When Mayer joined Google in 1999, she was one of the company’s first dozen or so employees — and its first female engineer. But rather than wax poetic about what it means to be the Goog’s first female employee, Mayer would rather talk about what she actually does.
Now the VP of Location and Local Services, she oversees Google Maps and local search; before that she helped create many products you probably can’t imagine life without, like Google Search and Gmail. And despite her reluctance to talk about being a woman in upper management in Silcon Valley, she’s well-attuned to the hot topic of why more women aren’t working there with her. “We haven’t achieved the gender balance that we should,” she admits. “But it’s still so early.”
There’s a lot of finger pointing to try and explain why there aren’t many women in tech or computer science fields. Some people blame high schools, others say universities aren’t discouraging, and others say it’s the Silicon Valley attitude that keeps women out of tech. Who or what do you “blame”?
I don’t think blame needs to be placed. I think that computer science is a really young, really fast moving field. We haven’t achieved the gender balance that we should but it’s still so early. I think one of the things that really inspires people to go into an industry or practice in a field is being able to understand its impact. One of the things that studies have shown is that women are concerned with the impact of their work more than men are. They want to know that what they’re doing matters to someone. And given that, I think that now that technology, and especially internet technology and mobile technology, touches everyone’s lives on a daily basis, I really hope that that will inspire more women to enter the field of technology and make that kind of impact.
What work are you doing personally to get more women in technology?
My goal when I talk about women in technology really is to tell a little bit about my story and how I’ve done it. Computer science, especially in pop culture, comes across very flat. There’s the stereotype of the hacker that causes people to think, “For me to do this, I have to be that.” And you don’t have to be that. You can keep who you are and you can keep that part of yourself and keep your interests and still be a great computer scientist. While I think there’s an intensity that makes for a better computer scientist, I don’t think that intensity comes in any particular package.
New research has shown women and men working together outperform single-sex groups. Has that been true in your experience?
For me, at Google, my experience has always been a co-ed experience, or a mixed experience. So I am literally not in a position to say. Having never been to an all-girls school, and throughout most of my time as a student and during my professional life, I’ve always been in a mixed environment. So I’m not sure I’ve got a great comparison point.
Now, you spend a lot of your time managing employees and traveling and being a public face for Google. Do you ever miss sitting in front of a computer and coding?
Well, 90 to 95 percent of my time is in the office working with teams, so while it is true that management is a big part of my time, most of my time isn’t actually away from the office. I’m here being a very hands-on manager for the team I oversee. I really love that. And I really do feel very close to the work and very close to the business and I don’t think I would be happy if I weren’t.
In the times when I have traveled from the office more, even if it was just for vacation, sometimes I find that my vacations are actually more stressful – to be away from the thing that I really love and want to be working on. Being an engineer versus a manager to me doesn’t matter as much to me – being further away from the work and the daily operations, that’s something that does bother me.
What advice would you give to a young woman who might view you as a role model?
I have five pieces of advice I can rattle off of the top of my head:
1. Work with the smartest people you can find.
2. Do something you’re not ready to do.
3. Find a place where you’re comfortable. When you’re comfortable, that’s when you overcome any shyness and inhibitions and can really speak your mind.
4. Work for someone who invests in you. You want someone who would trust you with responsibility, who sends you for more training or seminars, and tries to really help build you for what you’re going to do next, whether for that company or somewhere else.
5. Find your rhythm. I actually have a very different philosophy about burnout than a lot of people do. I don’t think that burnout comes from not getting enough sleep or not eating enough square meals. I think that burnout comes from resentment. It’s when people say, “I worked so hard this week, and I couldn’t even get this thing I wanted. I wanted to go to a movie. I wanted to go on vacation. I wanted to be there for my kids.” Sometimes people say, I worked so hard this week, I didn’t even get eight hours of sleep.” For some people, what really matters to them is sleep. For other people, it’s something else that really matters to them. It is possible to work “too hard,” but you need to figure out what things it really is you need to stay fueled up, to stay energized, to not get resentful.
What do you need to not get resentful?
My recipe is, every four to six months, I need to leave the office for a week. There’s a couple of reasons. One, I really love to travel and see places. Two, it allows me to miss every standing weekly meeting once. That’s very healthy for me because it lets me realize that I can leave for a week and everything keeps working. And it’s good for my team, they can say, “Wow, she was gone for a week, and everything kept working.”
I find that if I start to push it, to six months or eight months, or if I canceled a vacation I was really excited about and had to postpone it, I’ll be like, “Gosh, I worked 100 hours last week and I still had to move that Croatian vacation. I think that kind of thing is what ultimately gets you down.
Speaking of the things you like, you’re known for your style. In your 2009 Vogue profile, you said that you love Oscar de la Renta and expensive face care products like SK-II. Why and when do you think it’s worth it to indulge in such things?
For me, I am a product person and I like design a lot and I like innovation. SK-II is a very innovative product. Oscar de la Renta is an amazing designer who works really well with color and detail which I think is something that’s inspiring. They are things that tend to be splurgy, but I do think that when you want to treat yourself to something that’s really beautiful, that really inspires you and captures your imagination, you should buy it.
I tend to be a slow shopper where I’ll go and look at something and then I’ll leave it. When my Mom and I would go shopping when I was little that’s how we would do things. We would go through the whole mall and try a bunch of things on and then we would go to lunch and we would ask each other, “Ok, what do you remember?” I kind of stalk my clothing. I’ll see a sweater, I’ll try it on, and then the next weekend, I realize I’m still thinking about that sweater and I’ll hopefully get it when it comes on sale. I don’t buy many things but what I buy I really want.
What are you excited about at Google right now?.
One of the things I’m really excited about is our special collections. They’re something we’ve been working on for a while and we just released a new version. It’s where we send our Street View camera into unusual locations to give people an inside look — we actually get to go into these places like Kensington Gardens in London and walk through. You can find the front of it on Street View but you can also go inside of it.
Recently, we released a set of special imagery in honor of World Forest Day of the Amazon. We put a street view camera on a slow-moving barge that was working its way up the Amazon River. So you can actually work your way up the river as if you were on that boat and see what the Amazon is like. I think that’s been really interesting. We also are launching a version of the Swiss Alp train, so it’s a train going through Switzerland where we did the same thing. So now there are these images as if you were riding on the train. It’s about getting to go to some of these really cherished places and preserving what it feels like to be there.
Where do you see yourself and Google going in the next five to ten years?
Five to ten years is a pretty long time frame. So I’m not exactly sure. For Google, there’s all kind of frontiers in searching and organizing information. There’s not just keyword search – you can search by voice on your Android phone. Can we help you understand and predict the places you’d like to go? That’s a lot of what our Zagat acquisition was about. It’ll help you see what restaurants you’d really like. Can we help you read the review and understand it? Is there a person who you’d really love who you should be friends with but you haven’t met yet? Can we help you find that person? Can we help you find an expert in a moment of need when you really need an expert opinion? It’ll be very interesting to see how Google takes action on some of those user problems and user needs.
As long as there’s an exciting challenge, I’m here to take it on.
This article originally appeared in BuzzFeed Shift in April.