commentary: The latest management meltdown at Yahoo is the story some folks can't stop talking about. But I'm starting to think that "some" is limited to Yahoo employees, shareholders, and rubberneckers who can't resist slowing to see a good car wreck.
Of course, we all know the story by now: New and unpopular-in-Silicon-Valley CEO Scott Thompson appears to have fudged his resume, claiming a degree in computer science where there was only an accounting degree. That little oversight has followed Thompson from his old job at PayPal to the new one at, lest we forget, one of the largest Web sites in the world.
Oops. Making matters worse, the resume problem was uncovered and made public by activist investor Dan Loeb and his hedge fund Third Point, which is engaged in a nasty proxy fight with Yahoo. Kara Swisher, the dean of the Yahoo beat, reported today that the Yahoo board member in charge of the CEO vetting process will not seek reelection. But Thompson, as of this writing, still remains, though Yahoo's board also announced today that it plans to create a special committee to review his academic credentials.
Now here's the funny part: As big as the story would seem to be, it's increasingly apparent not a whole lot of people outside Yahoo and its investors care very much about this. (Trust me, we keep track these things.) Why?
#1. Yahoo crisis burnout
Saying there's a management crisis at Yahoo is like saying there's bad traffic on the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco. Years ago, when CEO Tim Koogle left to spend the proverbial more time with his family, we learned a few months later in a BusinessWeek cover story that, well, that wasn't quite the case. Co-founder Jerry Yang was tortured by a decision to move on from the popular exec who took Yahoo public.
Next up to run the company was Hollywood insider Terry Semel. Semel's stewardship was initially successful, but sank into cultural confusion between the tech side of Yahoo in Silicon Valley and the entertainment side in southern California. Then Yang stepped in to right the ship, and all he did was turn down a $44.6 billion acquisition offer from Microsoft that, in hindsight, was not one of the brighter moments in the history of the tech industry.
Then Carol Bartz came in to run Yahoo, and a woman with an otherwise stellar career running Autodesk became best known as the Yahoo exec who cusses like a sailor. Bartz was fired over the phone when she too couldn't figure out how to right the ship. She was eventually replaced by Thompson, who, well, you know the rest of the story.
#2. A notable lack of heroes
There's no doubt Yahoo CEO Thompson has made his share of enemies with an unapologetic, aggressive patent suit against Facebook, layoffs, and, we hear, he takes up two spaces in the parking lot. Likewise, Yahoo's board -- as it has been populated and as it now stands -- has made a mess of things over the years (see reason #1.). And let's face it, aggressive hedge fund executives engaged in nasty proxy fights rarely come across as noble white knights. They serve a purpose in the marketplace by demanding shareholder value. But it's not exactly a heartwarming story of the underdog fighting the good fight.
There are victims, of course. The interests of Yahoo employees and shareholders are ill served by executives and board members busy with damage control. Unfortunately, they're the anonymous faces in this mess. A battle between an executive who fudged his resume and a hedge fund boss? Please, turn the channel.
#3. You know what's cool? Not Yahoo
There's little doubt Yahoo is a Web pioneer, and there's little doubt it's still one of the biggest sites in the world in terms of page views and total users. But it's no longer a trendsetter. Mentioned the consumer tech companies influencing the world today, and people will quickly mention Google, Apple, (still) Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and maybe a few others. Does anyone still believe Yahoo belongs on that list?
#4. Haven't we seen this show before?
Let's start with a basic assumption: This is a big problem. Executives at publicly traded companies live and die with their credibility. Misstating something so basic as your education is, to say the least, head-scratching.
That said, Thompson isn't the first tech exec to get caught with a little fudging. As my colleague Jay Greene wrote Friday, tech execs have a long and embarrassing history of resume issues. Execs at Radio Shack, Veritas, and Lotus all left their jobs after falsehoods were found on their resumes. The most stunning of the meltdowns was Lotus' Jeff Papows, who was outed in a 1999 page one Wall Street Journal article that questioned everything from his educational background to his military experience to the color of his belt in tae kwon do.
#5. Who is Scott Thompson?
Let's face it, this isn't Meg Whitman we're talking about here. Thompson was a surprise pick to run a big company who, outside of the cognoscenti in Silicon Valley, is an unknown. Could he become a famous executive, breathlessly changing the world or representing America in a yacht race? Sure, why not, if he manages to keep his job. But Thompson is a long way from being famous. Shoot, he hasn't even had a chance to be dragged before a Congressional panel, like so many other tech execs in recent years.
So there you go, the likely reasons the Yahoo fiasco doesn't, as we say in the press, have legs. Yes, we'll still cover the heck out of this story. It's important. Really, it is. But if you're having a hard time getting worked up about it, as my daughter would say, I so totally get it.