Yahoo eats CEOs. The perennially ailing company lures talented managers into the corner suite of its Silicon Valley headquarters, then it sucks their good reputations out of their veins and casts them aside. They inevitably pass through the revolving door an empty shell of their former selves.
Terry Semel, Jerry Yang, Carol Bartz, Scott Thompson. All took the CEO helm with visions of invigorating Yahoo into an Internet leader for the 21st century. Most became mired in Yahoo’s stubbornly byzantine culture. And all probably collected their severance checks wishing to themselves they’d never heard of the company with its stupid hillbilly name and its superfluous punctuation mark.*
Now it’s Marissa Mayer’s turn. Mayer – an early Google hire who instrumentally forged its successes in search, maps and online email – has become such a positive, likable presence in Silicon Valley that I actually felt sorry for her when I heard it was her time to be Yahoo’s help. A failed tenure as Yahoo’s CEO couldn’t happen to a better-qualified candidate.
Mayer’s appointment was something of a bombshell – many people expected Yahoo would appoint Ross Levinsohn, a seasoned ex-News Corp executive, as CEO. In the Internet industry of 2012, the gambit boils down to advertising versus engineering – which is to say, vision versus monetization. Any good Web company wants the sweet spot that welcomes both. With Levinsohn, Yahoo would have got an ad guy to oversee a product that is largely computer code. With Mayer, Yahoo gets an engineer with executive experience.
Three years ago, Mayer signaled that she was ready for a new company. Mayer, famously, was responsible early on for the invitingly spartan homepage of Google.com. Later she had a hand in core features like Gmail, Google News and Image Search. During her five years as vice-president for Google’s search and user experience, she oversaw some of the company’s biggest projects, balancing the site’s intuitive interface with the need to generate more ad revenue from it.