XX in Tech

Marissa Mayer on Misconceptions That Hold Back Women in Tech and Why She Doesn’t ‘Believe in Burnout’

"My theory is that burnout is about resentment."
mayer marissa 1 Marissa Mayer on Misconceptions That Hold Back Women in Tech and Why She Doesnt Believe in Burnout

No photography allowed at 92Y :(

For a lifelong perfectionist overachiever, 36-year-old Marissa Mayer (known in some circles as Google employee no. 20), is rather adept at projecting an aura of  relatability. Pro-tip: it never hurts to pepper your tales of 130-hour work weeks with verbatim quotes from High Fidelity. Of course, as the longtime friendly public face–sweeter than the acerbic Mr. Schmidt, less aspy than Larry–of a $212 billion company like GOOG, she’s had some practice.

That easy demeanor was on full display at the 92nd Street Y Tuesday night, when Ms. Mayer stopped by for an hour-and-a-half Q&A session with Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel, who pointed out that her latest job title, “VP, Local, Maps & Location Services,” made it sound like she worked at AAA.

To give the Upper East Side crowd some idea of Ms. Mayer’s celebustatus in Silicon Valley, Mr. Tyrangiel pointed out that a YouTube loop of her unusual laugh, which sounds kinda like a guffaw being sucked through a vacuum, has been viewed a quarter of a million times. “They’ve also made it into a ringtone!” Ms. Mayer noted gleefully. But Mr. Tyrangiel needn’t have worried. In line for tickets, one heavily-perfumed older woman ticked off a list of influential projects Ms. Mayer has helped define since she started there in 1999: Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail.

Women in Tech

Ms. Mayer, who wore knee-length boots and a fitted-waist jumper with a flouncy skirt, described herself as “gender-unaware,” when asked whether she was the only woman in her advanced Symbolic Systems classes at Stanford. In fact, she said, it wasn’t until her junior year at college when a “Carrie Bradshaw”-like columnist at the Stanford Daily wrote a piece identifying campus icons (i.e. people you recognized without knowing their names, like the cashier who always gets your sandwich order wrong) that she even realized she was an aberration in her major.

The column called out “The blonde woman in the upper division computer science classes,” said Ms. Mayer, leaving her to wonder if she knew this mystery blonde, before making the connection. “Is that descriptive alone enough to just mean me?” Ms. Mayer recalled asking herself, “Am I the only woman? Am I the only blonde?”

Ms. Mayer said she thought not calling attention to her skills in science and math helped her progress. “My teachers never said, ‘Wow you’re really good at this for a girl,'” she noted. “Just asking that question, I think, can sometimes handicap progress. I think if I had felt more self-conscious, it would have stifled me.”

A common misconception about computer science, she added, is the trope that it’s populated by boys who have been obsessed with video games since childhood and are therefore predisposed to programming. When this reporter was in an undergrad computer science class, male engineering students looked at me quizzically when I admitted to never taking my computer apart as a kid just to see what it was made of. The implication in both scenarios being that women start off at an incredible disadvantage for not growing up steeped in that world.

But Ms. Mayer pointed out that she didn’t get into the field until college when she quickly caught up with the older student who first taught her how to use a mouse and turn on her PC. It was only a matter of time until they were both TAs for a computer science class on equal footing. Can someone start in college? “Absolutely, yes,” she said. “Because it’s a new and young science, it also means you can catch up fast.”

Avoiding Burnout

Somewhere around the part in the discussion where Ms. Mayer was detailing the 14 job offers she had lined up after Stanford, Mr. Tyrangiel felt compelled to ask, point blank, “So, your friends must hate you?” Not at all, insisted Ms. Mayer, “I think a lot of people can [get 14 job offers], but a lot of people don’t,” she said, citing her need to have a copious amount of choices to exhaustively assess before proceeding—how Google-y! “Does that make sense?” she asked. No, responded Mr. Tyrangiel. The audience shuffled their feet in agreement.

But Ms. Mayer made a much more convincing argument later in the evening when she explained why, “I don’t really believe in burnout.”

In the early days of Google, Ms. Mayer said, “I pulled an all-nighter every week for the first five years,” and so did everyone else. People wondered how she and other employees worked 130-hours when a week only contains a 168 hours, but you can do it “if you’re strategic about when you shower and sleep.”

“People have the sensation that it just happened,” she said of Google’s success, offering a version of a quote from the movie Titanic, “I assure you the experience of it was quite different.” Sometimes, said Ms. Mayer, she goes around to other startups who sheepishly admit they’re not quite on their way to becoming Google, and she thinks, well, they’re “working categorically less hard.”

So how does someone with that kind of work ethic and drive not believe in burnout? “My theory is that burnout is about resentment,” she said. “Know yourself well enough to know what you’re giving up” by staying at work. Ms. Mayer says she often asks employees about their rhythm. What’s the thing that if you miss it, it ruins your week? For one engineer it was about missing Tuesday night dinners with friends. If he had to cancel, especially when it was his turn to host, he lost his motivation to stay late. “Okay, Nathan, now we know you can never miss Tuesday night dinner,” Ms. Mayer said, describing their conversation.

For an executive in Google Finance, the 1 a.m. conference calls to India were no problem, but missing her kids afternoon soccer practices and recitals was demoralizing, especially when they could see her walk in late. So now, said Ms. Mayer, if there’s a meeting and someone asks if she can’t just stay five minutes to finish something up, she says, “No, Katie’s gotta go.”

For Ms. Mayer, the trigger that makes her resentful is inability to travel. “I never get a lot of sleep at night,” she said, but every four to six months, she wants to go somewhere she’s never been before. It’s good for her and her team’s sense of self-sufficiency, she said, if she “misses every standing meeting” for a week every once in awhile. Figuring out those rhythms, “empowers you to work really hard for a really long period of time on something you’re passionate about.”

Even with her burnout theory in place, however, Ms. Mayer says she still finds herself weighing the cons of unplugging from the office before telling herself, “Oh, just take that trip to Croatia already.” Hmm, maybe we will buy that ticket to China after all.

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com