Is It Cool to Work for Yahoo Now?

/// Is It Cool to Work for Yahoo Now?

September 30, 2013  |  Blog

These days, the 17th floor of Yahoo’s midtown Manhattan office could easily pass for that of a young tech startup.

There, roughly 35 mobile engineers work in small, circular clusters arranged in a spacious, open-floor layout. What appears to be a recently renovated cafeteria is stocked with free snacks, juices and coffee. There’s a feeling — perhaps in the way the way the desks are arranged, or by the quiet, steady conversation between employees — of collaboration. If it weren’t for the purple that pops up everywhere — on the walls, and even in the tint of artwork adorning them — you might forget you were at Yahoo at all.

Perhaps that’s the point. In the Marissa Mayer era, Yahoo is transforming its image as an out-of-touch ’90s relic, reworking its flagship web products — Yahoo.com, Yahoo News, Yahoo Mail and more — for the current decade. As part of that strategy, those products are being thoroughly revamped for mobile devices, sending Yahoo on an intensive hunt for mobile engineers. In the past year, Yahoo has set up a new mobile engineering office in New York, increasing the total number of mobile engineers across the organization sixfold. The talent pool has grown largely through an aggressive startup acquisition strategy — thus far, more than 20 mobile startups have been acquired under Mayer’s direction.

The acquisitions have given Yahoo a quick influx of mobile engineering talent, but challenges still remain. Yahoo, like any other acquirer, runs the risk of bringing on employees who don’t necessarily buy into the big vision long-term, says Jesse Beyroutey, an associate at IA Ventures. Recruiting on an individual level remains challenging as well, when such a plethora of options exist for mobile engineers at companies like Google and Apple and, for the more entrepreneurial, at tech startups. While perceptions of Yahoo are certainly changing, it isn’t yet seen as a cutting-edge place to work.

“I think Marissa has done tremendous things to shake up Yahoo’s culture and it seems to be working,” Beyroutey says. “But Yahoo’s still an advertising and media company, and playing catch up in mobile and personalization. While it’s fun to be a challenger, I don’t get the impression that makes Yahoo ‘cool.’”

Breeding a Startup Culture

Eleven months ago, Mayer made her first acquisition as CEO of Yahoo: mobile recommendations app Stamped. (That’s Stamped’s three co-founders above, pictured with Mayer the day their company was acquired.) The one-year-old app shut down shortly after, and its nine-person team became the nucleus of Yahoo’s New York mobile engineering division, headed by Stamped co-founders Robby Stein (pictured center left) and Bart Stein (pictured center right).

Together, the Steins — who aren’t, by the way, biologically related — have been challenged with growing Yahoo’s mobile engineering ranks in New York, spending as much as a third to half of their time recruiting some weeks, they say.

“When we started [at Yahoo], no one here in New York was working on products,” Robby recalled in an interview with Mashable at Yahoo’s offices late last month.

“With Marissa, we realized there was not only an opportunity to create a mobile portfolio, but to build a new center of engineering excellence in New York.”

They have a pitch for potential hires: Yahoo, they say, has the resources and luxuries of a big company (free food! health insurance!), and the entrepreneurial feel of a startup. Robby says that his job at his former employer, Google, was to optimize products. At Stamped, it was to build products with “unlimited creativity.” Yahoo offers something between the two: The opportunity to be creative, and the resources to fulfill the vision.

“The product development process [here] is not any different than at a startup,” Bart says. “Except you go to Marissa. She’s not so different than a board [of directors], except she’s more detailed [in her feedback].”

Employees arranged in clusters is no accident. Bart and Robby call these “pods”: small, entrepreneurial teams focused on building individual mobile products that function like “mini startups” within Yahoo. Until Stamped became part of Yahoo — which happened the same day that Adam Cahan became Yahoo’s SVP of mobile — these did not exist, but now the structure is being emulated across Yahoo’s engineering offices in Sunnyvale and San Francisco, bringing together mobile product, design and engineering teams to work together on a single product.

In some instances, the desktop and mobile teams of a single product are on different coasts. They collaborate more or less closely depending on how integrated the desktop and mobile versions of their products are, Bart says. “They’re getting closer together,” Bart explains. “But Yahoo is known as a mobile-first company now. The thinking starts at mobile, then cascades down to desktop.”

Since the office is bent on building products, often from scratch or nearly so, Robby and Bart say the team focuses on finding people who know how to build — not just optimize — products. “There are people who can answer questions, but have never built something,” Bart says. “We want entrepreneurial engineers who ship.” The pair were particularly impressed with one candidate who, after being presented with a problem during an interview, built a complete solution (that is, an app) later that night.

Is Yahoo’s pitch working? I asked Amish Jani, managing director at FirstMark Capital, whether talented engineers in New York are now interested in working for Yahoo. “The ‘cool factor’ has definitely increased a fair amount,” Jani said in a phone interview. “Marissa [Mayer] has brought to Yahoo [a] sense of vision and leadership. It’s come a long way from being perceived as a slower-moving culture to one that actually is viable.” But, he added, Yahoo still faces tough competition in New York, both from Google and the city’s flourishing startup ecosystem.

Executing a Vision

When asked about what the New York mobile group is focused on, Bart echoed the “three sprints” strategy previously outlined by Mayer. First, recruit great people. Second, use those people to build great products, which will in turn lead to bigger and better audience engagement. Third, turn that audience into revenue. While the New York office is still hiring, it’s also moving into the second of the three-sprint strategy: building great products and bringing in traffic.

The first of those products was launched earlier this month: Yahoo Screen, a video app that acts as a portal to content from Yahoo and its video partners, which include ABC News, Martha Stewart and Comedy Central. The app is fast, elegant and easy to use, and seems primed for a much larger catalog of content. It doesn’t yet run any ads — Bart says the team is still figuring out that part of the experience.

Yahoo Screen was just one of a handful of pods we spied on the 17th floor, which means that plenty more mobile products are set to launch (or relaunch) in the coming months. Whether Yahoo can continue to make these products competitive will depend on its new hires and acquisitions. Yahoo has demonstrated that it’s willing to dig into its deep pockets for such talent, but it’s not clear yet whether the appeal goes beyond the steady paycheck. Cultivating such a vibe will be integral to Yahoo’s salvation.

Link: Is It Cool to Work for Yahoo Now?

Mashable – Lauren Indvik

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