Godaddy Isn’t The Company You Think It Is

WHEN GODADDY NAMED Blake Irving as its new CEO, Elissa Murphy was one of the first people he called. Irving had worked with Murphy at Microsoft and Yahoo, where she was a vice president of engineering, and he asked if she would join him at GoDaddy. “Absolutely not,” she said.

As an exec at Microsoft, Irving helped push the software giant onto the internet. He spent two years as the chief of product at Yahoo. And after working alongside him for so many years, Murphy trusted his judgment. “I have faith in Blake,” she says. Nonetheless, GoDaddy was a company that used half-naked women to advertise a service for registering website addresses. It not only carried a reputation for shameless sexism. It was a technological backwater.

But Irving was pitching GoDaddy as a place for change. He said he would drop the sexist advertising. He described the company’s service—despite the low-grade software and PennySaver look—as a platform that could offer serious technology to any small business that signed up for an internet domain. He wanted to remake the company’s online infrastructure in the image of what Murphy helped create at Yahoo, so it could reach these small businesses not only in the US but across the globe. And though Murphy resisted the pitch at first, she spoke to others about it, thought it over, and eventually came around.

She warmed to the idea of building a new global operation, using the latest in open source data center software to expand the company’s foundational infrastructure from around 30,000 machines to 100,000. “I’m kind of a geek,” she says. She felt that with data on the habits of over 10 million existing customers, the company was in a unique position to understand and nurture the small business market. And considering that so many small businesses are run by women, she saw this as a way of turning the company’s M.O. upside-down. Just a few months earlier, Murphy says, she had used GoDaddy to help her hairdresser—a woman—set up a new website.

That spring, Murphy joined GoDaddy as its chief technology officer. And much like Irving, she received countless messages from friends and colleagues questioning her judgment. “Trust me: If you think he got emails saying ‘What the___are you doing?,’ I got more,” she says. But two years on, she represents a significant shift inside the company, in terms of both culture and technology.

Portrait of Elissa Murphy, CTO of Go Daddy

Portrait of Elissa Murphy, CTO of Go Daddy

Today, after Irving made good on his promise to drop the sexist ads, women fill 18 percent of GoDaddy’s technical and engineering jobs—slightly more than at places like Google andFacebook. This year, women account for 39 percent of its new technical hires from universities (up from 14 percent the previous year) and 40 percent of its technical interns (up from 14 percent). In April, the Anita Borg Institute For Women and Technology rated the company as one of the top workplaces for women technologists, alongside Apple and Google. And as the gender balance starts to shift, new tech laid down by Irving, Murphy, and so many others is reshaping the company into something that belies its reputation.

Brian Essex, a financial analyst with Morgan Stanley who closely tracks GoDaddy, says that despite its lingering reputation as a “gorilla marketer,” the newly-public company is evolving into the kind of international platform Irving envisioned. “They’ve focused on high quality,” he says of the company’s leadership team, most of whom joined the company after Irving took the reins, “and that shows through.”

As so many big-name companies say they’re seeking to advance the role of women in the tech industry, GoDaddy is an example of real progress. Known more for its sexism than its technology, it was in an even deeper hole than most. But now, says Telle Whitney, the CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, “GoDaddy outperforms the norm”—at least in terms of female hiring, starting with its CTO. (You’ll find women CTOs at less than 7 percent of Fortune 500 companies.)

And yet the evolution of GoDaddy also shows just how much still needs fixing. As Irving points out, 18 percent isn’t all that high. And as he and the company push for change, they’re often met with more antagonism than applause. Those TV ads linger in the minds of many—not to mention on YouTube—and some question the sincerity of the company’s newfound feminism. We’re a long way from a world where women in technology isn’t a debate.

‘Don’t Bother With Them’

Last year, the GoDaddy partnered with the Anita Borg Institute in a broad effort to promote woman in tech. Irving served as an executive producer on a new documentary, Code: Debugging the Gender Gap. He spoke at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. And in each case, he and the company were pilloried across social media and beyond, their efforts characterized as mere PR. Whitney says other Anita Borg partners complained about Institute’s association with the company.

“‘GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving also recognizes the value of women in technology.’ Right. Our value in GoDaddy’s sexist ad strategy,” one woman wrote on Twitter in the wake of the Anita Borg partnership.

“@anitaborg_org Don’t bother with them, #FutureOfGoDaddy. Work with someone who’s deserving of your skills!” said another.

Certainly, if GoDaddy is to win the small business market, it must scrub its reputation. Though a study commissioned by GoDaddy shows that women account for 60 percent of small businesses owners, they represent only 40 percent of the company’s current customers, a discrepancy easily blamed on its past advertising.

Portrait of Blake Irving, CEO of Go Daddy

Portrait of Blake Irving, CEO of Go Daddy

In 2013, Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson says, his company pulled out of a partnership with GoDaddy because so many women selling stuff through its online marketplace were complaining about the latest Super Bowl ad. Irving, three weeks into his tenure, assured Dickerson he was changing the ad strategy, and the Etsy CEO says he “sounded very sincere.” But Dickerson told Irving that a partnership wouldn’t work unless he dropped the ads right away, something that Irving felt he didn’t yet have the political capital to do. Now that the company has indeed stopped the ads—and changed in so many other ways—Irving wants the world to know about it.

But change is change. When Elissa Murphy arrived at GoDaddy, she helped found a “women in technology network,” after running a similar group at Yahoo. And through this group, she cultivated the relationship with the Anita Borg Institute, sending the first email to Telle Whitney. “I reached out to her, and I knew she would think: ‘Are you completely mad?’” she says. “But they have been nothing but fantastic partners.”

Twenty-three-year old Julie Logue joined GoDaddy as a user experience designer last summer after Blake Irving bought fro-yo for her and ten other female seniors at Cal Poly, explaining his personal reasonschanging the culture at GoDaddy. He said it was part of a promise he made to himself several years earlier, after the death of his sister, a college professor who specialized in the psychology of women. “He said his vision was to carry on her work, but in his field,” Logue remembers. “I honestly have never been so inspired. I thought: ‘I have to get a job with this company. I don’t care if I’m washing the floors.’”

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