Marissa Mayer, Google's 20th employee, becomes Yahoo!'s new CEO

A move up and out for Google's star

Marissa Mayer, a Silicon Valley veteran who was previously the head of local, maps and location services at Google, has been hired by Yahoo! to come in as their new CEO, their third in ten months and fifth in three years.

Mayer is one of Google's superstars. As the company's 20th employee, she is responsible for much of the backbone of the company, from the iconic simple white homepage (the original was never as good looking) to some of the its strongest products, such as GMail, Google Images and Google News. She was also Google's first female engineer, and has consistently been one of the most important players.

But Mayer also hit a ceiling at Google. The "triumvirate" of co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and the company's longest-running CEO, Eric Schmidt, was impossible to break into, leaving her one tier down. She still ran a very important department, and was on the company's operating committee, but there was little to no chance of her moving to one of the top jobs. Even though it comes as a surprise, then, her departure makes sense.

From Yahoo!'s point of view, choosing Mayer is very important for one key choice the company has to make: whether to turn towards media, or remain a tech company. Like AOL, another internet services company which leveraged its "portal" into a powerful content provision network, Yahoo! is a valuable media company in its own right, and many had assumed that its new CEO would come from that realm. But the inference one can draw from the hiring of Mayer is that Yahoo! views itself as a tech company first and foremost, and is trying to get that house in order before it goes anywhere further.

Neither arm of the company has been particularly well run for the past few years, and Mayer has her work cut out for her. PaidContent reports the board's belief that "most of the company is search and mail and the home page," core competencies which Mayer will be familiar with, but which are also undoubtedly withering under Yahoo! as it is currently constituted.

And when it comes to more forward-looking services, Yahoo! has a poor history indeed. The company has previously acquired and killed – or as good as killed – the popular companies Flickr and Del.icio.us, earning it a twin reputation of being dangerous to be bought by and not the sort of place you want to keep your data. Mayer will have to work hard to overcome that reputation, and if the company can't buy its way out of the trouble, it will have to innovate instead, particularly when it comes to the mobile sector, where it has barely any presence at all.

Mayer has a peculiar set of incentives going into her new role. Having started at Google long before the company was profitable, she spent a lot of time being paid in equity: equity which is now extremely valuable. As a result, she is probably one of the few CEOs of a Fortune 500 company for whom her actual remuneration doesn't really count for much. Whether this is a good thing, allowing her to focus on the long term without worrying about the source of her next paycheck, or a bad thing, enabling her to take the sort of risks that no one ever would if they had "skin in the game", remains to be seen.

She is also a example of a woman determined to, in the words of a current debate, "have it all": Mayer is expecting a son in early October. The Yahoo! board didn't know that when they first approached her, but were reportedly unconcerned when they found out last Wednesday. Mayer, for her part, doesn't expect it to conflict with her new role. She told Fortune:

I like to stay in the rhythm of things. My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I'll work throughout it.

Marissa Mayer. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.