Every query you type into Google's search engine has Marissa Mayer behind it. The vice-president of consumer products was in charge of the search function at Google for over a decade. She is also responsible for the iconic, simplistic, white-screen design of the Google search page.
With a B.S. in symbolic systems and a Master's in computer science, both from Stanford, where she graduated in 1999, Mayer had 14 job offers lined up when she decided to go with the then-shoestring startup operating out of a small office in Palo Alto.
Mayer, now 35, oversees local products, which include Google Maps and mobile search technology. She's also one of Silicon Valley's celebrities. Her wedding was covered in Vogue; she has a $5 million penthouse in Palo Alto, according to San Francisco Magazine; and she is said to favor Oscar de la Renta and Naeem Khan for her couture.
FINS sat down with Mayer to talk about her career aspirations, being a role model and why she likes to wait five minutes for everything.
Shareen Pathak: What would you be doing if you weren't at Google?
Marissa Mayer: I entered college thinking I was going to be a doctor and then ended up moving over into computer science. It was 1999, it was the height of the Internet bubble. The offer [other than Google] that rose to the top was a consulting position at McKinsey. But the answer was that I would be teaching computer science somewhere. I would have done that and founded my own company.
SP: Why are there so few women at the top, relatively speaking?
MM: Women across engineering fields are increasing, that's the good news. But women have gained in percentage everywhere with the exception of computer science. It's clear that women veer away from that during their middle and high school years.
As the Internet becomes much more pervasive in the daily life of girls, that's something that would help.
SP: What keeps you up at night?
MM: I'd like to see the percentage of women entering computer science growing. I'm also concerned about the social and human impacts of technology. Like bullying, it's always been a problem in schools but when you add the impact of technology everything can be heard by thousands of people in the matter of an hour. I think technology is positive, overall.
SP: What is the best piece of advice you've ever gotten?
MM: It was from a friend of mine and the gist was: There are many good answers, but there is only one that you take and make great.
I like to overwhelm myself with choice. When I was deciding on what college to go to, I made spreadsheets with average class size, T-scores and so on. I did the same thing with those 14 job offers. I buddied up with my friend and we worked on a matrix. It had the basics, salary, location, happiness index, overall earning potential, career potential, everything. At midnight, I panicked. I had an emotional breakdown and collapsed on the couch in tears. And he said to me: "As much fun as all this graphing has been, I think you're looking at the problem all wrong. There is no one right answer. There is one you choose and make great."
SP: You're a celebrity in a world that often lacks glamour. Is it a big responsibility?
MM: I don't think of it in that way. Role models are very important. What matters most to me is that young girls entering technology recognize that a lot of stereotypes that come along with it don't need to be what they are. You can be interested in art and fashion. A lot of people think you're programming and have a pocket protector and glasses and maybe you are and maybe you aren't. But engineering is a creative profession. It doesn't matter if it's engineering the drape of a dress or a suspension cable or a bridge or a fashion website.
SP: You once said you may consider leaving Google in 10 years. Will there be life after Google?
MM: I learnt my lesson that you should never say a timeframe. I'm still very challenged at Google. I was an engineer, I ran search, moved to doing local and maps and mobile technologies. There is definitely life after search. As long as I continue to find challenges I will stay.
SP: How much does luck have to do with becoming successful?
MM: I always think it's a combination. New people who join and look at Google think Google just happened. Google was blood, sweat and tears. It was 130-hour weeks. It's possible when you sleep under the desk and don't shower. It was a huge amount of work.
We had luck surrounding our brand and surrounding our moment when we focused on search, when people thought categorizing the web was the way ahead. Part of it was timing and there were elements of luck.
SP: How do you deal with bad days?
MM: I received a piece of advice which was very literal and very proverbial: "Wait Five Minutes." It's like when you're standing at the bus stop wondering if the bus will come. Wait five minutes. It will come. It's five more proverbial minutes. Things are always changing, people don't want to be unhappy. If you wait five more minutes and have patience, it will pass.
SP: What will you do when you retire?
MM: Retirement is an old-fashioned concept. It's not clear to me that people will retire the way they have done in the past. Retirement, for me, is 30 years away by today's standards. But the age will increase. I don't have the personality type that retires. The notion of retirement will be obsolete. We're all so much healthier, so much more able now. I'll volunteer, I'll travel.
SP: What is the most important thing to remember throughout your career?
MM: I think it's funny because I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my career. It's important to work in an environment that you're really comfortable with. Especially when you're shy. Which I am.
Write to Shareen Pathak