3 Surprising Product Lessons from the CEO of Yahoo

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Marissa Mayer is currently the CEO of Yahoo. Prior to Yahoo, she led the development of Google’s most successful products for more than 10 years. These products included Google Maps, Google Earth, Street View, Google News and Gmail.

These product lessons are curated from my friend Chris McCann’s interview notes. You can read his full interview notes here.

Lesson 1: Leadership Skills are Just as Important as Technical Knowledge in a Rockstar Product Manager

We looked for people who were technically excellent but more importantly we looked for people who understood how to apply technology — not just people who knew how to code.

We designed questions to test for this such as “what is the coolest thing you have seen in the past 6 months and how will that affect the market”?

The other tough part is, we had to acknowledge that we were hiring someone who was taking on a leadership role who had no previous experience. We needed to find someone who was humble and also a great listener.

The humble piece was important because these Associate Product Manager’s (APM’s) had to win the respect of the engineers on their team. The engineers on the team might be 15+ years the APM’s senior, so you can’t just go in and run the meeting — the right way to win them over is: let me take notes, let me do scheduling for you, let me get the machines you need — by doing all of the hard work and the process work.

Our APM’s had to be willing to roll up their sleeves and work with the process, listening to engineers and willing the team over by helping the team get organized. Another aspect is while making decisions you can’t point to your previous experience because you don’t have it — so you need to be very data driven. The way to win over engineers is to say I read all of the logs and have seen that our users do x and then do y and we need to make this easier.

To read more on what makes a rockstar Product Manager, check out the post here.

Lesson 2: The Ideal Product / Engineering Ratio in a Team is 1 PM / 8 Engineers to 1 PM / 12 Engineers

We worked together to hire more product managers and we had this interesting issue where our PM’s needed to be deeply technical. After 4 months we hired just 2 product managers. At the same time the head of engineering hired 8 engineers a week.

As a company, you want to scale both engineering and product at a certain ratio. We have found that between 8 engineers / 1 product manager to 12 engineers / 1 product managers is a good ratio. We just couldn’t keep pace.

At the same time the two product managers who we did hire went to support Salar and Susan, so I didn’t have a junior PM to work with. Instead of complaining, I made a bet with Jonathan that instead of going through him, I could hire better product managers than he could — and I could do this any way I wanted to.

Lesson 3: Product Conversations Build Communities in a Company

After I said I’m not doing the “dog and pony show” of laying out the vision for Yahoo I had asked — When do I get to talk with all of the employees at Yahoo?

They responded: I would get to talk with all of the employees at the quarterly all hands meeting.

I responded: Yes that’s where we share all of our metrics — but when do I get to talk about product with all of the employees?

They responded: At the quarterly all hands meeting.

I responded: Oh I see. I get it now.

When I was hanging out in the cafeteria many people came up to me and said “I’m surprised you’re here, no one from management ever talks to us.” Before I joined, there were only 4 meetings a year where executives would go out and talk with employees — now we do this on a weekly basis.

We do deep dives on new products and talk about current events which are affecting the company. Overall it’s been a great communication tool, community building exercise, and it has helped us to bring transparency to the company. One of the things that was important to me was to demystify management and the decisions we make. Now when we have a board meeting, we show all of the board slides to the company beforehand. We try to show as much of the decision making process as we can in those meetings.

Let these lessons sink in.

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