The New York Times surprised the world on Monday by breaking news of executive intrigue at the world's largest and third-largest search companies, Google and Yahoo. Google Employee No. 20 (the 20th person it hired) has become No. 1 at Yahoo, inheriting an iconic yet troubled corporate legacy.
In a way, Marissa Mayer's meteoric rise in the software world was accidental. She originally wanted to be a neurosurgeon, but she switched her major to computer science at Stanford. (Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are two other notable Stanford grads.) Before she wound up at Google, Mayer's path took her to research positions first at the Swiss financial firm UBS and then at Stanford's nonprofit SRI.
But it was at Google where Mayer came into her own. The company's first female employee has been credited with designing the layout of its minimalist homepage, Gmail, and Google Images. The accidental computer scientist had become the queen of search.
Mayer's final position at Google was in location services -- both a critical operation and a controversial one. Google Maps are much, much more than mere atlases. They serve as steppingstones for location-aware advertising.
So here's the big question: Why Yahoo?
The answer may be the attraction of the top spot. At Google, Eric Schmidt just finished a 10-year campaign as CEO. Mayer had to wonder how long it would be before a young Larry Page, the current CEO, decided to move on. And that's not to mention new rising stars at Google, such as Android chief Andy Rubin, whom Google enlisted with its 2005 purchase of Android Inc.
Mayer faced a tough choice: Should she stay with a proven winner, where she would be limited, or should she gamble on an old, haggard former champion? For Mayer, the choice was likely made easier by her strong confidence, knowing that she deserved much of the praise for making Google the winner it is today.
It's hard to say where Mayer will take Yahoo, a company at a crossroads. After bidding farewell to co-founder and long-time CEO Jerry Yang, the company has endured a disastrous experiment with former Autodesk CEO Carol Bartz, along with the bizarrely short-lived appointment of Scott Thompson.
Mayer is the kind of leader Yahoo desperately needs. Now comes the hard part: She must assemble talent around her and repurpose Yahoo's scattered pieces.
A recent hacking aside, Yahoo Mail and Yahoo Finance remain strong properties. Many people read Yahoo News, even if it has been eclipsed by Mayer's own creation, Google News. On the other hand, Yahoo took on a good deal of extra baggage when it replaced its indexing service with Microsoft's Bing two years ago.
In short, picking up the scattered pieces at Yahoo is a tough task, even for a superstar. But among the few brave souls who might be up to that task, Mayer certainly is a prime candidate. She built an empire for the kings of search. Now it's time for her to rule her own kingdom, for better or worse.
— Jason Mick is senior news editor at the independent tech news site DailyTech.