Marissa Mayer Has a Secret Weapon
Photo: Telstar Logistics
Everyone agrees that one of Marissa Mayer’s most urgent tasks at Yahoo will be hiring great managers and product people. Yahoo’s talent pool has been reduced to puddles, as the best techies have gone elsewhere and promising newcomers have come down with colorblindness when it comes to purple. Some people wonder whether even Mayer can lure back the brains.
It turns out, though, that the new CEO has a unique advantage in fulfilling this quest. For the past decade, she has been the doyen of a collection of some of the most talented young engineers and product managers in all of technology. These are the hand-selected prime talents of an accelerated leadership program at Google called Associate Product Manager (APM).
Mayer invented this program, led it and never gave it up. It was a key part of her tenure at Google. And now she may reap some benefits.
Don’t be fooled by the modest title, prefixed by that timid word “associate.” The most coveted entry post at Google is spelled APM. This is an incubation system for tech rock stars. “The APM program is one of our core values — I’d like to think of one of them as the eventual CEO of the company,” Google’s Executive Chair Eric Schmidt once told me.
Consider the first APM, a fresh Stanford grad named Brian Rakowski. He became a key leader of the team that built the Chrome browser and now is the VP of the Chrome operation. The second was Wesley Chan, who made Google Toolbar a success, then launched Google Analytics and Google Voice. He’s now picking winners for Google Ventures. Another early APM was Bret Taylor, who earned his bones by launching Google Maps. He left Google and co-founded Friendfeed, then become the Chief Technical Officer of Facebook.
Though not all APMs achieve such glory, they are generally recognized as elite. At any given time at Google, there are over 40 APMs active in the two-year program. And since Google has been hiring them since the early 2000s there are over 300 who have been through the program.
And the glue to the whole shebang was Marissa Mayer, who was the APM boss, mentor, den mother and role model.
Mayer thought up the program in early 2002. Google had been struggling to find PMs who could work within the peculiar company culture — team leaders who would not be bosses but work consensually with the wizards who produce code. Ideally, a Google product manger would understand the technical issues and sway the team to his or her viewpoint by strong data-backed arguments, and more than a bit of canny psychology. But experienced PMs from places like Microsoft, or those with MBAs, didn’t understand the Google way, and tried to force their views on teams.
So Mayer came up with an idea: Google would hire computer science majors who just graduated or had been in the workplace fewer than 18 months. The ideal applicants must have technical talent, but not be total programming geeks — APMs had to have social finesse and business sense. Essentially they would be in-house entrepreneurs. They would undergo a multi-interview hiring process that made the Harvard admissions regimen look like community college. The chosen ones were thrown into deep water, heading real, important product teams. (As the first APM, Rakowski was asked to launch a nascent project called Gmail. By the way, I hear Rakowski is taking over the program now that Mayer is gone.) “We give them way too much responsibility,” Mayer once told me, “to see if they can handle it.” Also, Google had APMs perform tasks for top management, like note-taking at high-level executive meetings or drawing up white papers on ambitious potential products.
The program has a been massive success, with APMs filling key roles in dozens of key Google products, ranging from apps to search to ads. The program has been so successful that Google has created a variation for leaders of non-product teams. These are called Marketing APMs. Though not quite as prestigious as APMs, these Googlers are not exactly chopped liver. For instance, Kevin Systrom was an MAPM — before he left Google and founded Instagram.
The one constant in the program has been Mayer. Her staff ran the program, and continued to do so, even after she moved from heading search products to local services in 2011. You didn’t get to be an APM unless you connected with her; she was the last interview in a long series, and she’d typically make ultimate decision. (“Tell me about a product you love,” she’d ask candidates. There was no right answer. But not describing the choice with passionwas the wrong answer.)
Marissa Mayer (third from right) leading APMs on a trip in 2007. Photo: Steven Levy
Once you become an APM, Mayer was available as mentor and counselor. She made time in her insanely busy schedule to meet. She worked behind the scenes to address any issues that arose.
Halfway through the two-year program, Mayer herself would lead the group on a summer trip to visit international Google outposts. (I accompanied the trip in 2007; we went to Tokyo, Beijing, Bangalore, and Tel Aviv. This year, one of the cities included Jakarta.) It would be a bonding experience for each year’s group of APMs — bonding with each other and to Mayer.
Many, if not most, of the APMs keep in touch with Mayer after they graduate from the program, meeting with her periodically for a career check, and consulting with her when they considered a move. This occurs even after APMs leave Google. (It’s not surprising that a high percentage of APMs go elsewhere. APMs are chosen for their ambition and independence. Those traits are often at odds with working at a big company.)
In short, Marissa Mayer has developed a deep connection to over three hundred of most talented tech people in Silicon Valley. They may still be at Google, they may have moved to companies like Facebook or Dropbox, or they may have started their own budding enterprises like Optimizely. But in some sense they are all Marissa’s acolytes.
It would be not be surprising if some of these baccalaureate APMs wind up at Yahoo. In addition, former APMs all have their own networks, and can tip off Mayer to promising hires. Naturally, one of the first e-mails that Mayer sent after accepting her new job was a blast to the entire APM network, informing them of her move and assuring them that she will still be in touch. She reminded them that they are all part of a very special family.
And Mayer would presumably be happy to welcome some of these family members to her new home at Yahoo.