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Marissa Mayer must define Yahoo's raison d’être

Marissa Mayer poses at Google's Mountain View, California headquarters, in this February 24, 2009, file photo. Mayer, who at the time served as Google's vice president of Search Products & User Experience, was named as Yahoo's CEO in a surprise announcement on July 16, 2012.

NOAH BERGER/Reuters

Yahoo is tackling an existential problem not with a philosopher king, but an engineer. The Internet grab bag has hired Marissa Mayer, one of the few females to rise up through Silicon Valley's geek hierarchy, to be its next chief executive. She's certainly qualified – and no doubt itching – to become CEO of something. But Yahoo's manifold problems won't be so easily solved by rewriting computer code.

That's not to take away from Ms. Mayer's accomplishments. As Google employee number 20, she knows Yahoo's biggest nemesis better than just about anyone. While there, she was either involved in, or responsible for, a variety of products, from the core search business and Gmail to its efforts to provide local content and Google Maps.

Her years as the nerd queen in a complex full of men bodes well for her ability to retain and recruit the hacker set to Yahoo. The riddle she must solve, though, is not easily deciphered from the Javascript on Yahoo's home page.

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Is Yahoo a tech company or a media and marketing business? The last CEO, Scott Thompson, tried straddling both. He was a marketing guy in engineering drag: He even lost his job for embellishing his computer science credentials. Ms. Mayer has the engineering cred, but it's not clear she has the marketing chops. Keeping acting CEO Ross Levinsohn to complement her skills would be wise.

At least Ms. Mayer should be better able to focus on solving the enigma of Yahoo's raison d'être. The thorny sale of a chunk of China's Alibaba is now on a trajectory to bring in some $7-billion (U.S.). A similar arrangement awaits to be struck with Yahoo Japan. Combined, these two stakes appear to make up a majority of Yahoo's $19-billion of market capitalization.

It would not be surprising to see Ms. Mayer push for keeping more of these proceeds inside the company. All ambitious new CEOs need money for deals and other projects. For that to happen, she'll need to mollify Dan Loeb, the hedge fund manager who successfully grabbed three seats on Yahoo's board. Engineering a vision for shareholder money will be unlike any other project Ms. Mayer has confronted.

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