An Open Letter to Marissa Mayer: Fix the Yahoo! Culture

New Yahoo CEO Marissa MayerDear Marissa,

Congratulations on your role as the new CEO of Yahoo!. I’m sure you have no shortage of advice when it comes to determining what Yahoo! will be moving forward.

All of that is well and good, but the argument on tech vs. media, how many employees to layoff, what areas to invest in, what to do with ad technology, and every other issue you face don’t matter if you can’t fix the biggest issue at Yahoo! – culture.

Having worked at Yahoo! from 2007-2010 in the ad technology business, I worked with a lot of different organizations across many physical office locations. While the people at Yahoo! were generally really smart and good people, there were cultural issues that plagued efforts across the board and will continue to keep the company from succeeding no matter what the overall strategy turns out to be.

Since I’m rooting for Yahoo! to succeed, allow me to point out some of those issues along with some real examples with names removed. Even though I left in 2010, I have many friends at Yahoo! who tell me the problems still exist.

Penalizing the Smart People

The people inside Yahoo! tend to know that they aren’t putting out products at an impressive pace. This results in everyone knowing that decisions need to be made quickly, and there’s a pressure to get everyone on the same page and bought in. This can lead to group think, which is also dangerous when the group think is wrong.

One of the smartest people I’ve met in the ad business worked with me there and he had a tendency to think differently from the prevalent groupthink. This often led to him challenging the status quo in meetings and asking really tough questions, which quickly turned into everyone labeling him as an “argumentative blocker”. People didn’t bother to actually try and answer his questions or think deeply, they just avoided inviting him to meetings as time went on. Even though he was also a great manager and got stuff done, his reputation for “being difficult” also led to him being passed over for a promotion in favor of someone who was essentially just politically neutral and wouldn’t ruffle feathers.

It made no sense to me that people would instantly label him as a blocker when he was saying some of the smartest things anyone had said. Smart people who think differently from the group shouldn’t be punished for asking legitimate questions and also providing answers that might be different from everyone else.

Treasure the smart people, listen to them, give them a platform, and embrace conflict of opinion while also moving decisions along quickly. As you probably know from Google, it is definitely possible.

CYA (Cover Your Ass)

Cover Your AssRelated to the previous issue, people have a hard time operating when decisions aren’t unanimous. It all stems from the desire to cover your ass. Very few people outside of the most senior managers were willing to actually take a stance on anything. In almost every meeting you could ask for an opinion and find that people would turn to everyone else in the room to try and hear the opinions of others first. Or they’d simply repeat the last thing their manager had said publicly about the subject.

Everyone was afraid of being wrong so much that they wouldn’t stick their neck out. The bizarre thing about this behavior was that in three years I never saw anyone get fired for being wrong, making mistakes, or even not being good enough. I only saw employees leave the company by their own choice or get laid off when cuts were made.

Reward people for sticking their neck out and having an opinion they will fight for, and get rid of those that work behind the scenes to gather support or can’t make a decision without buy-in from everyone in the room.

The More the Merrier

A side effect of everyone wanting to CYA, meetings always grew larger and more frequent. This problem was terrible because it came from both directions. First, the meeting organizers often wanted buy-in from as many people as possible so they’d invite anyone who might possibly be involved. Second, anyone who knew even the slightest thing about the subject was offended if they weren’t invited to the meeting.

This often led to more meetings because so many people would be invited you could never get a decision made. It seriously seemed like certain people’s entire role at Yahoo! was to be invited to meetings and then block any progress from happening essentially just by their presence.

Take a lesson from Steve Jobs and kick people out of meetings who aren’t there to present or make a decision.

Throw More People At It

Yahoo CrowdAnytime there was a product being planned or not enough progress being made the solution was always that more “resources” were needed, which invariably meant more headcount.

