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The Hemi Q&A: Carol Bartz

The Yahoo! CEO is famous for her combativeness, but sometimes a healthy blend of threats and encouragement is the only way to make something grow-just ask her rubber tree.

Author David Carr Illustration Jeffrey Decoster

IT’S A CUTE CONVENTION OF THE CEO INTERVIEW that the subject always tries to seem as accommodating and low-to-the-ground as possible. A powerful man-and it is almost always a man-receives the reporter in his office and makes a big show of getting up from behind an ostentatious desk to fetch coffee. Then, once he leaves his office to get it, he has to ask someone where the pot is actually located.

Yahoo! chief executive Carol Bartz does not go through the kabuki of fetching coffee. But then she’s not like a lot of chief executives. Sitting at a table at Yahoo!’s sprawling campus in Silicon Valley, behind a towering bouquet of flowers sent in anticipation of her 62nd birthday (a gesture from an underling that she dismisses as a bit much), Bartz isn’t worried about establishing her average-person credentials with empty stagecraft. The former Wisconsin farm girl more than accomplishes that with her words-direct, sometimes profane, always matter-of-fact.

Bartz was named chief of Yahoo! in January 2009 after a 17-year run at the helm of Autodesk, a leading creator of computer-aided design software. Since then, she’s had her every move scrutinized by Silicon Valley’s voracious tech press as she fights to lead the company-a dominant early web player established in 1994-to greater relevance. Today’s Yahoo! is more streamlined, with fewer deadweight subsidiaries (RIP, GeoCities) and a workforce focused less on search and more on delivering original content daily to its estimated 600 million users.

Bartz gave herself a B-minus for her first year on the job, but she’s confident that the company’s reach and growing inventory of professionally created content will make it a sticky place for millions of new users. When she took over, Yahoo! was often derided by the technoscenti as hopelessly behind the times. That was then. “I think we got old for a while,” she says. “We’re working hard to get that old attitude back.”

HEMISPHERES: So, do you run a media company or a technology company? What is Yahoo!, exactly?

BARTZ: It’s a very important tech company, and our technology happens to power content. Just as other tech companies make chips or phones, we power content. You don’t support a hundred billion emails a month and billions of ads without having an amazing array of technology.

HEMISPHERES: Do you ever pull up to this giant campus, with all these people working here, and worry that somebody else should be in charge?

BARTZ: Of course. I pull up saying, “Wow, there are more people in this building than there were in my high school- or in my whole hometown.” If somebody asks me, “Why are you perfect for the job?” I tell them that there are a lot of people who would be perfect for this job. I feel really lucky. I feel energized by it.

HEMISPHERES: Are you surprised by the amount of press interest and second-guessing you’ve been subjected to?

BARTZ: Not surprised, flabbergasted. Flabbergasted. I expected a spike of interest to begin with, because I’m a woman, this is an internet business, and Yahoo! was a bit of a piñata at the time. But there were all these stories that kept coming and coming. It’s still surprising, but frankly I don’t read much of it anymore.

HEMISPHERES: So why is Yahoo! such an obsession for the press?

BARTZ: I don’t know for sure. I guess because it changes so frequently-is the press going to write about steel mills?-and I think some of it is because there’s a youth culture around the industry. In general, though, I love it. I’m in the middle of Silicon Valley. Just look at the fun that’s going on now: Google and Apple and Adobe and Apple and Microsoft and holy bananas-the plates are just flying around! It’s a great time.

HEMISPHERES: Let’s talk about your managerial philosophy. You’ve described it as “fail-fast-forward.” What is that exactly? I think I have the first two parts mastered…

BARTZ: Fail-fast-forward means you’d better be doing enough that you have some failures. In other words, you are taking risks. People talk about taking a calculated risk, but by definition that’s not a risk.

HEMISPHERES: Running Yahoo! in this kind of environment sounds pretty complicated, but then you’ve been working at difficult things since you were very young.

BARTZ: My mom died when I was eight, so when I was twelve and my brother was six, we went to live with my grandma on a farm in Wisconsin, outside of Alma. It was a milk farm, plus corn, soybeans, all the crops you have. We had chickens and pigs, too, so we got every smell imaginable. On the farm, you just do what needs to be done. You know what a machine shed is?

HEMISPHERES: I lived on a milk farm in Wisconsin when I went to college-I know what a machine shed is.

BARTZ: Good. One day my brother and I were in the machine shed and there was a snake up on the rafter, a rattle- snake. We ran and found my grandma and said, “There’s a snake in the machine shed!” She didn’t say anything, just came out, grabbed a shovel, flipped it off the rafters, and after it hit the ground, she cut its head off with the shovel. Then she said, “You could have done that. Next time, just do it.” It was like, okay, no big deal. You just never got overly dramatic or traumatized by anything.

HEMISPHERES: Losing your mother at a young age is about the worst thing that could happen to anybody, right?

BARTZ: Everybody seems so indulged now. Growing up in the upper Midwest, life just went on. There wasn’t any feel- ing sorry for yourself, because you just had to keep going. I certainly miss my mother, but I never did go for the life-isn’t- fair stuff. It wasn’t just some thumb of God coming down on me. My grandparents did very well by me.

HEMISPHERES: But eventually you do have to unplug from the grid and go home. What do you do when you’re not running an internet giant?

BARTZ: When I want to unwind, I like cheap sauvignon blanc. It has to be cheap, though. A screwtop. I like sauvi- gnon blanc in that sort of ten- to thirteen-dollar range. I don’t want it sitting aging. I don’t want it touching oak. I want it smashed and put in a bottle.

HEMISPHERES: What else?

BARTZ: I have a huge garden. It probably has eighteen varieties of heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and in the winter, squash, snap beans and fava beans. Plus a lot of flowers. It’s a big garden. That’s what I do. I’m a lousy golfer, but I still play.

HEMISPHERES: Are you the kind of gardener who talks to your plants?

BARTZ: Oh, I always have.

HEMISPHERES: In the form of a lecture? Is it kind of nurturing? Or more cussing?

BARTZ: My favorite story about talking to a plant is when I went to work at 3M in Chicago, and I had this plant, a rubber tree. It had about three leaves for a whole year. I finally walked up to that plant and I said, “You better grow or I’m ripping your leaves off.” I am here to tell you that about three weeks later it had two new leaves.

HEMISPHERES: So you threatened the plant into thriving?

BARTZ: I threatened, then nurtured. Whatever it takes to get things growing.

DAVID CARR writes about media and culture for The New York Times. He wouldn’t touch a rattlesnake with a 10-foot pole.

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