Dec 15, 2015 ยท 4 minutes

When Marissa Mayer took her job at Yahoo, I wrote that I couldn’t imagine why on earth she would do it.

She was at the peak of her optionality, given her work at Google and Google’s dominance at the time. If the lesser-profile Sheryl Sandberg – then also of Google – got a job of COO at Facebook, what could Mayer get? If the lesser known Megan Smith – then also of Google – got a job as CTO of the United States, what could Mayer get?

She picked… Yahoo. Not only a wounded Internet giant, but one that had made a series of competent and smart people from a variety of different backgrounds all look like total idiots. Jerry Yang could have gone down in history as one of the Valley’s dot-com billionaire geniuses. He’s the only Valley mogul to make a brilliant China play, for Christ sake. Looked like a moron. Carol Bartz was among the female tech CEOs most respected by Wall Street, Valley kingpins, and the White House alike. Looked totally incompetent.

Why did she do it?

At the time, very powerful friends of Mayer’s made this argument to me: She has nothing to lose! She’s riding so high that if she can’t solve it, no one could. If she succeeds, well she’s pulled off something very, very few others have.

Right now, it doesn’t quite look that way, though I doubt history will judge Mayer as harshly as some of her Yahoo predecessors. For one thing, there are a line of people who would hire her for prestigious jobs in a heartbeat. She’s talented enough that she’ll claw her way back into a situation which makes her look good. And my guess is she’s a better executive now, having been at Google – a company where everyone looked slightly better than they are – and Yahoo – in a job where all of your best moves get ignored by the massive, gaping problems you've inherited.

Aside from her own professional development, Mayer has accomplished at least four meaningful things in her tenure.

The first two are for Yahoo:

  • She proved that the people who kept saying a ton of small acquisitions, bringing in more talent, a big acquisition (Tumblr), spending up on editorial talent (Katie Couric, David Pogue), making Yahoo “cool” again, recruiting a younger and more relevant board, bringing an engineering-centered culture to the company – all of the bullshit that people kept promoting, and that Mayer absolutely did, wouldn’t work. Note the plans pissed-off investors are now asking for – a firesale of core assets and an operational entrepreneur who makes no bones that Yahoo will become a tech leader again. They get that Mayer ran the ultimate playbook on the strategy they all wanted a few years ago. It didn’t work, which is the only reason they want a new one. But no one thinks a better, engineering-based CEO will do what she couldn’t. That’s meaningful praise from people attacking you. These investors may be right about what’s best for today’s Yahoo, but it’s only post-Mayer that they knew it.
  • She did finally unlock the value of Alibaba, which is the biggest reason the stock has had any meaningful good run in her tenure. We can argue whether it should be the core of the company or spun out, but she finally negotiated a way out, where other CEOs could not.

The third was for the Valley:

  • Yahoo did a shit load of acqui-hires. We can argue whether or not those did any good for Yahoo. Some will say they were the only thing that could bring fresh talent into the company, given the damage done with previous predecessors. Some will say it gave talented entrepreneurs a several year “work-cation” between startups. The truth likely varies by the person. But you can’t deny: It was great for the Valley. Mayer gave a lot of very talented entrepreneurs backed by powerful VCs a face-saving soft landing and jobs for their teams when others wouldn’t. That made Yahoo a part of the Valley in a way it hadn’t been before. Cold comfort for Yahoo’s shareholders, arguably her first priority, but it’s a legacy of her tenure nonetheless.

The fourth was for, well, humanity:

  • Before Mayer took the job, it was unthinkable that a pregnant woman would be hired to run a challenged tech company worth tens of billions of dollars… and be seen as “slumming it” to do so. In the last week, she has delivered twins while facing the biggest challenge in her career. I have no doubt Mayer faces all manner of subtle sexism in her day-to-day life. But in all the business press and even Tweets I’ve seen, no one has referenced her failure as a result of being a mother of young children. That was unthinkable before Mayer. Her utter professionalism, respect throughout the industry even in the face of the attack on Yahoo, and refusal to ever make any excuses for herself have changed the face of what people believe working mothers can do in this industry. And that’s not just a massive win for working women, it’s a win for the working world. Mayer has shattered a new chunk of the glass ceiling, and as a woman and a mother of a daughter I’m grateful, as much as I’ve criticized her tenure.

Mayer arguably should have never taken this job. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t burnished her own chops, brought clarity to Yahoo and impacted the tech world by her “failure.”