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The adventures of Marissa

Julian Guthrie | February 8, 2008 | Story Profiles News and Features Tech World

A week before Christmas, Marissa Mayer, the most closely watched woman in the most closely watched company in the world, stands in the bedroom of her $5 million, 38th-floor penthouse at the Four Seasons, surrounded by Googlers who work for her. She is not what you expect.

In the many YouTube videos that capture Mayer talking to students at Stanford or making presentations at tech conferences, she comes across like a midlevel associate at an accounting firm. She is precise and methodical, even a bit soporific, and appears attractive in a Brooks Brothers or Talbots sort of way. But in person—tonight, anyway—she looks Grace Kelly gorgeous, a tall, blue-eyed beauty with blond hair pulled back from her fresh face. She is much livelier than you might imagine, and her clothes are anything but humdrum. For better or worse, Mayer is infatuated with the color purple, and she wears a formfitting deep-purple dress by C.D. Greene with small black mirrors that catch and reflect light. Together with the bedroom’s violet walls—replicated from one of her favorite cashmere sweaters—the look announces her love of eye-poppingly bright colors and Marimekko-type patterns.

At 32, the phenomenally brainy and driven Mayer—Google’s first female engineer—has already been on the cover of Newsweek, which called her “one of the most powerful women of her generation.” Among tech insiders, she is well known for her laugh—a nerdy, rapid-fire tat-tat-tat that has been made into a YouTube mashup and is available as a ringtone. For gossip websites like Valleywag, Mayer is an easy mark, a machinelike Google executive and (so they say) a social climber who paid $60,000 to win lunch with Oscar de la Renta, once dated Google cofounder Larry Page, and uses her looks for publicity. “Marissa is surprisingly pretty in person,” says Valleywag blogger and editor Owen Thomas. “That in itself is a rarity in Silicon Valley, and you’d have to be naïve to think that doesn’t color people’s views of her.”

But whatever else there is to say about Mayer—who is rumored to be worth several hundred million dollars—there’s no doubting her influence at Google. As vice president of search products and user experience, Mayer manages 150 product managers, who direct the efforts of nearly 2,000 software engineers; levels criticism and praise with the same cool gaze; and is an arbiter of much of what goes before Page, cofounder Sergey Brin, and CEO Eric Schmidt, who trust her as their gatekeeper. Just about everything that goes on at the Mountain View company, which is more valuable than the U.S.’s three largest traditional media companies combined (Time Warner, Walt Disney, and the News Corporation), falls under Mayer’s lens—from Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Books, and Google Images to the company’s other services, including news and health.

As more revelers descend on Mayer’s bedroom and surround her pet dog, an Aibo robot named Rover, she laughs her throaty laugh. (It is funny to watch the Google brain trust try to get Rover to roll over.) Just outside the door, the party rages on. She expects that more than 300 Googlers will eventually make their way past the hunky welcoming Santa (mischievous grin, no shirt, bulging biceps) to join the 10-deep line at the bar. When she emerges from the bedroom, she’s pretty much the only blonde in a room packed with mostly dark-haired young guys, many of Indian and otherwise Asian descent.

Not far from the bar is Matt Rabinowitz, a friend from Stanford who started a genetics company that Mayer has invested in and that specializes in judging the health of embryos preimplantation. He wears jeans and a white cotton shirt with a red-wine stain on the nipple. Brin and his wife, Anne Wojcicki, who runs the genetics company 23andMe, make their way through the crowd. One young engineer, fresh out of Princeton, looks at the display of cakes, which are designed to look like Christmas ornaments, with unease. Are they for eating or admiring? Mayer’s parents, Michael and Margaret, are also here, having flown in from their home in Wausau, Wisconsin, where Mayer grew up. They look a bit wide-eyed at the packed penthouse.

Despite Mayer’s nonchalance about the party—she acts goofy and girly and talks a blue streak—I sense the gathering means more to her than she will admit. Just eight years earlier, as a graduate student at Stanford, Mayer was often chided by friends for pulling all-nighters and showing up in the same clothes she had worn the day before. And with her ballerina posture, stolid gaze, and photographic memory, she’s often been pegged as arrogant or aloof. “I think people can be overwhelmed by Marissa’s energy,” says her mother. “She is very definite and precise. But she’s not as mechanical as she appears.” Especially when she’s away from the office. Indeed, now that she’s moved to one of San Francisco’s marquee addresses (she also has a Craftsman in Palo Alto) and begun to cultivate an eclectic array of personal passions, this event can be seen as a coming-out party of sorts for a new kind of Silicon Valley star.

