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New CEO Marissa Mayer is a huge hire for Yahoo

Marissa Mayer speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Dinner New York City. The 37-year-old was named CEO of Yahoo today.
Marissa Mayer speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Dinner New York City. The 37-year-old was named CEO of Yahoo today.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Time Inc.

One thing's for sure about newly named Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer: no one will question the Stanford computer science grad's credentials, as they ultimately did those of Mayer's predecessor, Scott Thompson, who had exaggerations in his resume that were revealed by activist Yahoo shareholder Dan Loeb earlier this year.

Mayer actually ups the ante on engineering cred: the 37-year-old was Google's first female engineer, as well as one of the first 20 employees hired (she was in fact number 20). She can't, however, repeat that achievement in the Yahoo C-suite: she follows Carol Bartz (ousted last September) as the second woman to hold the top job.

This move has taken the tech world by surprise ("shock" might be a better word). It was widely expected interim CEO Ross Levinsohn would get the nod, given that he seemed to have Loeb's support. In this respect, the naming of Mayer is earth-shattering, and it comes on the heels of rumors that she had been passed over for advancement at Google, even though she had been standing in for co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin at public events and in the media. Mayer ranks right alongside Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as powerful women in Silicon Valley go.

And now she's surpassed Sandberg, with Facebook still reeling from its messy IPO. Put her next to Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, one of only three female CEOs in Silicon Valley (IBM's Virginia Rometty is the third), and who do you think looks like the future? It's entirely possible that more people remember Whitman for losing her bid to be governor of California, to Jerry Brown in 2010.

Mayer's future, however, is exceptionally uncertain. As I noted in 2008, Yahoo is the definitive Web 1.0 company: the portal that became a search engine that then had its lunch eaten by Google and, after spurning a buyout offer from Microsoft when its was worth billions more than it is now, hooked up with that same Microsoft to try to beat back the Google-Facebook Web 2.0 charge.

The big question for Yahoo has been, "Is it a tech company or a media company?" It still has the kind of web traffic that makes old-line media companies weep. Its sports and finance verticals have become very sticky sub-brands for users. But being at its core a Silicon Valley company, it wants to compete in the same engineering-driven world as Google and Facebook. The world that is, at last superficially, the world of Web 2.0.

The choice of Mayer as CEO could split the difference (Levinsohn landed more on the media side of the debate, with a reputation for being an advertising specialist). Despite her academic credentials, from Silicon Valley's most important farm team (Stanford), she was known at Google for he ability to manage large teams and for her talents at developing Google's user interface. She's tech. But she's not hardcore tech. "Google's minimalist look is an extension of her own aesthetic," wrote the L.A. Times' Jessica Guynn last year.

That said, Yahoo is still the most Hollywood-oriented of all Silicon Valley companies, with a significant presence on Southern California and a long-ago CEO, Terry Semel, who had come from the entertainment industry. So bringing on Mayer looks like an effort to bolster Yahoo's image for innovation, of which there has been very little of late. Yahoo will dearly need some soon, as Web 3.0 is shaping up to be dominated by mobile applications and devices.

Mayer's executive skills are impressive. She was abundantly better at human interfacing than Google's co-founders. It was Mayer who was dispatched to talk the Google talk to interested parties so that Sergey and Larry could monitor the inner-workings of the Googleplex, particularly after Page returned to the CEO's chair in 2011. But it's far from clear that she has the Big Vision Thing to lead Yahoo out of its current rut. And although she's joining Yahoo's board next to Loeb and his new members, she's going to be working with a board that's been in state of flux and agitation for a year or more.

There's little question that she'll spend plenty of time in the office and on the road: She's legendary for 90-hour workweeks, into which she "crams 60 meetings," according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Wisconsin native does have more technology cred than a clear media-side prospect for the Yahoo CEO job: Jason Kilar, CEO of video-streaming site Hulu, said he wasn't interested, according to DealBook.

Taking the Yahoo CEO job evidently wasn't a tough decision for Mayer, who has been reported to have a personal net worth of $300 million. She quit Google by phone and will go to work in Sunnyvale tomorrow. And in the process and that swift transition, she'll change the way that people talk about Yahoo, literally overnight.

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