RealTime IT News

Who is Carol Bartz? Yahoo's New Sheriff

UPDATED: Two days after taking the job of CEO of AutoDesk, Carol Bartz was diagnosed with breast cancer. She missed one month for surgery and chemo, returned to work, and proceeded to whip an aimless, undisciplined company into shape.

Two days after taking the job of CEO of Yahoo, Bartz reportedly threatened to "dropkick to f*****g Mars" anyone whose gossip about the company ended up on the blogs, according to Valleywag.

Of course, someone did and promptly sent it to Valleywag, the National Enquirer of tech. Valleywag thought she was joking, but if she was serious, "she's going to wear her foot out fast."

Don't doubt her, Yahoos.

In her 14 years at AutoDesk, the company grew from a $200 million play to a $1.4 billion leader, and she developed a reputation as a tough leader with a penchant for salty language. Profiles across the Web make her out to be one part Steve Jobs, one part "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

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.

"You can never use the word 'stodgy' with Carol Bartz," said Nilofer Merchant, a former AutoDesk employee and now president of her own consulting firm, Rubicon Consulting. "She will not let the company stagnate. I thought [All Things Digital columnist] Kara Swisher's quote that it was a safe choice was an unfair representation. I thought it was the best choice of the three, but I don't think it's safe."

Bartz had been leading the services unit of Sun Microsystems before retiring from the job when she was recruited to be CEO of AutoDesk in 1992. What she found was the geek's equivalent of Romper Room. Employees routinely blew off project deadlines. There were no performance reviews.

Its founder, John Walker, had moved to Switzerland and was leading the company, sort of, from there. People brought their dogs to work, and the pooches sat in on meetings. The dogs still come to work – Bartz made at least one concession to the staff – but the rest has changed.

Two days after starting the job, she learned she had breast cancer. Bartz once said in a past interview her greatest worry was the cancer would be viewed as "a woman's disease" and undermine her authority, but that didn't stop her from showing up for work one month after her surgery.

Bartz lives in the Valley, quite close to Yahoo but very far from AutoDesk's officers in San Rafael, which is a long, arduous drive through downtown San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge that's time-consuming on even a good day. She would hire a driver to take her to work, to some criticism, which in retrospect seems ludicrous given the excesses of certain CEOs with 400-foot yachts. Bartz defended it by saying she worked in the car on her laptop and by mobile phone while being driven to work.

Bartz would display a flair for snappy one-liners worthy of her former boss at Sun, Scott McNealy. A 2004 Business 2.0 profile reported on her penchant for opening executive staff meetings with the crack "Tell me why I shouldn't fire the whole lot of you."

When AutoDesk began losing talent to dot com start-ups in the late 90s, almost all of which failed, as we all know, she told stock analysts "You'd be happier if we were selling plastic-wrapped fruit baskets over the Internet?"

Once more into the breach

Now 60, Bartz could have enjoyed an easy retirement but decided to tackle another disaster area. She takes the reins of a company that has been bleeding talent, market share and consumers for some time. Yahoo's slice of the search market is down to 35 percent to Google's 60 percent.

But Merchant thinks she has a plan. "She's not going to take this job if she does not have a way to win," she said. "Somewhere deep inside she knows a way to win and she's here to help Yahoo."

Brian Sozzi, equity research analyst for Wall Street Strategies, thinks the Street will give her some breathing room. "To be frank with you, they don't have a choice. There is value there, but at this point, Street expectations are pretty low. Twenty of 31 analysts who follow Yahoo have it at neutral or lower. She'll be afforded at least six months to bring in her people, get a thorough analysis of networking and how to correct it."

It's very different from making CAD software, but she can learn, said Merchant. "That's going to require a change on Carol's part, to learn what the Web 2.0 world is like. But I think she's savvy enough to know how to learn that," she said.

No sooner had Bartz been announced then talk flared up about selling the search business to Microsoft, again. Sozzi thinks that's foolish. "I never quite understood the idea of Yahoo selling its search business," he told InternetNews.com. "I understand the argument is to maximize shareholder return, but Yahoo is search. I just don't see the rationale behind giving Microsoft this key piece of their business."

For now, Bartz has to get Yahoo's state of affairs in order, streamline things to make the company efficient to compete. "It's out with the old, in with the new. New ideas, fresh thinking, and I think she's a good person to get this done. I think she'll bring in new faces to bring a clean perspective of what to do with that company," said Sozzi.

"She knows how to recruit," said Merchant. "She's exceptionally good at helping people understand how they can add value and motivating them to do so. So when she endears herself to you, it's not because you love Carol personally, although that could be the case. It's because you want to follow her where she's going and I think that's called respect."

Merchant thinks Bartz can earn the respect of the Yahoos. "The question is whether or not they can earn it from her."

And if not, she'll dropkick them to f*****g Mars.

Updated with Kara Swisher's correct affiliation with All Things Digital.