The valley may be the Bay Area’s Hollywood, but its newsmakers—from Bill Hewlett to Meg Whitman—have been largely uninterested in the stuff Hollywood lives for: high-impact fashion, entertaining, and style. Even Google founders Brin and Page, now worth an estimated $20 billion each, still shuffle around the office in flip-flops and jeans. Rabinowitz, whom I met at the party, says Mayer is someone who “defies the norm in Silicon Valley. She’s not into fast cars or flying her own plane. A lot of people in Silicon Valley have hobbies to make a social point. Marissa has a totally individual sense of what floats her boat.”

Who else in Silicon Valley could report, with absolute seriousness, that she’d recently bought an array of cookbooks to study the cupcake recipes in each, created a spreadsheet for the ingredients, and then tested the recipes before writing her own? (She made another spreadsheet for frosting.) Indeed, for the cakes at tonight’s party, she sent I Dream of Cake 14 different links to ornaments she liked, with notations under each, such as “I like the color” or “I like this for the glitter.” (She has also invested in the company.) Mayer is equally obsessive about her art. Guests entering her apartment can’t miss the ceiling installation she commissioned from the famous glass artist Dale Chihuly: 400 pieces of blown glass in the shapes of sea flora and fauna. (For last year’s party, Mayer had this sculpture replicated in a cake—and actually teared up when she first saw it.) Behind the bar is a wall-size light panel with 576 individually placed Ping-Pong balls, which Mayer made over eight weekends spent home alone, inspired by the light display she’d seen at a 2005 U2 concert. On other walls hang original works by Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt, and Roy Lichtenstein.

But make no mistake: Even in these so-called hobbies, Mayer is fiercely competitive. She wants to make the best cupcake, wear the prettiest dress, have the coolest penthouse. “I’ve never had a conversation with her when she wasn’t completely certain she was right,” says John Battelle, a founder of Wired magazine and the Industry Standard and author of The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture. At heart, the driving force behind Mayer’s personal interests is not all that different from what motivates her most ambitious projects at Google: She likes to create things that make people—“the end user,” in her words—happy. In fact, one of her biggest projects may be the stylish overhaul of the one Google feature that’s come to represent the company’s keep-it-simple philosophy: its home page. After years of defending the minimal white screen for its user-friendly quality, Mayer finally agreed to push forward with a plan to let interested users customize the look of their page.

And she’s done it with her trademark brio, approaching a group of exceedingly cool artists—including game designer Will Wright, fashion icons Oscar de la Renta and Todd Oldham, and Mayer’s beloved Chihuly—to create “skins” that users can make part of their iGoogle page. “Designer Themes for Google” is supposed to launch sometime this month.

When Mayer first heard the word Google, it was impossible for anyone to know just how well her blend of Midwestern common sense, take-no-prisoners ambition, and love of all things brainy would mesh with a company whose goal was to organize all the information in the world. “Marissa was hired for a programming job,” says Craig Silverstein, Google’s technology director and the company’s first employee. “Now you look at her, and she’s the one deciding what we do.” He says Mayer is the most talented person he’s ever known.

Silverstein first met Mayer in the spring of 1999. She was 24 and getting ready to graduate from Stanford with a master’s degree in computer science (she already had a bachelor’s in symbolic systems). She had chosen artificial intelligence as her specialty because she was interested in logic and how it could be replicated in computers.

It was a heady time for computer science graduates, who were entering the market at the height of the dot-com bubble. Companies including Yahoo!, MarketWatch, VA Linux Systems, and were going public, creating some of the biggest first-day gains of all time. Entrepreneurs were becoming instant millionaires, ushering in an era of lava lamps, wacky ideas, in-office foosball, and lucrative stock options.

