Marissa Mayer Neuters The Cowboy Coder

“All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void…” 
Neuromancer (William Gibson)

I suspect we are on the cusp of a transformation in how engineers and computer programmers are hired, valued, rewarded, promoted. The line was drawn when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer effectively killed off telecommuting. With this, she also dispatched the last of the cowboy coders from the Valley.

The cowboy coder has long been the stuff of pop culture mythos: vain, skilled, belligerent, cool. The dark character-artifice presented in film, books and television. Machines rule our lives, everyone’s lives, excepting, we were told, these Silicon Valley cyber-riders who expertly manipulate the algorithmic levers of the world’s digitized power centers.

Supremely valuable to the company he deigned to work for, far superior than the prototypical office “drones” who showed up dutifully for work every morning, the cowboy coder lived by his own rules, his own creed, his exceptional talents.

Thanks to Mayer, he is no more.

Cowboy Coders Dethroned

Without making headlines, coding prowess – long the princely, priestly lifeblood of Silicon Valley – was dethroned.

Here’s Mayer in February:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. (emphasis mine)

Translation: Meatspace trumps cyberspace.

Here’s Mayer in April:

People are more productive when they’re alone, but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.” (emphasis mine)

Translation: Conversation trumps coding.

Connections Equal Profits

Power and value now flow not from coding but from creating and enabling connections. Connections equal profits. To create deeper, lasting, more profitable connections with customers requires deeper, more meaningful connections amongst the workers.

Cowboys are loners – and they do not play well with others.

Make no mistake, this phenomenon is not restricted to Yahoo, nor to female CEOs. Recall that the big Facebook-Waze merger was scuttled because Facebook wanted Waze’s people – it’s coding talent – to relocate to Facebook headquarters. Translation: The Valley’s most valued social media company understands that far-flung coding greatness cannot equal the value that arises via physical proximity.

Earlier this month, Steve Ballmer made it similarly clear in his Microsoft re-org that collaboration trumps all:

Collaborative doesn’t just mean “easy to get along with.” Collaboration means the ability to coordinate effectively, within and among teams, to get results, build better products faster, and drive customer and shareholder value.


In-person, cross-company interactions that arise from an army of lesser skilled but far more sociable programmers trumps world-class coding.

Which begs the question: how should coders be valued? Who is “best”? Who achieves “most”? What skills are critical? Who gets promoted? It’s still too early to know. I suggest, however, that we look to the iPhone for guidance.

iPhone Changes Everything

The iPhone changed mobile and mobile changes everything.

Consider that last quarter Apple sold 50 million personal computers. Only 4 million were Macs. The remaining 46 million were iPhones and iPads – mobile computers.

Mobile now rules the computing landscape, and unlike their desktop predecessors, mobile “PC” applications are not optimized for intensive processing, use or focus. Rather, they are constructed, rail by rail, across very distinct tracks – all of which are required for success:

  1. Mobile
  2. Location-aware
  3. Social-collaborative
  4. Touch-based
  5. Cloud-connected
  6. Rapid (“bursty”) use
  7. Native code
  8. Highly visual presentation
  9. Entertaining
  10. Personalized

In this new age of computing, an application can only succeed by effectively traversing multiple domains, multiple stakeholders, disparate content sources, and numerous touchpoints. Think: Yahoo’s mobile applications team working with Apple, licensing content from, integrating Yahoo’s user database information with Facebook and Twitter APIs, and coordinating this with Flickr, all just to create the new, free Yahoo weather app for iPhone.

Those who expertly develop, sustain and integrate relationships across the pillars will be well rewarded. Horizontal trumps vertical.

The cowboy coder, working alone, magically conjuring his binary alchemy, a master of a single application or system, is now more of a cost center, inhibiting the development of the far more valuable horizontal connections that determine success.

Coding Is Relationships

It’s time to consign the detritus of the cowboy coder to the dustbin of history. Moving forward, personal (mobile) computing must deliver social, visual, delightful, real-time, collaborative experiences.

For good or bad, coding has gone uptown. Everything is digitized and everyone has a computer. The new “best” coders now arrive for work each morning from inside comfy, anointed busses. From their gleaming office they eat the finest foods, they wear a badge and their cube has a number, well-earned. The products and services they build are for everyone to use.

Laudable – but boring.

The cowboy coder is dead. It’s time for a new programming hero to step forward.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia

Published by

Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about mobile devices, crowdsourced entertainment, and the integration of cars and computers. His work has been published with Macworld, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, ReadWrite and numerous others. Multiple columns have been cited as "must reads" by AllThingsD and Re/Code and he has been blacklisted by some of the top editors in the industry. Brian has been a guest on several radio programs and podcasts.

742 thoughts on “Marissa Mayer Neuters The Cowboy Coder”

  1. Yet another “Modern” system derailed. The slow, deconstruction and devolution of the hyper-individual in day to day life is in place. Now, how do we get the technology created to help translate that to the users?

    This is an interesting quote from Ballmer, “Collaborative doesn’t just mean ‘easy to get along with.'” I’ve longed believed, show me a group of collaborators that avoids conflict and I’ll show you a group that doesn’t trust each other.


    1. Microsoft is so big, has operated by certain values for so long, that it will make for an interesting case study to see if they truly incentivize/reward collaboration.

  2. “People are more productive when they’re alone, but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”

    Hmm. An interesting trade off. Gave me much to think about.

  3. The sensible way to do this is to have some flexibility.

    I am software developer and if you are working on team project there is huge value from collocation with that team IMO. So in that respect I agree. But I would let anyone who felt they could benefit have 1 or 2 working from home days per week. This won’t be everyone, it won’t disrupt collaboration. There is also massive value of getting one solid day of no interruptions when you are really in the coding zone.

    The best teams I have worked with had all the teams desks located together and arranged to their liking, this cut down the communications overhead dramatically for resolving issues with impromptu discussions, that often didn’t require leaving your desk, that could evolve into white board sessions as needed. No need for meetings.

    It surprised me how often this did NOT happen. You might have 80 developers in your section of the building and if you compared which projects they were working on to where they were sitting, there would often be no correlation at all. So the on-site benefits were largely wasted.

    I wonder if forcing everyone to be full time in office will become a new fad, and will the companies doing it also stop outsourcing chunks of the workforce to India/China, which makes a mockery of forcing staff full time on-site for collaboration.

    1. “But I would let anyone who felt they could benefit have 1 or 2 working from home days per week.”

      I would imagine all this will be up for revisiting as time goes on, and no doubt on a case by case basis. That’s how the couple of software companies I know of handle it even with a work-from-home-after-working-for-us-for-a-year-or-so policy (my wife works for one). But it is hard to argue the benefits of telecommuting in the face of Yahoo’s troubles. A do-over button was really required, it seems to me.


  4. I strongly believe in face to face time. despite all of the digital communication & collaboration tools, in person meetings is where the magic happens. but, there is a middle ground & alone time is a must. Defendor’s got the right idea, there has to be some flexibility.

    now, is the cowboy coder dead? maybe at places like Yahoo & Microsoft.