Marissa Mayer gets heckled by protesters at Dreamforce keynote event

Now here’s a real tech industry disruption.

A group of protesters was the only thing that prevented yesterday’s Dreamforce keynote event from turning into a complete love-fest between Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.

Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference has some heavy hitters attending it, and last night’s fireside chat between Benioff and Mayer was one of the most widely anticipated events. However, the event was anything but smooth.

For starters, Mayer was 30 minutes late, forcing Benioff to stall by interviewing several CEOs who use his product. Shortly after Mayer finally took the stage, several high pitched shouts could be heard from the entrance to the hall, growing louder and louder until a group of protesters chanting anti-Walmart slogans and holding up a huge placard with Mayer’s face on it, became visible. It was confusing at first, until Mayer herself wryly explained, “It’s because I’m on the board of Walmart.”

Although it was difficult to make out what the protesters were saying, apparently they were protesting Walmart’s treatment of workers, especially during the Thanksgiving season. Both Benioff and Mayer looked visibly shaken (it isn’t everyday that a tech CEO gets treated as anything less than royalty here in the Bay Area) before regaining composure and continuing the conversation.

The talk itself comprised mostly of Benioff continuously and lavishly praising Mayer for her leadership at Yahoo. He introduced Mayer by calling her, “one of the most spectacular leaders in our industry, and maybe one of the most spectacular leaders ever.”

However, the conversation did reveal some interesting insights into Mayer’s management style, and Yahoo’s big push for mobile credibility.

“We think of ourselves as mobile-first” said Mayer. She insisted that focusing on mobile was not as much a pivot as it was a matter of re-energizing the core products that had always been there. “It’s mail, maps, news, weather, stock quotes, games, share photos and the list goes on and on,” said Mayer. “What’s crazy is when you actually list all of those out, if you listen for a second, it might be what people do on their phones, or it might be Yahoo’s core offerings since the very beginning.

Mayer admitted that Yahoo had been slow to get into mobile, mostly because it had very few specialists working on those products. “I think mobile took everybody by surprise, no one knew exactly how quickly we should move towards it,” said Mayer. “Within the company, it was everybody’s hobby, but nobody’s job.” 

Mayer said, the Yahoo mobile team has grown from 60 people to nearly 400, mostly because they made it easier for people to transfer internally between departments. This allowed people who really wanted to work on mobile to leave their previous positions and work exclusively on mobile offerings. Mayer said this was the core of her management style, getting things out of the way. “As CEO, your job is to play defense,” she said.  “The team is on offense, they’re going to move the ball. Your job is to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to run in this direction,’ and clear a path, get the obstacles, the process, the bureaucracy, the nay-sayers out of the way and help people run as fast as they can.”

Benioff also praised Mayer’s knack for design, but Mayer deflected it by saying while design was important, the company’s focus was on making things more useful to people in their everyday lives. “I’m not a designer,” Mayer. The many critics of the new Yahoo logo she designed might be inclined to agree.

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