Mayer had 12 job offers, ranging from a teaching position at Carnegie Mellon to a consulting job with McKinsey to a software engineering job at Oracle. She was gravitating toward McKinsey, where she would work as a consultant to Silicon Valley technology companies.

But then, one Friday night in mid-April, Mayer was eating a bowl of pasta in her dorm room and scanning her email when she spotted a message slugged, “Work at Google?” Just as she was about to hit delete—her reflexive response to new recruiting pitches—she leaned over and inadvertently hit the space bar key, opening the email. As she read, she remembered a conversation she’d had in the fall with her mentor, computer science teacher Eric Roberts.

She had just returned from nine months in Zurich, Switzerland, where she was working with 30 other researchers to build a recommender system for the web, similar to the one Amazon uses to suggest books based on a customer’s previous purchases. As Mayer talked to Roberts in his office, he nodded and pointed upward. “There are two guys on the fourth floor who are building what you built,” he said. He apologized for not being able to remember specifics about the company they were forming, except that it had a funny name, but he thought maybe she should get in touch.

Mayer’s plate was already full. In addition to her studies, she had been selected by Roberts to teach undergraduate computer science, which drew nearly 400 students per class. Besides, she had met enough PhD students to know the type: They don’t shower, they eat pizza for breakfast, and they don’t say sorry when they bump into you. Thanks, but no thanks.

But on that spring night, she reread the Google email and remembered the guys upstairs with the crazy ambitions. She would come for an interview, she replied, but it would need to happen fast. She had given herself a deadline of May 1 to make her decision. It was April 22.

Four days later, she had her first interview at Google, which by then had moved from a dorm room to a friend’s garage, and finally to a small office at 165 University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. There were seven employees. The conference room consisted of a Ping-Pong table.

Mayer sat on the same side of the table as Page and Brin. Page appeared lost in thought and didn’t say a word the entire interview. Brin, a math whiz whose father taught applied probability and statistics and whose mother worked for NASA, grilled Mayer on artificial intelligence. As she stood at a whiteboard, fielding complex math questions, writing code, and drawing diagrams, she heard someone yell out, “Who wants to go to the VC?” Brin and Page shot up; the interview was over. An office assistant asked Mayer if she could come back the next day. She said yes.

The following afternoon, Mayer was interviewed first by Amit Patel, the company’s eighth employee. His opening words to her were, “I’m not sure I’m able to interview you, as I started this morning and I don’t know what we do yet.” He eventually posed a number of general computer science questions about the way memory is allocated in different programs.

Mayer was then interviewed by Silverstein, Google’s first full-time programmer. Before he began, he asked her to stop the interview at 4 p.m. to remind him to move his car. (All Googlers had to switch color zones every hour to avoid getting ticketed.) He then asked her to name three things Google could do better. Mayer, who hadn’t used the site much, came up with two ideas. She’d like to reorder results based on clicks, she said, and she thought Google needed a better system of crawling for pages, especially with news. When she stopped talking, she realized it was 4:10. She apologized for overshooting the 30-minute time limit by about 25 percent. Silverstein laughed and said the interview had been worth it.

Mayer left Google impressed and nervous—dazzled by Silverstein’s intelligence, but afraid she had not been so dazzling herself. Back in her dorm room, she reflected on the best decisions she had made so far in her life. The first was going to Stanford, even though she had been accepted at Yale and a host of other top colleges. The second was switching majors from biochemistry to symbolic systems. Another was going to work at the Stanford Research Center and later taking the job in Switzerland, where she had known no one and hadn’t spoken the language.

The common thread, she realized, was that each of those decisions had allowed her to surround herself with really smart people and to do something outside of her comfort zone. The same would be true if she went with Google, she figured. The guys she had met there were the smartest people she had ever interviewed with, and she had a sense that she would learn more from failing with them than by succeeding someplace else.

On May 1, she declined 11 job offers and kept the Google and McKinsey ones alive. Six days later, she verbally accepted Google’s offer, signing with the company on the 12th—12 being her lucky number.

On graduation day, Mayer was surprised to see Page and Brin there to cheer her on. They were wearing shorts and traveling on inline skates. As they were talking with Mayer and her parents, Page suddenly said, “Hey, I think I may have graduated today. I should go and see.” He skated away, returning with the master’s diploma he hadn’t yet bothered to pick up. Mayer’s parents took in the spectacle with a bit of trepidation. They wanted to believe their daughter was making the right decision, but they couldn’t help wondering about the wisdom of her signing with a company that had no revenue, no clear strategy for revenue, and leaders who skated to their graduation.

