It's complicated: tech turnarounds, feminism, and Marissa Mayer


I marched in my first Equal Rights Amendment parade in the 70s at the age of four. I think Mom raised me right. 

Decades later, Silicon Valley has taught me to love product innovation and great workplace conditions. I remain a reasonably well-credentialed feminist and feel lucky to work where I do.

I feel even luckier to be married to a remarkable woman who excels in the tech sector. She's designed Web products for Yahoo! and now does the same for Google, having touched millions of users worldwide. I'm proud to hold her in high professional esteem. She's an amazing mother. She also enjoys amazing workplaces. It is exhausting to watch her so I know she gets exhausted sometimes. Google culture includes being in the office pretty much every day.

I wrote this post while my wife was on a two-week trip participating in user research in Brazil and New York. She had never been away from our daughter before for more than a few nights. The week before she left she cooked about ten meals and froze them. She cut, washed, and bagged fresh organic vegetables. She told her girlfriends she was leaving and--all of them mothers--texted me to make sure our three-year-old daughter and I were okay.

One of them cooked three more meals. Another included some replenishment veggies in her own shopping trip and dropped them by the house. All are are directorish level high performers at Facebook, Google, and others.

Innovation requires presence.

The tech world doesn't experiment only to produce new sites and gadgets. Employers roll out a dizzying number of perquisites, benefits, and flexible work arrangements to keep people who build technology executing thoughtfully and quickly. There are plenty of studies that showlocation-flexible workforces perform better

That said, in-person collaboration is often necessary for rapid-fire creativity and execution in tech. There is a "stand-up" meeting in Agile Scrum where it is a pretty good idea to be present. People who phone into work are unable able to sketch on the whiteboard or cluster someone else's Post-it Notes in a new way. Engineers learn better and faster programming by walking over to others' desks to futz around in the code. The technology that helps us work from home is amazing, sure. It hasn't replaced face time for pursuing breakthroughs.

Yahoo!'s CEO came under fire for implementing a new workplace policy requiring telecommuters to come back to the office. She's been lampooned by flexible workplace advocates in the press, blogosphere, and Twitter. I even had fun retweeting Aaron Levie, part-time wag and full-time CEO of Box.

Yahoo!'s Mayer has also been accused of an antifeminist hypocrisy because she recently built a private nursery for her infant son on the Yahoo! campus, then soon after called Yahoo! moms (and others) back into the office. I'm unconvinced Mayer is a deserving target of feminist anger.

Well, maybe a teensy bit. And it shouldn't be directed at the new policy, which was probably a decision based on employee VPN data. Mayer is a famously nerdy, data-driven CEO. This blog post started out as a full-throated defense of Mayer. During the exercise of writing it, I remained a defender of Mayer's workforce policies for Yahoo! but critiqued her for her poor definition of feminism. More on that after we a bit about tech companies and how they thrive.

Let's consider that turning around Yahoo! is an insanely difficult job. Statistically, a tiny minority of troubled tech companies ever pull that off. Successful Silicon Valley giants like AppleFacebook, and Google are building grand campuses where employee interactions and physical presence are a primary design intention of their world-renowned architects. She has to pull off the same employee collaboration dynamic with no such campus development resources.

Ms. Mayer is competing. How she goes about it is wholly her decision.

I think many reacted without reading the memo notifying employees of the policy. (It came from Yahoo!'s HR department, not Mayer). Others may not have fully understood the importance of in-person collaboration in tech products.

The memo isn't about removing privileges. It's an all hands on deck message that calls for "speed and quality" and to "use your best judgment" when it comes to living in a household.  It is a reasonable request from a company trying to make it back to where it was in the heady early days of the Internet.

Someone who has survived the third trimester is a far better messenger of "come to the office to work" than the last several CEOs. Imagine how the message might have gone over had it been filtered through a manly pushbroom mustache.

If a male CEO had built a nursery and changed telecommuter policy there's a fair chance he'd be lauded for exemplary fatherhood while he put in the extra hours to right the foundering corporate ship.

Feminism's beneficiaries should claim the mantle.

Where is Yahoo!'s CEO culpable to feminist distaste? She may not fully grasp the historical arc of feminism. In the video below she seems to mistake a caricatured perception of feminists for the message of the movement. Listen to her as she lists what she believes in. It is a decent if truncated list of feminism's tenets.

The clip is from "Makers: Women who Make America" which aired on PBS last Tuesday. It's definitely worth watching. Mayer, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, and eBay's and HP's Meg Whitman all make compelling appearances in the third episode. It makes me wonder if Ms. Mayer watched it again--especially the first two episodes--she would answer her interviewer's question exactly the same way.


(Mayer) may not fully grasp the historical arc of feminism.

She's a product of the movement. Under forty years old, she marched into Yahoo! like a nerdy Joan d'Arc, gave birth, and now seems to be turning her company around. She was already wildly successful with Google, hence her ability to afford that on-site nursery.

Women like my mom marched for women like Mayer, but it wasn't about militancy and negative energy. It may have been radical for its time but seems more normal in ours. My mom told me some pretty sketchy stories about what it was like to be a woman in the 60s, then the 70s...then the 80s.

From bizarre conservative outbursts late in the 2012 presidential campaign, outright hostile workplaces--for which there are legislative protections for women--to the sheer tonnage of accrued daily mansplaining, there's plenty unfinished business. Maybe this post qualifies. (Please accept my apologies.)

Maybe Yahoo! moms can at least take comfort that one of them is working hard to right the corporate ship--and that she hasn't said anything about the policy being permanent. 

