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Yahoo May Be Marissa Mayer's Biggest Challenge Yet


We're going to hear more now about the woman taking the reins of one of Silicon Valley's most famous and challenged companies. Marissa Mayer took the tech world by surprise this week when it was announced she was taking the CEO job at Yahoo. The buzz grew louder when it came out she's pregnant and planning on working during her maternity leave.

Mayer is known for being one of Google's first employees and its first female engineer. NPR's Laura Sydell has this profile of Mayer and what she brings to her new job at Yahoo.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Silicon Valley actually has its own tabloids. Marissa Mayer has often been fodder for them. They like to poke fun at her love of cupcakes and luxury. She has a swanky apartment at the Four Seasons in San Francisco and likes designer clothes. But a lot more can be said about her intelligence.

She came to Stanford University from Wisconsin hoping to become a pediatric neurosurgeon. But she discovered computers and majored in - get this - symbolic systems, which combine cognitive psychology, linguistics, philosophy and computer science.

Mayer spoke with me at a live event this year at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

MARISSA MAYER: And I really came to the realization that I was much less interested in cutting up brains, I was much more interested in how they worked, how they learned, how they reasoned and what ultimately could be done with computers at the time, make us all smarter and make life more convenient.

SYDELL: Mayer would end up with a Masters in computer science. When it came time to find a job, she had many offers from startups. She made a chart with the positives and the negatives of each offer. Among the offers was one from a tiny company called Google.

MAYER: And my cousin and I actually gave Google 100 times more likely chance of succeeding than any of the other startups. I gave them a two percent chance of success, where I gave all the other startups a .02 percent chance of success.


SYDELL: Mayer joined Google as employee number 20. She created the look and feel of its signature home page and developed Gmail. Lately, she's been overseeing Google's local projects, such as Maps.

Though much is made of Mayer's gender, she is often, well, like a lot of computer scientists, a little oblivious. While at Stanford, she was reading a column in the student paper about people you notice on campus but don't know their name.

MAYER: And then all of a sudden there was entry on the list that said the blonde woman in the upper-level computer science classes. And I thought, gosh, I should know who this is.


MAYER: And I was like, wait, like am I really - I mean I really had never noticed that I was the only blonde. Or I never had really noticed that I was the only woman.

SYDELL: Mayer has done a lot of mentoring to try and bring more women into her field. Right now less than 18 percent of computer science majors are women. But clearly Mayer likes challenges - from changing her major to joining Google.

MAYER: You know, that feeling at the end of the day where you're like what have I gotten myself into, and I realized that sometimes when you have that feeling and you push through it, something really great happens.

SYDELL: Mayer is clearly taking a risk in accepting the CEO chair at Yahoo. The company has been in freefall, losing 41 percent of its value in the last five years.

REBECCA LIEB: Yahoo is a very, very damaged and very confusing brand.

SYDELL: This is Rebecca Lieb, an analyst with Altimeter Group.

LIEB: I've always called it the company without an elevator pitch.

SYDELL: Lieb says Mayer definitely pushed herself by taking this job.

LIEB: CEOs don't execute. You know, she's not going to roll up her sleeves and write all the code for Yahoo. She has to create a vision for the company and then execute against that vision, and that's very different than running product groups at Google.

SYDELL: Still, many people in Silicon Valley are excited that Marissa Mayer is running Yahoo. Among her fans are many people who used to work for her at Google, like venture capitalist Chris Sacca.

CHRIS SACCA: Marissa has the gravitas to really inspire people to rally around a common purpose and a common goal. I mean, Yahoo has a very talented pool of people working there. They just haven't been all pointed in the same direction.

SYDELL: While Mayer has had many challenges at Google, Yahoo is going to be a big one. She will be its sixth CEO in four years. But none have had the kind of understanding of computers, technology and the Internet that Marissa Mayer brings to the job.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, andNPR.org.