On June 24, Mayer arrived for her second day at Google. She was employee number 20, and it was a big day for the nascent company: It had signed a deal to become Netscape’s default search engine. Employees were frantically doing calculations to determine whether they would have enough power to handle the searches that came in. They had about 300 computers at the time and weren’t sure they’d have the capacity. Google told Netscape to send only one of every five queries, but Netscape didn’t listen: It sent Google all its traffic, and Google had to take down its site.

At around 11 a.m., Mayer went into the company kitchen for a snack. Peering into the fridge, she sensed she wasn’t alone. She turned around and saw Page standing in a small nook. Startled, she asked what he was doing. “I’m hiding,” he said. “The site is down. It’s all gone horribly awry.”

She made it home that night at around 3 a.m., typical for the hours she would keep. As she climbed into bed, she thought, “It’s not exactly confidence building to see the CEO hiding in the kitchen, saying everything has gone horribly awry.” She gave the company a 2 percent chance of succeeding.

Working late nights and weekends, the Google crew liked to take time off to attend some of the valley’s many launch parties. Brin, in search of dates, tried to distinguish himself from other dot-com founders by saying that his dot-com would make money.

At the parties, Mayer liked to gauge Google’s popularity by noticing people’s reactions when she told them where she worked. (For the first month at work, she was a closet InfoSeek user, turning her computer screen so no one would see.) In August, two months into her job, she finally met one person who had heard of Google. That seemed like a big deal. But within a year, Mayer was finding more and more people who were using the search engine. Soon, the company began to hit major milestones. The site was internationalized to 14 languages in April 2000, and that summer, Google successfully launched its search service for Yahoo!. On the day of the launch, when work was over at 11 p.m., the team celebrated the deal with a bottle of Dom Pérignon and hamburgers from McDonald’s. A year and a half later, Mayer spotted someone using Google in a cybercafé in Switzerland. Around the same time, she’d go to parties and hear, “Oh, I love Google.”

And Google loves Mayer—allowing, of course, for the inevitable griping and dishing that come with being the boss of 150 incredibly smart and opinionated people. And why not? Two out of three web searches in the United States today go through Google, and few dispute that Mayer has a lot to do with that.

“Her character mirrors the culture of Google quite closely,” says Wired founder Battelle. “Everything at Google depends on how intelligent you are and how well you defend a point of view, and Marissa’s demeanor is very consistent with that. She speaks insanely quickly and has no patience with people who can’t keep up.” She also has an uncanny, and sometimes unnerving, ability to zero in on the problem or solution—a skill she says she honed on her high school debate team, which won the state championship her senior year.

No doubt these qualities are what have gained her a reputation for being cold and robotic, but Battelle says that he has seen Mayer “soften” over the years, possibly because of increased media exposure, and possibly because of a realization that “not everybody in the world works the way she does.” Sundar Pichai, a director of product management who has worked closely with Mayer for three years, thinks there’s a real difference between Mayer’s reputation and reality. “I’d heard about how sharp and quick she was,” he says, “how passionate she is about the user experience, and how she bleeds Google. But she was so much better in person. It’s like when I went to the U.S. Open to see Federer play. She functions at the executive level but is just as comfortable at the engineer level.” Plus, he adds, “She’s also unusually gregarious. She loves to talk and is very entertaining.”

On a recent afternoon at Google, I see Mayer in action as she leads a string of meetings in a small, nondescript conference room. One after another, teams of engineers stride in, laptops open, and begin their presentations. On this occasion there are no hellos, no socializing. Wearing black slacks, sandals, and a loose-fitting top, Mayer maintains a cool gaze that gives nothing away. The clock is ticking. Each group has 10 minutes.

