Just two weeks ago, sources close to Yahoo's search for a new CEO indicated that the ailing internet giant's board of directors was set to put the company's future in the hands of either interim CEO Ross Levinsohn or current Hulu CEO Jason Kilar.
Both prospective CEOs have strong media pedigrees, which suggesed that Yahoo's board was prepared to guide the company down a familiar and not-always-successful ad and content-driven path.
Last week, reports surfaced indicating that Kilar was not interested in becoming Yahoo's CEO; apparently, he may find a new friend in Facebook. That seemed to make the appointment of Levinsohn to the CEO post a sure bet.
And then Yahoo's board pulled what may be one of the biggest shockers in tech executive searches: it hired Google's Marissa Mayer to lead the company into the future.
Mayer, just 37 years old, is one of Google's most prominent early employees. She was the young search engine's first female engineer and over her 13 year career at Google, has held a number of key roles which have seen her involved in the launch of "more than 100 features and products including image, book and product search, toolbar, iGoogle, Google News, and Gmail — creating much of the 'look and feel' of the Google user experience" according to Yahoo's press release. That means one thing: Mayer is a product person and will almost certainly take Yahoo in a very different direction as a chief executive than Levinsohn would.
Needless to say, nobody called this one. Even prominent investor and Silicon Valley insider Marc Andreessen was surprised. He didn't believe Yahoo could recruit somebody like her. "She was not known to be available and when companies get into these dire straits, it's hard to get someone of this caliber," he stated in an interview.
So how did Yahoo do it? A number of former Google executives are now in top leadership roles at other companies. Most notably, Tim Armstrong runs AOL and Sheryl Sandberg is the chief adult in charge at Facebook. And it's not hard to understand why: running a company is a great opportunity that many senior executives covet, and the opportunity to take the reins of a large but troubled company provides a particularly unique (if still somewhat risky) opportunity.
There are also rumblings that Mayer, despite her high profile at Google, had limited options for advancement going forward. Possible confirmation of that: Google reportedly isn't in a rush to fill Mayer's now-vacated position, suggesting that her most recent role there wasn't really all that important after all.
The big question on everyone's mind now is can Mayer turn Yahoo around with a new product-oriented focus? We won't have the answer to that for some time. Until then, there are even more intriguing questions, such as:
- Who will Mayer bring in to make up her inner circle?
- Will she lure trusted Googlers to join her at Yahoo?
- What new products are in store for Yahoo, and what sort of changes will Mayer make to existing ones?
- Can Yahoo realize gains in the Silicon Valley talent wars now that a CEO with a product and engineering background is running the show?
- Will startups looking to sell consider Yahoo a 'cool' buyer again?
- How will Mayer's new role impact Yahoo's long-term relationship with Google's arch rival, Microsoft.
While we wait for answers to these questions, one thing is certain: to tech industry observers and participants, Yahoo just became interesting again, if only on paper.