot to offer the company. It is also great to see another woman take the reigns of a large technology player. It's about time.

But most of the stories in the press discount what Yahoo needs most and why Marissa Mayer is such a smart choice. There's no use in Yahoo thinking of itself as a media company or a technology company if it doesn't understand user experience deeply. That's why Steve Jobs was special. That's why Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook is too. That's also why two decades ago David Filo, Jerry Yang and Marc Andreessen stood out at Yahoo and Netscape. The Yahoo CEO needs to understand how real people want to engage with digital products. But more than that the person has to have a specific vision for how people will engage with them in the future. No focus group will answer that for the CEO. It is the most critical skill/intuition that any leader who works in technology must have. The Yahoo CEO needs to use that to guide every decision. And it is different from having product chops.

Not enough senior executives have that brain muscle. Many of them (no offense meant), grew up being forced to spend inordinate amounts of time looking at excel spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations in MBA programs or early job assignments that stifled creativity. Not enough spent those years creating wireframes in Visio, pushing pixels in Photoshop or sketching in notepads on their weekends. Not enough were liberal arts major or sociology graduate students. This may not matter for brick and mortar organizations that change slowly and have much deeper barriers to entry and where business processes and efficiences drive the business. But it isn't in the case with digital. A Yahoo CEO cannot be rooted in media, technology or even content. Yahoo desperately needs a user experience visionary. It has all the assets in the world and if there's anything that Facebook, Flickr, Instagram and Pinterest has taught us, its that this is not about the technology either. 

Steve Jobs described the need perfectly when talking about Bill Gates in a story on how Microsoft lost its mojo. Here's the quote from the Vanity Fair story that captures his view -

Bill likes to portray himself as a man of the product, but he's really not. He's a businessperson. Winning business was more important than making great products. Microsoft never had the humanities and liberal arts in its DNA."

Yahoo needs to recover. A lot of us still remember the day the directory was launched and want Yahoo to succeed desperately. The board  of Yahoo did its job in choosing someone who has a history of making great products and focusing on the user experience. Now its time for Marissa to do hers.


Follow me on Twitter (@shivsingh) for more insights on digital strategy and social media.

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