Wall Street redemption: Jerry Yang joins the board of market darling Workday

By Sarah Lacy , written on November 25, 2013

From The News Desk

The last time investors hotly debated the value-add of Jerry Yang, he had taken over the reins of Yahoo and incensed them by turning down a $40 billion acquisition offer by Microsoft.

It doesn't matter that his successor Carol Bartz didn't fare much better or that the biggest crown jewels of Yahoo -- a big, honking stake in Alibaba and lucrative joint venture with SoftBank for Yahoo Japan -- were originally his doing. It didn't even matter that he had created the half-billion-unique-a-month behemoth in the late 1990s to begin with. It likely doesn't still matter to many that Marissa Mayer has finally gotten Yahoo's shares back to where they were before that deal was rejected.

Jerry Yang was the goat.

Such is life in the glare of Wall Street. To paraphrase Janet Jackson, it's not what have done in your career, but what have you done for me lately.

Well, it turns out lately, he's been an active startup investor, and today he's announcing that he's joining the board of one of the hottest technology companies of the last decade: Workday.

Workday co-founder, chairman, and co-CEO Aneel Bhusri doesn't quite view legacy in short-term Wall Street-style terms. He doesn't see in Yang the guy who turned down Microsoft. He sees him as the man who helped create the consumer Internet as we know it, and pull off one of the single best Chinese deals in Valley history. (Buying a bunch of UP bracelets for employees and Tumblr aside, Marissa Mayer's use of those Alibaba assets are the biggest reason the stock has done so well under her tenure.)

Bhusri's long-term perspective of what makes a tech career isn't too much of a surprise given the roots of Workday. Back in 2006, he and his co-founder Dave Duffield had to watch their baby PeopleSoft get bought by Oracle's Larry Ellison in the world's first hostile takeover of a software company. Duffield, a legend known as a rare nice guy in the industry, even came out of retirement to help save the company. It didn't work. Investors saw green and didn't care about sentimentality of things like thousands of jobs and a nice-guy culture.

Those were the ashes and spoils that Workday rose from. Some six years later, it went public and was crowned by investors as the anti-Facebook in a banner IPO that single-handedly gave a lot of public and private market investors enterprise religion.

Workday has surged more since. At some $74 a share it's trading near its 52-week high of $84.42. That kind of performance gives a founder like Bhusri a broad mandate to add the person he thinks is best to the board, no matter what his last act was. And Bhusri wanted Jerry Yang.

He was introduced to Yang a few years ago through mutual friends including LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, who was once a senior Yahoo executive under Yang. "I only knew him as an icon, not a person," Bhusri told me in a PandoDaily exclusive interview with the two of them. "He struck me as a down to earth guy for being Jerry Yang, and my co-founder Dave is like that. I'm always attracted to people who are that modest despite what they've built."

While "consumerization-of-enterprise" is a groan-inducing cliche in the software world, Workday has long been inspired by consumer software. That's partly because Bhusri is also partners at Greylock with David Sze and Reid Hoffman who between them invested in LinkedIn, Facebook, Zynga, and other great hits of the Web 2.0 era. Few enterprise titans are so well connected to the "now" in consumer. And yet, he's lacked that consumer DNA on his board until now. Hell, he didn't even have a hardcore technologist on his board until Yang.

"Am I the perfect consumer Internet guy?" Yang says. "Possibly not, but I've also seen the other side of growing a global multibillion dollar company." He scoffed at my questions about trepidation entering the Wall Street limelight again by joining such a high-profile company. "They can have whatever memories they want," he says of Wall Street investors who may not remember him so fondly. "If you look at the things we've done at Yahoo, we've made some pretty good moves. Even Marissa is championing some of the things we did back then. They are still around today. I have nothing but very proud and happy memories."

Since stepping out of the daily news cycle, Yang has been investing in early stage companies again through his quiet venture firm AME Cloud Ventures. He's invested heavily in big data startups leveraging the cloud. "Quietly in the background, Jerry is doing a lot of new things that I think will be very important to me and to Workday," Bhusri says.

While his experience leading a massive consumer company that's been on both the good side and bad side of Wall Street is clearly valuable, his global expertise may be the real gem. In addition to the Alibaba and Yahoo Japan deals, Yang is also on the board of Chinese titan Lenovo. Global is clearly going to be a huge push for Workday in coming years. Beyond that, the two were mum on what that might look like. "Jerry just joined today," Bhusri says.

When I asked Yang if a joint venture like the ones he brokered in Japan and China were still the best bet for global expansion in 2013, he too demurred on specifics.

"There is no playbook," he says.

[Photo by Mitch Aidelbaum Photography]