Last night at the Campaign for the American Conversation series held at the 92Y in Manhattan, I was lucky enough to get to see Marissa Mayer, Google’s Vice President of Location and Local Services, up close and personal. Arguably one of the most recognized faces and important people in Silicon Valley (she once actually crashed the internet herself), Mayer was the first female engineer to join Google 12 years ago. She is a dead ringer for actress Naomi Watts and talks about a mile a minute. She is also very humble. The Stanford grad with an estimated net worth of $300 million pretty much said, anybody could be an amazing student and get into 10 different top colleges and then get 14 different job offers for companies like Google straight out of college. “I think a lot of people could do it, but a lot of people don’t do it.” I don’t really think that’s true Marissa, but it is a nice thought.
Marissa told Josh Tyrangiel, editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, which sponsored the chat, about a counselor at one of the extremely prestigious and academic summer camps she attended. All the campers were in awe of him because he was so smart. His name was Zoon (of course.) One day as all the campers were sitting around discussing how amazing Zoon was another counselor said, “You guys are totally wrong. It isn’t what Zoon knows. It’s how Zoon thinks.” Zoon, like Marissa Mayer, looks at the world in a slightly different way than the rest of us, which is why she is responsible for basically how we retrieve and share information. I put together a list of Marissa’s best advice lessons from this great chat.
- There are 130 hours of potential work time in a week if you shower strategically: Okay. Now not all of us worked at startups (that then became one of the the most important and richest companyies in the world), but Marissa did. She does admit that she started working for a search engine startup at the absolute perfect time in terms of stars colliding, but Google also succeeded because she worked tremendously hard. “I did an all-nighter at least once a week for the first few years,” she said. When asked to describe her success in one word she said “hard work.” That’s two, but we’ll let it slide.
- Sometimes it helps to not make a big deal about being the only girl in the room: Marissa said she has always been not very “gender aware” or “gender blind” rather. She knew she was always very good at the maths and sciences. Her teachers just told her she was good at them and not good job considering you are a girl or you are the only girl. When she was taking computer science and cognitive classes in college she didn’t really notice she was the only woman in most of her classes or one of only a few women until a college columnist wrote about “the blond woman in all of the upper-level comp classes.” Marissa said if she had thought about being one of the only girls it would have made her more self conscious so she was glad she didn’t notice. This helped her when she was the only woman at Google as well.
- Technology is so fast-paced, it is easy to catch up: Not that we are all going to be Marissa Mayer, but she didn’t get her first computer until 1993, her first year of college ( a Mac for anyone curious.) She was a TA for a computer science course very shortly after learning how to turn on a computer. “Because it moves really fast, you can catch up really fast,” she said. She made this point because she finds that a common misconception with women in technology is that girls are intimidated when they get to college and are thrown in with the computer science boys they think they are way behind. Little boys have been playing video and computer games for years so she thinks girls get intimated and think they can’t catch up. But Marissa says they can, even if they don’t start until college. Look at her.
- Give yourself a lot of options when making a decision but don’t kill yourself with pressure: Marissa stressed the importance of always having options in life and evaluating every single one of them. Of course, her process for evaluation included charts, graphs, environmental impact reports, etc., She did not make basic pro/con lists. She described an agonizing 8-hour discussion with a Stanford friend when making her decision to go to Google. He said something to the effect of, “Marissa, you’re thinking about this all wrong. You’re putting so much pressure on yourself to choose the right one. I see a lot of good choices, one of which you’ll choose, and give everything to.” So it is good to go over your options but don’t make the pressure so intense that you can’t think. “Don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself in choosing right or wrong.”
- Find your rhythm: Marissa, 36, is a person who loves her job. In the first few years at Google she could have stayed home and relaxed on the weekends. But after she got done what she needed to do instead of going to a movie or something she wanted to go back to work. “Work is fun and fun is work. For me, it wasn’t a tradeoff.” But she says, for other people not having that Saturday afternoon to go to a movie or do nothing is a tradeoff. Marissa really sees burnout as a result of resentment. If you resent the fact that you don’t eat dinner every night at 8 then you will get burnout and your work will not be as good. Marissa always tells her employees to find their rhythm. She talked about one young man who needed to go to Tuesday night potlucks with his friends in order to feel good. Another woman would take a call at 1am but if she was late for her kid’s soccer game she couldn’t take it. And what’s Marissa’s rhythm? She says she doesn’t need a lot of sleep but she does need to go traveling every two or three months for a solid week. She does this for the new experience and also to reassure her that her company will survive without her.
- Embrace the “geek” title: When Tyrangiel asked her what she like in high school she said a nerd and then corrected herself and said actually “I prefer geek.” She has said in the past she considers herself to just be a geek working at Google, not a woman in technology working at Google.