The Move No One Saw Coming: Marissa Mayer Becomes Yahoo CEO

That sound you just heard was Silicon Valley collectively spitting up its coffee.

Marissa Mayer is Yahoo’s new CEO.

It’s shocking. It’s audacious. Most likely, it will end in complete and utter failure. But for the moment, it’s hard not to feel the electric shock rippling across this region.

That’s because this is a move that no one, and I mean no one, saw coming.

Just in the last couple of days there had been reports that interim CEO Ross Levinsohn would get the job. Indeed, tech insiders has been lobbying hard for his ascension, though frankly, I never understood just what he had done in two months as temporary leader that everyone thought was so dang awesome.

Turns out that Yahoo’s board was so captivated either. Instead, they reached out and plucked the person who has served as the female face of arch-rival Google since, well, forever.

For sheer drama, Yahoo couldn’t have picked a better candidate.

Mayer is Google employee number 20. A Googler’s Googler. She has long been the female face of Google. Heck, her boyfriend used to be Larry Page, the dude now running Google. Probably a meaningless thing to both of them at this point, but it only heightens the dramatic tension.

Then there is the long, tortured history between Yahoo and Google, the company largely considered to be responsible for Yahoo’s downfall. Yahoo at one time used Google to power its search engine. Then, it failed to buy Google when it reportedly had a chance. And more recently, when Yahoo was attempting to fend off a hostile takeover bid from Microsoft, Google offered a search partnership with Yahoo that federal regulators then moved to block on anti-trust grounds.

Yahoo later struck a search partnership with Microsoft. Which means, in on uncertain terms: Mayer has chosen to embrace the enemy camp.

One more thing to add into the mix: Mayer becomes one of two female CEOs in Silicon Valley. (Along with Meg Whitman).

Put all these elements together, and it’s hard to imagine a greater surprise the Yahoo board could have pulled out of its hat that would have had more soap opera potential.

Aside from the buzz, however, let’s be clear: The pressure on Mayer will be tremendous. At 37, she is young, and is becoming a CEO for the first time. She takes control of an organization that has been bloodied, battered and demoralized.

Levinsohn, who was seen as being passed over earlier this year in favor of eBay executive Scott Thompson, has now been passed over twice. He is beloved, apparently, and it will likely be hard for him to view this as anything other than a cruel, slap in the face. It seems inevitable he will leave, unless Yahoo can come up with the retention package of the ages. But even that may not be enough to soothe his ego. More likely, Mayer will enter the job having to find his replacement.

As for Mayer, she becomes the third Yahoo CEO in a year. And she takes a job in which the tenure of every single predecessor ended in failure.

Does she have a plan? What did she tell the Yahoo board to win the job? We’ll have to wait for her first press conference to find out.

But once our heads stop spinning, the size of the task in front of her still seems insurmountable. For years, people running the company have been unable to answer the simplest of questions:

What is Yahoo.

Well, Marissa Mayer, what’s your answer?