The first team discusses how it’s planning to tie bookmarks to a new Google Toolbar. The objective has been to make it easy to access bookmarks from anywhere, including someone else’s desktop. Google Notebook—part of the Google Toolbar—would allow users to build a page of helpful, bookmarked searches and compile them in one place. As a prototype is projected on a whiteboard, Mayer suggests reverting to a cleaner-looking bookmark. “People understand bookmarks, but don’t understand notebooks,” she says. “I think my mom would be baffled by this.” She pressures them to simplify the model and merge the two products.

Indeed, Mayer invokes her mother a lot, which makes sense, given her steadfast devotion to the ease of the end user. More than anything, perhaps, she wants Google to be intuitively simple to operate. “I don’t think we’re where we need to be in terms of search,” she told me during an earlier conversation. “You type keywords. You can’t type concepts. You can’t give it a picture and say, ‘Find other pictures.’ And can you talk to your search engine? Do you receive results in your car? These are some of the questions we’re looking at.”

The next team arrives to talk about a yet-to-be-released product that the company is keeping under wraps. Mayer’s first concern is that the directives for uploading or downloading aren’t clear enough. “You need to indicate a mode change,” she says, and advises using the phrases “waiting for download” or “to be downloaded.” She’s also “a little weirded out” by the fact that they’re using a circle to indicate progress, instead of the typical ticking clock or progress bar. Notes are taken, brows furrowed. The team will come back to Mayer with a better version.

Another team briefs Mayer on the new gadget directory, which was launched in October, and her response is more of the same: The design’s too busy, the colors hard to read. Throughout the afternoon, Mayer takes no phone calls, doesn’t respond to email, and doesn’t break for food or even her favorite drink, Mountain Dew. She is inexhaustible.

Finally, after several more rapid-fire meetings, Mayer is due at her daily office hours. Today, she’s meeting with a physician who is directing what may be Google’s most ambitious project yet, one that is sure to make privacy advocates apoplectic and unsettle even the most sanguine of online users: the new health initiative. Like Google Books (also Mayer’s project), which aims to create a digital library of all the books in the world, this one—another “moon shot,” she said—would have the ability to store the medical records of every person in the world.

“At Google, we talk a lot about ‘cloud computing,’ which means you store it in the cloud,” Mayer explains. “We have the computers in place and storage in space and the redundant power. The data would belong only to the user, but it could be stored with Google.” So, in addition to being able to search for all kinds of health information online—regarding symptoms, conditions, medications—people would be able to access their own medical records.

But why should consumers trust Google? Mayer nods. It’s a question she’s asked often. “People know they can trust us,” she says. But just in case, “we’re looking into the best possible security. We are not going to put user privacy at risk.”

At 8 p.m., Mayer finally shuts her door and heads to her new house in Palo Alto, where she hosts the Google gang for Halloween a few weeks later. (Typically obsessive and methodical, Mayer looked at more than 100 homes before deciding on this one.) As at her Christmas party—and in much the same way as she designs products for the company—she has aimed for what you might call high-end comfort. (Her all-time favorite foods include duck confit Sloppy Joes, sliders of Angus beef with brie, and macaroni and cheese with lobster.) Tonight, the menu includes gourmet pizza, chili, and salads.

Outside, a table is laden with gorgeous cakes made by I Dream of Cake; It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, Scream, and Psycho are cued up to play on the giant screen installed in the backyard; and several orange-and-black couches dot the lawn, complete with warm blankets to snuggle under. Also on offer are dozens of Mayer’s favorite Sprungli Luxemburgerli (bite-size macaroons), which she brought back from Zurich, where she was on business a few days earlier. She even sent invitees a Wikipedia link to information about the treat.

Although this isn’t a costume party, one person wanders through the house in a white latex suit with matching hood. Only his eyes, lips, and nose are visible. Soon, the costumed guest is revealed to be Brin. Several Google employees approach to take his picture, but he declines, saying, “What? This is not a costume!” Throughout the evening, he sticks to his story: that the shorts and sandals he wears during the workweek are the real costume.

The party combines Mayer’s cosmopolitan, peripatetic style with her small-town, Midwestern background. Her mother was an art teacher and stay-at-home mom; her father was an engineer for water-pollution control. In addition to being an ace debater, Mayer was a standout on the precision dance team, and her childhood bedroom still has the same Techline furniture, bright teal walls, and Jackie Kennedy doll collection it had when she was young.

