Learning from Yahoo's Carol Bartz: Put Business Case Before Cool

Ann All

I've got hideous feet. I don't blame genetics, I blame the scars caused by my long-ago tendency to wear "fashionable" shoes even if my feet bled, blistered and otherwise rebelled. Style was all I cared about, not utility. So now I have feet that scare small children.

 

In the same way I was a fashion victim, some folks are technology victims. When evaluating a new technology, they are impressed more by its cool than by its ability to solve business problems or help achieve business goals.

 

That doesn't mean I don't think there's room for experimentation. Saugatuck Technology's Mark Koenig suggested when I interviewed him last month that companies will need to adopt a "playground approach" to new technologies, in which employeesare encouraged to experiment to help determine the best use cases. I agree. But criminy, at least come up with some possible use cases first.

 

Just like fashion victims, technology victims can be pretty patronizing toward others. As if that's not annoying enough, the patronizing attitude often includes an element of ageism. So it was when Kara Swisher interviewed Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz at a recent All Things Digital conference. Swisher mentioned that Bartz's previous company, Autodesk, was "a bit more traditional" (i.e., not cool). Bartz's response:

 

Are we leading up to "I'm both too old and too stupid to know what the Internet is?" Cause by the way, Walt [Mossberg] is 61 and I'm only 60.


For good measure, Bartz (who strikes me as a scrappy broad in the finest sense of the word), added: "So f**k you." (Apparently, Bartz is somewhat well-known for dropping f-bombs.)


 

This snarky brand of ageism has dogged Bartz since she was named Yahoo's CEO. From an internetnews.com story published earlier this year:

 

Immediate reaction to the Bartz selection was negative, saying she was a software company veteran, not used to the fast pace of the Web 2.0 world, and that she ruled over a less-than-cutting edge company. "Stodgy" was the most common adverb used to describe AutoDesk.

 

Stodgy? How about "successful?" As the article notes, under Bartz's guidance, Autodesk went from a $200 million company to $1.4 billion. (And I bet that wasn't EBITDA.) After joining Autodesk, Bartz implemented such "stodgy" features as project deadlines. Not cool maybe, but smart.

 

Another Bartz anecdote from the internetnews.com article: When AutoDesk staffers left the company in droves to join dot com start-ups in the late '90s, Bartz told financial analysts: "You'd be happier if we were selling plastic-wrapped fruit baskets over the Internet?"

 

Just imagine how Pets.com, a company better known for its sock puppet mascot than a viable business model, might have fared under Bartz. I can imagine her saying: "We're going to sell dog food online? Are you crazy? The f**king shipping costs will kill us!"

 

Maybe it's because I'm not exactly a spring chicken myself, but I'm pulling for Bartz. In the photos from the Swisher interview, I love how her brightly patterned blazer and chunky bracelet contrast with Swisher's monochromatic black blazer over charcoal gray T. It looks like Bartz picked her ensemble because it looks good on her. Swisher's may be cooler, in a geek-chic way, but it washes her out. (Yeah, I guess I'm still a fashion victim.)



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