Silicon Valley likes leaders with star power, and they don't come any bigger than Marissa Mayer, the newly anointed head of Yahoo. Her rsum is surely the template for a postmodern, information-age celebrity CEO: Stanford artificial-intelligence degree, employee No. 20 at Google, developer of the iconic white search page, user-experience guru, stunning blond designer-clothes-wearing mother-to-be.
That last bit is getting all the attention, since Mayer revealed right after announcing her move to Yahoo that she's expecting a baby boy (due in October). Not only is the 37-year-old computer engineer the youngest by far of the 20 women who run Fortune 500 firms, but she's also the only one to become CEO while pregnant.
While the baby is getting most of the media coverage, investors couldn't care less. The Street just wants to know how the failing Web giant is planning to execute what would be, if successful, the biggest turnaround in tech since Steve Jobs took back Apple in 1997. Yahoo's second-quarter earnings were predictably dreary, with revenue down and page visits flat. Fortunately, Yahoo now has someone at the helm who shares much of the Jobsian worldview. Here are three reasons Mayer is a smart pick to reinvent one of the Internet's iconic brands.
1. She's a user-experience fanatic. Just like Jobs, Mayer has been relentlessly focused on how consumers interact with technology--she played a big role in developing Google's search engine, location services and design aesthetic. That's key, because in the past few years, technology has moved from being an industry in which innovation is driven by business users to one in which innovation is driven by individuals. Just look at the spectacular fall of RIM, the inventor of the BlackBerry. Beloved by corporate types for its e-mail app, RIM failed to see that smart phones would become consumer media devices, not just a way for road warriors to check in. BlackBerry lost huge market share to Apple as a result.
Mayer's design propensities mirror Jobs' consumer-first tendencies--she emphasizes simplicity and ease of use and has "a great eye for the look and feel of a site," says Benjamin Schachter, a tech analyst at Macquarie Securities Group in New York City. That's important, because while only 10% of global GDP is traded online, that number will likely rise to 50% within two decades--and consumers make up 70% of the economy. For years, Mayer has studied how we click; she is well placed to exploit the continuing boom in online commerce.
2. She's a technologist who understands media, not a media person trying to get technology. Some critics carp that interim CEO and former News Corp. executive Ross Levinsohn would have provided more continuity for the company, but in the battle between tech and media, the geeks are still winning. "Any company that has information and data at its core ought to have a techie running it," says Keith Woolcock, founder of the technology-research firm 5th Column Ideas. "We live in a media-centric world, but it's mediated by technology." Mayer's product focus will cheer investors who have grown weary of Yahoo's ill-fated efforts to define itself as a content company. And her coding chops will garner respect from the engineers; she'll need them to help pick up the pace and quality of innovation at Yahoo.