After Yahoo! purchased Right Media in 2007, instead of building on top of Right Media’s technology the decision was made to build Right Media’s functionality as well as Yahoo!’s existing premium ad serving functionality into a new product called APT. I can’t tell you how many times the fact that 800-1,000 engineers were working on the project was touted by executives and others as if that number made it a guaranty it would be successful.

On the contrary, I’m positive that having that many people involved has been a detriment to the development of APT. There were literally no people who really fully understood how the whole product worked since everyone was in their own silo. There were also huge problems with each release with things breaking because so many teams had their hands in the cookie jar.

Right Media was built with about 50 engineers, and Yahoo!’s premium internal ad server was built initially by a team of about 10 engineers. For some reason duplicating this functionality and adding a bit more into a new product suddenly took 15 times as many people?

Additionally, part of the culture was that managers and executives often were concerned with and touted the size of the number of people they were managing. Isn’t it more impressive to get as much done as you can with as few people as possible?

I think you can help solve this Marissa since Google puts much smaller focused teams on specific products. Yahoo! can get just as much done if not more with fewer people on every project.

Embrace Your Acquired Talent

I joined Yahoo! when Right Media was acquired by Yahoo!. Like most technology acquisitions, a big part of it was to improve Yahoo!’s ad technology talent. While I personally always felt embraced, a lot of my Right Media colleagues felt like they ignored, challenged, or frustrated by bureaucracy so much that they left within a year or two and Yahoo! lost out on a lot of potential impact.

It wasn’t just Right Media, as acquisitions like Flickr, Delicious, Blue Lithium, Upcoming, and others led to the founders and their teams getting frustrated and leaving Yahoo! instead of bringing new value to the company.

While acquisitions are tough for any company to integrate properly and many times startup employees are just not suited for larger organizations, companies like Facebook and to some extent Google have done a much better job at keeping the employees for longer or deriving more value from them than Yahoo! ever has.

I’m sure part of your strategy Marissa will be to acquire some hot technology startups. Instead of letting the people get boxed out and end up leaving in a year extremely frustrated, embrace them, give them power, and help them be scrappy startup people who can build amazing products for Yahoo!.

Yahoo! Is a Safe Job

I literally interviewed candidates who said to me that they were applying to Yahoo! because it was a well paid and safe job that didn’t require them to work too hard. Say what? The kicker is that some of these people got hired despite my protest.

Yahoo! shouldn’t be hiring people who view it as a safe and easy place to work. If this is still happening, it needs to die immediately. While there is a lot of A-level talent in the company, a lot of people got hired who are really B- to C- people.

2nd Place Is Good Enough!

Second Place FinishThe scariest cultural problem at Yahoo! is that many employees and managers started to believe that it was okay to be in 2nd place. It wasn’t everyone, but it was a common statement in reference to competitors in various businesses. This attitude most likely grew out of Yahoo! being 2nd to Google in search and having to come to grips with the fact that was never changing. Being in 2nd place was nothing to scoff at from a revenue perspective, however Yahoo! was guaranteed to lose the moment the idea that 2nd was good enough started to pop up in the organization. Once people think that way, they’ll never work as hard as they need to work and think aggressively enough to be successful.

Bring back the competitive desire to win Marissa. Accept nothing less than winning. Give people the confidence that they can win. Anyone who thinks 2nd is okay at Yahoo! should head out the door.

Good luck Marissa. Worry less about the strategy and more about how to fix the culture. If it is still broken, there isn’t any strategy that will work.

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  • Ellie Sager

    Agree with every single point.
    Really liked the “Throw More People At It” and “Embrace Your Acquired Talent” parts. Thank you, Pat!
    - former Right Media and Yahoo! employee

  • Pat McCarthy

    Glad you liked it!

  • ROAR Buddy

    Yahoo staff should focus on the site rather then gender. The Purple layout on Yahoo Answers is terrible plus reporting system needs to be changed as some users target certain users like me. And suspending people is dumb when you just send violation notices. Plus not posting some users question(s) what’s up with that??.

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