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How I Made It: Marissa Mayer, Google's champion of innovation and design

She joined the search company in its infancy, becoming its 20th employee and first female engineer. Now no product — including Gmail and Google Earth — is released without her OK.

January 02, 2011|By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times

The gig: Perhaps more than any other person, Marissa Mayer influences how the world experiences the Web. As Google Inc.'s champion of innovation and design, she has had her hand in nearly every product the Internet search giant has rolled out. Basically, nothing gets out the door without her approval, including such popular services as Gmail and Google Earth.

Her latest job at the company: vice president of consumer products. One of her responsibilities is to run Google's geographic and local services effort, the red-hot market focused on delivering information and advertising to people based on where they are. Mayer also recently got a promotion to Google's operating committee, the elite group that sets the company's strategic direction. At 35, she's the youngest to serve on it.

Formative experience: At her high school job as a grocery clerk, "I learned a lot about work ethic from people who had been there for 20 years," she said. "They could do 40 items a minute over an eight-hour shift. I was pretty routinely in the 38-to-41 range. I was pretty happy about that. I have a good memory for numbers. At the grocery store, you have to remember to charge $4.99 a pound for grapes and 99 cents a pound for cantaloupe by typing in a number code. The more numbers you could memorize, the better off you are. If you had to stop to look up a price in a book, it totally killed your average."

Fateful choice: Mayer, who earned a bachelor's degree in symbolic systems and a master's in computer science at Stanford University, was leaning toward a lucrative consulting gig in 1999 when she decided to take a chance on a little-known search company instead. She was Google's first female engineer and its 20th employee. She emerged as a powerful force there, with nearly unfettered access to company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Google's minimalist look is an extension of her own aesthetic.

Renaissance woman: As a hardcore technologist who describes herself as first and foremost a geek, she fits the stereotype of a Silicon Valley engineer. But she is also a physically fit athlete who runs every day and a world traveler who has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and snorkeled over the continental fissure off the coast of Iceland. She's a fashionista who wore a Naeem Khan wedding dress and once paid $60,000 at a charity auction to have lunch with Oscar de la Renta. She's a ballet and arts enthusiast (and former dancer) who sits on numerous civic boards.

"I didn't want to lose my sense of myself in my profession. I like art, dance, clothes, travel. So I made a conscious effort to embrace it all," she said. "Our country in particular — and the whole world — has a real challenge in bringing more women into engineering and technical fields. It's good to show that you don't need to sacrifice your sense of femininity because you are engineer."

Strength in comfort: Her advice to women and girls: Find something you love to do, then find a community in which you feel comfortable doing it. "It helps you find your voice. I am shy, but no one here at Google would ever believe that. Because I am comfortable here. Finding some place where you are comfortable really helps break the barriers of feeling shy or self-conscious."

Career philosophy: "I realized in all the cases where I was happy with the decision I made, there were two common threads: Surround myself with the smartest people who challenge you to think about things in new ways, and do something you are not ready to do so you can learn the most," Mayer said. "I call it my Laura Beckman anecdote. She was the daughter of my piano teacher and a great volleyball player. She was given the choice of joining the varsity team, where she would sit on the bench for the year, or junior varsity, where she would start every game.

"Laura shocked everyone and chose varsity. The next year she came back as a senior, made varsity again and was a starter. The rest of the players who had been on junior varsity were benched for their entire senior year. I asked Laura: 'How did you know to pick varsity?' Laura told me: 'I just knew if I got to practice and play alongside the best players every day, it would make me better. And that's exactly what happened.' The same thing happens in the professional workplace. I had this feeling that I was going to learn so much more inside of Google."

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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