In many ways, Mayer is still that geeky, super-normal, enthusiastic girl. So it’s no surprise when we spend hours one day at—where else?—I Dream of Cake in North Beach. Mayer samples a piece of cake and says, “I’m a huge fan of frosting. Vanilla fudge is my favorite. It gives you brain euphoria.”

Mayer came across the dessert company about three years ago when she was looking for a specialty baker who could make a cake in the shape of a kitesurfer for a friend’s 30th birthday. Owner Shinmin Li, who studied graphic design and animation before launching I Dream of Cake, said she could do it, but suggested a cake that would include all three of Mayer’s friend’s favorite hobbies: kiteboarding, scuba diving, and snowboarding—and have as its theme, “Do it all by age 30.” Mayer was sold, and since then Li has become her de facto cake guru (she’s done the cakes for nearly all of Mayer’s parties). The two call the specialty shop “the world’s first cake gallery.”

Mayer is an eager practitioner of the art herself. “I’ve always loved baking,” she says. “I think it’s because I’m very scientific. The best cooks are chemists.” In addition to creating her famous cupcake and frosting spreadsheets, she has analyzed all of the different paper linings available. “The problem with the silver ones,” she says in utter earnestness, “is that they seal the cupcake. You’ve got to go with the classic paper, which allows the cupcake to breathe.”

About an hour later, Mayer and I head to her penthouse for a quick stopover before checking out another place she adores: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. One reason she chose the penthouse, she says, is that everything she needs is just a few steps from the front door: not only the museum, but also the new Barneys and her favorite denim shop, AG Jeans. She also enjoys the amenities available at the Four Seasons—the grilled-cheese sandwiches she can get from room service, and the gym that’s open late into the evening. (Not surprisingly, she’s one of those annoying people who need only four hours of sleep a night.)

At SFMOMA, we check out Olafur Eliasson’s “Take Your Time” exhibit. The atmospheric, sensory pieces delight Mayer, who analyzes the way the geometric, multicolored works reflect and refract light. She studies each one from all angles, and appears to be having a quiet discourse with herself, until she reaches a point of understanding.

Next up: Barneys. She’s looking for a black purse that’s not too slouchy, not too starched, and doesn’t scream of one designer. She knows exactly what she’s looking for, but doesn’t find it. No matter—there are clothes to try on. Her favorite designers are de la Renta and Carolina Herrera. She’s even becoming a fixture in the local society pages. The woman who began her career explaining the mathematical underpinnings of K-means cluster analysis now finds herself talking happily about which designer she’s wearing. At the recent opening of the San Francisco Ballet, she was photographed in a Naeem Khan gown and some 70 karats of borrowed Graff diamonds. In February, she took a trip to check out New York’s fall Fashion Week.

At this point, the only thing missing from Mayer’s full life is a romantic partner. Interestingly, the woman who is chatty and opinionated about everything from jeans to cupcakes to the future of search engines, and who lives increasingly in the public eye, demurs when it comes to discussing her romantic life. She does allow that she has had a series of long-term relationships and is dating. (Valleywag has spotted her around town with Zachary Bogue, cofounder of the private equity firm Montara Capital Partners.)

As for work, Mayer has no immediate plans to leave Google, though she says that when she hits the 10-year mark, she may take a moment to reflect and consider a change. She will be 34. “I helped build Google,” she says, “but I don’t like to rest on [my] laurels. I think the most interesting thing is what happens next.”

“I see her as a superb CEO of some really important company,” says her college friend Rabinowitz. “At some point, Marissa will realize she has more money than she knows how to spend, and she will want to use her brain in other ways,” says Battelle. “It happens with a lot of these people. Look at Steve Jobs’ interest in animation. I hope when that does happen, it is for the good of the world. She has the potential to make a difference wherever she is.”

Does Mayer ever see herself going completely low-tech and focusing (professionally or otherwise) on art, entertaining, baking, or fashion? “I’m a businesswoman first and foremost,” she says. Then she adds, with her weird laugh, “My hobbies actually make me better at work. They help me come up with new and innovative ways of looking at things.” 

Julian Guthrie is a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. She wrote "Why Can't Anyone Say No to Dede Wilsey?" for the April 2007 issue of San Francisco.


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