What Yahoo's Culture Could Look Like Under Marissa Mayer

Back when Mayer was VP of search products and user experience, she talked with Fast Company about the culture at Google in its early years. We revisit the conversation as Mayer ushers Yahoo through a transition of its own.

[Background: Started at Google in 1999 as a software engineer; earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Stanford, specializing in artificial intelligence.]

WHAT'S CHANGED AND WHAT HASN'T

"Back in the early days, summer of '99, we were a mess of a company. I'm not really sure how we even made it. Now we crawl the Web all the time and constantly update the index. But at that time, we would run a crawler for about 10 days, gather up as much of the Web as we could, and spend a couple of days indexing, you know, the February version of the Web.

One night, we were all sitting around at three in the morning on exercise balls. Everyone had finished coding for the day, and we were talking about what Google could do. A bunch of us had read that day about the Library of Congress possibly wanting to digitize. Should we pursue that? How would that help Web search? Would that be a good thing for the world? How would you do it? We brainstormed about projects that we wouldn't get a chance to explore for years, such as Google Book Search. There was an immense sense of hope and innovation.

I remember George Harik, who's one of the smartest people Ive ever met, jumped into the middle of the circle and said, 'Stop! I want everybody to savor this moment, because no matter what happens from here on out, it'll never be as good as it is right now.'

George, who is almost never wrong, couldn't have been more wrong. If you listen to that conversation and you listen to the conversations that inevitably will happen tonight around the pool table or the foosball table here, they sound the same."

MAKING YOURSELF AVAILABLE

"I have this open-door thing every day, where for two hours, I just sit at my desk—it's like office hours—and whoever wants to come by and show me stuff can. I get to see a bunch of the cool and interesting demos, and engineers get quick feedback. We need to move fast, and we need employees to want to move fast, too."

USERS SETTLE DESIGN DEBATES

"Google is about a clean, simple look, but it's also about information density. For the home page, we don't know what you're looking for, so it should be clean and simple. Google News should follow that same look and feel, but it's going to have a lot of information. When we were building it, we judged the first designs based on the number of headlines or clusters above the fold. We tortured our user-interface designer. She went through 64 designs of Google News. As we got close to launch, we put the designs on the site for what we call one of our '1% tests,' showing it to 1% of users.

We got into a big debate about Google News. What would people want more of, the most recent news or news nearest to them? I said, 'We'll see what the users say.' We launched on Monday morning, and at noon, we had about 300 emails, 300 of which said, 'Hey, can we have sort by date?'"

STREAMLINED, MEETING-FREE LAUNCHES

"I design a lot of processes at Google. It's managed chaos, When I was the primary launch engineer for the site, I would try and do a little checklist when people wanted to launch something. 'Have you done a security check? Have you predicted your traffic? Have you done experiments? Do the audiences already know about it?' Eventually, I had a flow chart on my wall with, like, 127 people to notify and 37 possible launch dates. I said, 'I give up.' That was the genesis of the launch calendar system we use today.

I grouped support, production, PR, and so on into five teams that wanted to be notified. I told them, 'I want a delegate from your department who promises that every Wednesday morning at 10:30 a.m., he will show up and sit there for half an hour and listen to all the things that are going to change on the site for the next week, and he will say, 'yes' or 'no.'

If you're a project manager and you want to launch something, you go up to the online launch calendar and click the button that says, 'Add a launch,' and you type in a description and the status. Now all those people can see it. Instead of running around finding everyone, you say, 'This is what I'm doing. If you have a problem with it, come talk to me.' A lot of times it all happens by email. Things launch without even having a meeting."

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