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Marissa Mayer a search engine star

Google gatekeeper at forefront of monumental change

In a dark movie theater, watching “Julie and Julia,” Marissa Mayer recently experienced something of an epiphany.

Mayer was rapt as she heard Julia Child’s character, played by Meryl Streep, wonder whether “servantless” — a term Child intended to use in her first French cookbook, in 1961 — was a real word.

As the person who oversees Google’s vast search capabilities, Mayer wanted to shout out, “Look it up on Google!”

But a second after her reaction, born of deep immersion in the lightning-fast, ready-reference culture she helped create, Mayer recalled that, of course, Google didn’t exist back in the era of Sputnik and JFK.

“It did signal to me that our vantage point has changed,” Mayer says.

Mayer, a 34-year-old native of Wausau, Wis., has become one of Google’s highest-profile executives, a real cyber star. She’s the gatekeeper for the look and functioning of the company’s main products — Web search, images, news, books and maps, as well as Google Earth, Google Health and Google Labs, among others. Nothing from Google goes public without her say-so.

Last year, Mayer — who joined the upstart outfit in 1999 as its first female engineer, when there were only 19 other employees — was the youngest woman to be included on Fortune’s list of Most Powerful Women. She supervises the work of about 200 product managers in a company that last year posted revenues of $21 billion.  

As her profile has risen, so has the gossip about her personal life, penchant for conspicuous consumption and high-end social life. San Francisco magazine called her a “gorgeously geeky Googler,” and noted that her trademark laugh — “a nerdy, rapid-fire tat-tat-tat” — is now a YouTube mashup and can be heard as a ringtone.

But in an interview with Variety, Mayer insists she’s actually “very introverted” and has little time for much of a social life.

“I simply try to ignore those elements of distraction,” she says. “My focus is on Google and on search. Most weekends, I’d rather go to work, because work is going to be more fun. I like the impact we’re having.”

IN A NUTSHELL

Job title: VP of search products and user experience at Google

Role model: Zoon Nguyen, a medical doctor. “The most remarkable thing about Zoon was that you could put him in an entirely new environment or present him with an entirely new problem, and, within a matter of minutes, he would be asking the right questions and making the right observations.”

Career mantra: “Do something you’re not ready to do.”

Leisure pursuits: Traveling, skiing and running.

Philanthropic passions: Education, the arts, and encouraging the participation of women in math, science and engineering

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