Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The computer scientist CEO

Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo may be a test of a new style of executive leadership, the optimizing CEO.

She is not the first computer scientist to lead a major company, but she is the first computer scientist (MSCS or higher) hired in as CEO to a Fortune 500 company. Many computer scientists view everything as an optimization problem. People, work, politics, life, everything is a search (often of a dynamic space) to find a maximum near the global maximum.

Marissa Mayer is an important test of a new style of CEO. She is not a Neutron Jack or Carly Fiorina, the strong military general style of bold decisions, loyalty-first, follow me, right or wrong. She is not going to be a charismatic cheerleading, press-focused CEO, the type that views their job solely as managing the message and marketing and selling the company and themselves. She is not going to be the mad visionary of Steve Jobs, yelling at everyone while single-handedly designing breakthrough products. She is a computer scientist and appears to be leading like one. I suspect she views the company, people at the company, the products, even her own role, all as an optimization process, a search to find the most productive and most useful outcomes.

The most common degree of CEOs hired into Fortune 500 companies is an MBA. Marissa appears to be the first computer scientist. This may be a test of a new style of leadership. Will Marissa Mayer be the start of companies hiring optimizing CEOs?

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

aren't industrial engineers known for the optimization role in the management ladder?
aside from this, as a computer scientist/engineer, i liked the idea of having a distinguished role in the management organization, although imo the optimization role is occupied by other disciplines long before us.

pmod said...

She's not nearly the first computer scientist CEO. Two examples come immediately to mind: Eric Schmidt & Jim Clark — I'd imagine there are more.

Greg Linden said...

Pmod, Eric Schmidt joined Google before it was in the Fortune 500. Similarly, Jim Clark was not hired into a Fortune 500 company, though he did great work at SGI and elsewhere.

What is unique is that Marissa Mayer was hired into a Fortune 500 company as CEO. While it is true many computer scientists lead companies that became Fortune 500 companies (often founding those companies themselves), I believe Marissa is the first to be hired in to a Fortune 500 company from the outside.

chubbard said...

True that Industrial Engineers often focus on optimization over all other choices, but Industrial Engineering and Computer Science have significant overlap in much of their disciplines. Although I might disagree Computer Scientist solely focus on optimization. In fact I think they are more focused on automation and what changes that brings to an organization over solely optimization. If take a 10,000 ft view you may be able to classify automation as optimization, but not all optimization is automation and automation changes organization so dramatically I don't the outcomes are the same.

Whatusername said...

Ginni Rometty at IBM studied CS/EE.

Anonymous said...

Your opinion of computer scientists appears a tad boxed don't you think? Perhaps she will be charismatic, pr savvy and a visionary leader.

Greg Linden said...

Thanks, Whatusername, but Ginni Rometty does not have a graduate computer science degree (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginni_Rometty), so Marissa is still the only computer scientist (assuming you define that as grad degree in CS, as I did).

Anonymous said...

No Greg, I wouldn't define "Computer Scientist" as having a graduate degree.

Greg Linden said...

Look, don't be silly, I obviously was not attempting to insult all my friends and colleagues worldwide that have a CS undergrad degree. Scientists often do research, which is why I said what I said, but, c'mon, don't imply I'm disparaging millions of people with a Bachelors in CS.

Maybe we can keep it simple? Marissa Mayer is the first person with a graduate degree in Computer Science to be hired into a Fortune 500 company as CEO, yes? And that that is at least somewhat interesting?

PetrolHead said...

I think it'll be interesting to see what Marissa does though I fear her options are limited in terms of successful outcome by virtue of Yahoo being in such a tough space.

I reckon they need to make a leap, can Marissa get them there? Well, maybe, it'd be quite a feat.

ReaderThinker said...

I really like this angle. I'm assuming you aren't dismissing the fact that she brings a host of more traditional CEO skills to the job -- just that she has this particular skill set that may provide the lens through which see sees her job. Her description of how she chose to come to work at Google (in IEEE Spectrum) illustrates that balance between calculation and instinct. It will be interesting to see if she can find some core strengths at Yahoo! and leverage them! Thanks for the thought-provoking post.