Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Yang Is the Man?

I was wrong.


I have to say I never thought that Jerry Yang would screw up the guts to actually move CEO Terry Semel out of his job and move right in as CEO.

As I have written in many posts, such as this one, I thought Semel would go, but take his own sweet time doing it, after the first promising results of the recent overhaul of Yahoo’s search monetization system called Panama were in.

“Jerry Yang (and also co-founder David Filo) is simply not someone who would ever lead a boardroom coup,” I wrote. “For anyone who knows him even a little bit, such aggressive behavior is just not in the nature of Yang, who is deliberate and not known as a boat-rocker.”

Well, he turned out to have a lot more rocking ability than I thought. While he and Semel insist this move had been long planned, that was simply not the tone that the pair were putting out at the annual meeting just last week, which I attended.

There, Semel said he “absolutely” had the fire in his belly to run Yahoo, and Yang joked about not really wanting to take over the lesser CTO job, which he is doing on an interim basis.

How Semel’s flaming gut suddenly went out, and what got the 38-year-old Yang all hyper-ambitious, will have to remain a conundrum for now.

What is plainly true is that the level of shareholder dissatisfaction, on full display at the annual meeting, when a third of investors were against re-electing one or more directors, pretty much meant the “when-will-this-overpaid-exec-go?” stories were not going to stop unless Semel exited stage right.

And Yang insisted yesterday that he is in the CEO job to stay. “I very much see the CEO role as something I plan to do for a while,” said Yang to the New York Times.

So, given that I was wrong about his boat-rocking determination, I will have to take word for it now–though I will also say I just don’t believe him at all–that he has plans to stay the course at the troubled company he co-founded in 1994.

If true, it should be an interesting ride for him and Yahoo, since he has not run Yahoo since near its founding and has checked in and out over the years.

But he has remained a potent symbol of the company, much more so than the quiet-to-the-point-of-silent other Yahoo co-founder, Dave Filo. Still, his role has always been as a visionary and a strategic mind rather than an operator.

And also its chief worrywart. In a piece I did in 1998 on its other top execs, Tim Koogle and Jeff Mallett, I wrote about his role, which has not really changed much over the years:

It is Mr. Yang’s job to worry about things like that under Yahoo’s informal division of labor. ‘I worry if we’ll be around in three to four years,’ frets Mr. Yang, whose nickname is Grumpy. An internal initiative to make sure Yahoo isn’t blindsided by the melding of TV and the Internet is named after him: Project Grumpy.”

It is a characterization that he hated, and he wasted no time in telling me so, even though it was true.

Yet that straightforwardness, often delivered in the form of sarcastic needling, is one of the reasons I liked Yang right away when I met him about a decade ago. Yang had a confident demeanor about the company’s prospects and did not mind debating you about each and every point you might make about Yahoo’s future.

Yahoo was much smaller then, and easier to manage, which Yang did not even technically do after Koogle and Mallett came on in 1995, when there were four employees. Now Yang faces a company with far-flung assets and more than 12,000 employees (there were 49 when it went public in 1996).

Whether he can handle this level of complexity and sheer size is an open question, even with the able help of Sue Decker, the former CFO who is now Yahoo’s president (and who also is not experienced as an operations exec).

We’ll see, I guess.

Another piece I did in late 2000, when Yahoo was experiencing another dip in its fortunes, seems oddly appropriate now. (At the time, of course, Yang hated the column because of this ending referencing his well-known love of golf:)

Over breakfast recently, Mr. Yang was talking about the moment in golf–one of his favorite pastimes–when one’s ball is far enough from the hole that it’s considered a challenging shot, but close enough that missing it would make you feel like a chump. It’s called a ‘throw-up’ shot, or the ‘choke zone.’

That’s a good description of where Yahoo is today, which is why there is only one really good piece of advice to give the company as it tries to sink its next putt: Line it up carefully. Hit the ball smoothly. And, of course, don’t choke.”

So don’t choke, Jerry. And call me, even if it is just to tell me why I am wrong once again.

Please see this disclosure related to me and Google.

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