Mayer deserves to be there at Yahoo! and is entitled to require her employees to be there as well. There's more to be done and Yahoo!'s CEO is walking the same tightrope as per professional forebears. I hope she leads and inspires Yahoos like the very positive movement that helped her arrive.

After all, as a former employee, my wife is a shareholder. My financial well-being is tied to hers.

Sit down in my thinking chair and think...think...think

How can I make my portfolio awesome?

How can I make my portfolio awesome?

Technology product marketing is hard when you overthink it, simple when you don't. Sometimes that means not letting brand marketing do the job that product marketing could probably do pretty well on its own.

Take a few recent examples from several Silicon Valley giants. 

Google has created an internal brand marketing arm in New York, which is something that agency people generally recommend against. No surprise there.

But Google's internal team may have yielded a simple, inspiring way to communicate how valuable search is. It isn't boring. It is inspiring and it shows how their core product changes the world--when you're not searching for antique lamp repair.

Google did "Parisian Love" years ago, "Growing Knowledge" just weeks ago.

Somehow having a brand creative team in-house has put it closer to the actual product. Score one for internal ad teams.

UPDATE Oct 18, 2012: and now we have this one from eBay. More here.

Facebook recently gave us something about social networks being like chairs. We had to think hard about their metaphor. And then think some more. Then find a chair and consider the act of sitting. And thinking. And then maybe we got distracted and checked Facebook while the ad was running.

Ad agency Wieden + Kennedy was stretching here--and I love much of W + K's work. If a little simple storytelling had been employed about any one of Facebook's recently achieved 1 billion users' experiences it might not have been so ingloriously lampooned, from techies to the ad community to Forbes.

These executions made me think about how disconnected corporate marketing and agencies are from the people who make the products. There is no one who better understands users (the market!) and what users are emotionally gaining from the technology (brand!) than product people.

They are professionally responsible for the strategy and health of the product. Researchers, designers, product managers, and--yes--engineers spend their days obsessing about users and putting interesting and useful things in their paths. Most of them would be happy to have an opportunity to share what they know with the creative teams advertising their products.

We saw some of the same off-the-mark brand work from Yahoo! during their last major brand launch. It just didn't connect. Yet there were of people close to the products' users who could have shared their visions with the marketers. Granted, Yahoo! is a special, balkanized product case for any brand marketer, but this is hardly unique in the technology world.

The lesson here for brand teams and agencies is to invite a few product folks into creative brainstorming. Maybe the other lesson is for product teams to get more actively involved with corporate brand marketing. They need your insights, but let them interpret and produce your thoughts. They're good at it. They just need a peak into the user and business insights that drove your latest release.

Don't look past a real story for the sake of making one up. Look down. You might be sitting on it.

QR Codes are a gift

Would you give this empty bag to your mom on her birthday?   photo: @lausier, Instagram)

Would you give this empty bag to your mom on her birthday?
photo: @lausier, Instagram)

Professionals who strategize, design, and code Websites and digital products for a living are befuddled by the popularity of QR codes. I hate them. Poor execution is frequently ridiculed. They are the perfect example of thoughtless, non-empathic marketing and service experiences. And marketers pay good money over bad to build experiences around a bad tactic.

Okay, correction. I don't dislike the tactic. They are useful in the right context. QR Codes are like guns. I don't hate the things completely but I almost always dislike what marketers (the gun owners) do with them.

We flip through magazines and stare blankly at ads that give so much real estate to QR codes. We run through airport terminals, experiencing QR codes out-of-home ads with near-Gatling freqency. Yet very few of us take out our phones and fire back.

Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 9.14.49 PM.png

QR Codes require several steps of your user, assuming they have a smartphone to begin with, or are inclined to use it in an advertising context:

  1. Go to their mobile OS's application store
  2. Buy, download, and install a QR scanner
  3. Open the app
  4. Learn how to use it
  5. Take a picture (scan) of the QR image in your advertisement
  6. Wait for the app to launch a browser
  7. Wait for the browser to pull up your marketing content on a site or landing page
  8. Read or view the content
  9. Maybe engage with the content in some way
  10. Possibly register for an event or buy something

That's the best-case scenario. Ten steps. 

Now think of it another way. Imagine you've bought a birthday present for your mother. Instead of giving her the present, you've given her an empty bag with a QR code on it. Then you tell her everything she needs to get her really fantastic present is on the bag. 

Will she ever get her real present? Not likely. 

Will she become frustrated by an attempt? Will she ask you for help? Will you decline to assist tell her that she should figure it out on her own? Mom, come to think of it you aren't my intended gift target after all. Maybe you should share the gift bag with a more tech-savvy friend by clicking Like on our Facebook Page!

Marketers are often terrible at technology. They let a perceived next great thing substitute common sense. They don't think through what is required of a user. Don't be that marketer. They're jerks. Your mom would disapprove if you started hanging out with this crowd.

From time to time a technology optimist or advertising award organization will highlight a successful example of QR code executions. These are the exception and not the rule. Big investments are made, even though the technology supporting the experience is cheap. The intended target perhaps likes the gimmickry of a scan, but only if the payoff is there.

I personally don't believe QR codes will ever work, at least not until QR readers become packaged in a simple, native OS experience--and marketers get wise. It could happen. I guess.

Until then, stop what you're doing. Think. Then consider shelving the idea and investing in a simpler, more thoughtful way to reach your customers. Like a phone call or face-to-face conversation. Now that's cheap yet meaningful.

Your mother taught you good manners. Use them.