Finally, a reason to exclaim ‘Yahoo!’

Finally, a reason to exclaim ‘Yahoo!’

Forget the cloud wars, the tablet wars and whither Digg. The summer tech news doldrums just got a jolt. Now we have a real story.

One of Google’s earliest and most respected employees, the highly visible Marissa Mayer, has left the search giant to become the CEO of Yahoo. This kind of thing doesn’t happen all that often, since Google is still one of the top workplaces in Silicon Valley, and even with its stock price well off historical highs, is still considered an ascendant company in the high-stakes, “live fast and die hard” high-tech industry.

But most interesting is why Mayer is moving on: Not to relive her youth at a startup and prove that she isn’t a one-hit wonder. No, Mayer has agreed to move not to the garage, but to the corner office to fix one of the tech industry’s most infamous basket cases.

And with that, Mayer becomes one of the most prominent women CEOs not only in the Valley but in corporate America. For trivia fans she is also Yahoo’s second female CEO: Carol Bartz was fired less than a year ago. At 37, Mayer is also the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Mayer was Google employee No. 20, and the executive responsible for Google’s search page, Gmail, Google News, Images and Maps — many of the things that most people associate with the company. She was even in charge of the Google Doodle program, which playfully changed the Google logo for special occasions.

But despite her strong street credit and the confidence of founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, it was not likely that she would run Google, at least anytime soon, since the founders are so young and one of them, Page, is only just back in the corner office.

So it’s a flyer for Mayer – and where better than at Yahoo, which brought on its own curse of the Bambino with Jerry Yang’s sloppy rejection of Microsoft’s merger proposal. As Thomas Edison is said to have said “To invent you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” Same goes for reinvention.

The challenge: It is extremely rare for a once high-flying tech company whose fortunes have waned to make it to the top again. Apple is the textbook case. It was truly on the ropes after years of mismanagement during the exile of co-founder Steve Jobs. And it came back because of Jobs, its CEO.

The opportunity: Yahoo, for all of its missteps, is the No. 4 website in the world, according to Alexa (Google is No. 1). It boasts 700 million users, not terribly far behind Facebook. Yahoo News has a global reach. What it doesn’t have is resonance in mobile. Who does? Apple, of course – and Google. Yahoo’s stock is considered moribund, and it is way down from 2007′s Microsoft offer of $31. But – get this – Yahoo is outperforming Google if you look at year-to-date performance. And news of Mayer’s hiring – she starts Tuesday – boosted the share price by 2.4 percent in after-hours trading.

Mayer is following in the metaphorical footsteps of another pretty smart ex-Googler: Tim Armstrong, who left the company to head what was considered an even worse property, AOL (and wasn’t thought to have made a smart move). Think what you will about AOL, but Armstrong is still there, the company is making bold money-where-its-mouth-is bets like the purchases of the Huffington Post and TechCrunch. AOL isn’t “back” yet, but its stock has recovered from its 2011 crater.

My guess is that the Yahoo community will be energized and willing to follow Mayer anywhere, especially after that all-important first town hall.

Mayer could tell the assembled something along the lines of what she told Wired‘s Steven Levy for his book “In the Plex.” Describing a mentoring program for new recruits called associate product managers – APMs – which she also created, she said, “We value insight over experience,” and continued, “We take people who we think have raw skills and insights and put them in roles with a lot of responsibility. And while that happens with APMs, it also happens all across the company.”

This is the thread of Mayer’s successes at Google: She sees talent and unleashes it. On Brian Rakowski’s first day, Mayer tapped the 22-year-old Stanford grad to launch Gmail. He was shocked; the risks were enormous.

Today, that product remains the core of the Google cloud strategy.

Yahoo needs more stories like that.