In 1999, Marissa Mayer, then a recent Stanford University graduate, joined a little-known startup with fewer than 20 employees that she calculated as having a two percent chance of success: Google.
Now, as a senior executive with the search giant, Mayer is one of the most powerful women in Silicon Valley. Her work at Google influences how hundreds of millions of people access information on the web and she plays a key role in shaping Google's most important products, from the look and feel of its homepage to popular features like Google News and Gmail, as well as its more recent forays into location-based services.
One of the most iconic women in tech today, Mayer's career path offers lessons for how to attract more women to a male-dominated field and undermines the assumption that to foster more female techies, it's early or never. Mayer, who calls herself a "proud geek," did not grow up obsessed with computers -- she bought her first one in college -- or with dreams of becoming the next Bill Gates. She wanted to be a pediatric neurosurgeon.
Mayer credits Stanford's "exorbitant" tuition fees with turning her on to tech. Frustrated with how much more she was paying to take the same courses and memorize the same chemistry facts as her peers attending less expensive colleges in her home state, Wisconsin, Mayer switched to a major that would let her take advantage of courses and faculty only offered at Stanford: symbolic systems, a blend of psychology, linguistics, philosophy and computer science.
Even after the switch, working at Google was not an obvious pick for Mayer. "I like to overwhelm myself with choice," she said. She received 14 job offers, and in an effort to choose between them, she created a matrix ranking how each position compared across a slew of characteristics, including location, salary, lifestyle index, career trajectory and predicted happiness on a scale of one to ten.
The Google Mayer was considering joining after graduation was a far cry from the powerhouse it is today. The company had just grown out of its office in a Menlo Park garage and was up against over a dozen more established search engines, such as AltaVista and Yahoo, that themselves had trouble eking meaningful revenues out of online queries. Then there were the workplace demographics to consider: there was not a single other female engineer -- Mayer would become Google's first -- and she would be one of fewer than two dozen employees.
The other position Mayer was most seriously weighing was with McKinsey & Company, a prestigious consulting firm with a distinguished lineage and dozens of alumni who went on to become the CEOs of Fortune 500 firms. It had smart people, more women and a strong track record.
Unable to decide, Mayer recruited an economist she knew to help analyze her options. The night before she ultimately accepted Google's offer, Mayer spent more than four hours with her friend graphing and charting the pros and cons of the jobs. Frustrated, she eventually collapsed in tears. Her friend then gave her what she says is still the best advice she has ever received -- advice that ultimately convinced her to pick the burgeoning search engine company over McKinsey.
"You're approaching this all wrong," she remembers him telling her. "You're approaching this as though there's one right answer and that's just not what I'm seeing here. I'm seeing a bunch of really good choices and then there's the one that you pick and that you commit to and that you make great. Go and sleep on it, and then just pick and commit to that."
Mayer said that when she woke up the next morning, she had made a decision. "I wanted to work at Google because the smartest people were there," she said. "And I wanted to work at Google because I felt utterly unprepared to work at a search engine."
The odds for success Mayer gave Google were 100 times better than what she calculated for the other startups she was considering. But Mayer admits that she could hardly have predicted that the company, which today has over 1 billion users and a dominance that has attracted antitrust scrutiny from regulators, would have grown so far beyond search.
"I thought if we were successful, we'd be successful as a search engine," said Mayer. "I had no idea we would come to mean so many different things to so many different people and that we would be doing such interesting work along so many lines of technology."
She advises people pursuing careers in the high-tech industry, whether at startups or Fortune 500 firms, to consider four things when choosing between jobs: "Work with the smartest people you can find, do something you're not ready to do, find an environment in which you're very comfortable so you can find your voice, and work for someone who believes in you -- because when they believe in you, they'll invest in you."
SOUND BYTES: Marissa Mayer on...Her indispensable gadget: Her phone
Her favorite app: Google Maps and Bejeweled Blitz
Her favorite account to follow on Twitter: @TechCrunch
Her "required reading" recommendation: Donald Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things"
In her latest role as Google's vice president of location and local services, Mayer has been pursuing what she describes as the next big idea in tech: developing new cellphone-based programs that deliver customized ads, directions, recommendations, and other information based on users' locations. Yet even as Mayer and her employer deliver an increasing number of services designed to keep us glued to our phones, tablets, browsers and keyboards, Mayer acknowledges that these services and our gadgets may be negatively affecting how we engage with complex topics that require focused attention.
"All of this technology has allowed us to multitask to an incredibly deep degree. Normally that's a good thing, but I do worry about what it means in terms of people's ability to go really deep on a topic and understand it really thoroughly," Mayer said. "I think it's hard to deeply understand a concept when you have ten things going on and so many of those things operate in short blurts of information."
Mayer also has concerns about the relatively low number of women working in tech. She estimates that just 15 to 17 percent of Silicon Valley engineers are women, who make up less than 20 percent of all engineering and computer science majors in the US.
Mayer blames the dearth of female programmers and Internet entrepreneurs in part on tech's image problem. She argues that growing up, girls are offered a narrow stereotype of what it means to be a "geek" -- something akin to the bespectacled loner who spends hours typing away at a screen. Attracting more women to the Silicon Valleys, Alleys and Roundabouts of the world requires doing away with those stereotypes and showing young women that techies don't have to love video games. Mayer herself is no ordinary geek: she's a former ballet dancer with a penchant for cupcakes and the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta.
"The number one most important thing we can do to increase the number of women in tech is to show a multiplicity of different role models," Mayer said. "The stereotype of that very complete and rigid picture of what being a computer scientist means really hurts people's understanding and ability to identify with the role and say, 'Yes, this is something I can be in and want to be in.'"
Mayer is optimistic that sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google, as well as smartphones and the programs they run, will be a catalyst for changing the ratio in technical fields by clarifying the practical applications of computer science. Though she maintains that men and women in the industry face similar challenges, she allows that some women differ from men in that it's important to them to understand how their careers will influence people's daily lives.
"Women, to some extent more than men, really want to see the application of what they do in people's everyday lives," she explained. "For a lot of women, they didn't see how computer science touches people."
As women become more familiar with technology, Mayer predicts they will become more curious about it, which in turn will attract more of them to computer science and engineering.
"One reason I think this will improve in coming years is that girls are experiencing a lot of computer science and a lot of technology on an everyday basis," said Mayer. "When you use those things every day, you become curious in terms of how they were made. And that type of technology hasn't touched us the way it does today for very long. I think it will create a curiosity and spur a lot more women into computer science and the technical fields."