Kara Swisher

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BoomTown Pick for Microsoft Digital Head: Qi Lu (Yes, the Former Yahoo Search Guru)

Yesterday, BoomTown opined that Microsoft was nearing a decision on who would become the head of its digital efforts.

And, according to several sources and some puzzling by me–if an agreement can be reached–I think that Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer’s top choice is former Yahoo tech star Qi Lu.

While this is by no means a done deal, Lu is just the kind of top tech exec that Ballmer and Microsoft would warm to over a more media-centric choice like former Yahoo COO Dan Rosensweig or former AOL head Jon Miller.

Lu was EVP of engineering for the Search and Advertising Technology Group at Yahoo (YHOO), where he ran all development initiatives for its search and monetization platforms. He was at Yahoo for a decade.

If Ballmer manages to pull off the hire of Lu–on the heels of already grabbing another top Yahoo search exec, Sean Suchter, which I reported on yesterday–the aggressive exec could almost be bypassing a Yahoo search partnership he has long sought by sucking the talent right out of the place instead.

Ballmer is like Edward in “Twilight,” attracting top-notch search execs to Microsoft’s Redmond HQ, as if they were geek versions of Bella.

Lu would be a different choice for the post than many had expected, with a much more technical background than one in online media or advertising sales.

But since all of Microsoft’s future rests on winning in the search and search advertising space and trying to catch up with its archrival Google (GOOG) from way back in the race, Lu is also well suited for the position.

If Lu takes the job, he will be the boss of three strong digital execs at Microsoft: Satya Nadella, the SVP who heads engineering for Microsoft’s search, portal and advertising platform group; Yusuf Mehdi, whose online services portfolio includes marketing, online audience business development and product management for MSN and the search properties; and Brian McAndrews, the SVP for the advertiser and publisher solutions group.

Lu is known as as solid manager, but he is also called a very nice man and unusually humble for a tech star by many, which could be a good influence on Microsoft.

Before Yahoo, Lu was on the staff of the IBM Almaden Research Center, and worked at both Carnegie Mellon University and Fudan University in China (he also got degrees from both places).

And, in the kind of cred Microsoft likes, Lu holds 20 U.S. patents.

He left Yahoo after becoming dissatisfied with all the turmoil there, quitting in June, without another job lined up.

Since he left Yahoo, there have been rumors that he might be headed to Microsoft, but not in such a prominent job.

There has also been speculation that Lu would take a position at Facebook or even return to China for a tech job.

The well-respected Lu certainly has a multitude of choices, but the chance to lead money-laden Microsoft’s digital efforts–as it suits up for battle with Google–is compelling.

BoomTown has been poking around to try to figure out who Ballmer would choose for the digital head, ever since the man who used to be in charge, Kevin Johnson, quit in July, after the software giant’s takeover bid to buy Yahoo failed.

Several people close to the situation say Microsoft’s Ballmer has been keeping the deliberations close to the vest–perhaps because so many of those he has targeted have declined to consider the job.

But this week, many sources both inside and outside the company have told me that Ballmer is close to announcing his choice.

Annoyingly, one source has decided to play a digital version of “The Da Vinci Code” with me, dribbling out clues–more technical than media, very well liked in Silicon Valley, humble–about the candidate, which he wanted me to solve as if I were Robert Langdon and on the hunt for the progeny of Jesus.

Well, my solution is in: Microsoft’s most promising digital Holy Grail is Lu.

On a related note, bizarrely, the day after this column broke the story about Lu’s leaving Yahoo, I caught him by accident in the background of a video I was doing at a Harvard Business School event honoring Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

You can see him at 4:14 minutes in the video, laughing at me, as I bother Greylock Partners VC David Sze and make a bad pun related to former Yahoo exec Jeff Weiner’s departure from Yahoo.

Here’s that video:

Please see this disclosure related to me and Google.