Sites Visionary CTO: A Pathfinder

Michelle Decker maps's itinerary to beat competition.

Since Michelle Decker was hired as CTO of over a year ago, sales at the business-to-consumer travel site have increased fivefold. Coincidence, right? Tom Breitling, the companys general manager, doesnt think so. Breitling credits Decker (who now heads IT operations at the site, which was snapped up by Expedia Inc. in March) with having the long-term vision and team-building prowess necessary to turn the e-business around.

Thats because before Decker was hired, the travel site looked much like most of its competitors. A consumer traveler could use it to plan vacations and book hotel rooms, but that consumer could find the same information on any of a number of travel sites.

But Decker, a veteran technologist and business executive, had bigger plans for the site. And in less than four months, with the help of her IT team, she built an exclusive database of information on hotel room space across the world.

"Most travel sites simply link to a database provided by a third-party vendor, such as Sabre [Inc.]," Decker said. "Weve built our own."

While other sites cull data on hotel vacancies from a hodgepodge of publicly available travel industry sources, Las Vegas-based Travelscape inked exclusive deals with a number of hotel chains and private hotels, Decker said. She used this data to gain a leg up on the competition. As Travelscapes revenue boost confirms, Deckers work paid off. Breitling never doubted that the right person was in charge of IT. "Of all the CTO [chief technology officer] candidates we looked at, she was by far the best," Breitling said. "Michelle is a doer, and thats what we needed."

As a doer, Decker is the perfect technology leader for a dot-com. Thats because in e-business, there are no paths to follow, only new trails to blaze. Decker is delivering new ways of doing business that make her a perfect fit for eWeeks e-Business Women to Watch.

Thanks to Travelscapes proprietary database, consumers have a better shot at getting the bookings they want, and the sites hotel partners can manage inventory in real time, minimizing their numbers of vacant rooms, Decker said.

Decker drew from her experiences to develop a database that met everyones needs. She spent 11 years as manager of automation and, later, as senior director of international systems at travel agency Carlson Cos. Inc., and, therefore, she "knew the travel industry and understood our role in it," Breitling said.

She also had the energy to deliver the goods. Thats because in years past, Decker had to use her knowledge and assertiveness to get e-business initiatives off the ground. For instance, after mapping out an e-business strategy for a one-time employer, disagreements over how—and how quickly—to move business processes to the Internet stalled the project for months. Frustrated by the sluggish progress, Decker knew a little risk-taking could bring dramatic results. But selling colleagues on that idea, at a time when e-commerce was still a novel concept, was far from easy.

This, Decker said, was the biggest challenge of her career. Now, a year and a half after joining Travelscape—a site that, in a B2C landscape littered with failures, racks up $1 million in sales each day—Decker says shes found the most fertile ground yet for her big ideas.

And, colleagues said, her combination of IT savvy and old-fashioned business skills helped catapult Travelscape to financial success in an extremely competitive B2C market niche.

But Decker seems more interested in talking about the future of e-business than about her accomplishments. "There is a huge opportunity right now to make travel reservation systems more efficient" simply by taking advantage of existing Internet tools, Decker said. And that, she added, is without even considering the possibilities of Web-based technologies still in development.

Few women pursue IT

Although decker spent many years as one of the only women on the IT staffs at various enterprises, including Deloitte & Touche LLP and an Ohio hospital, she said shes never experienced overt job discrimination because of her gender. But she believes that certain cultural aspects of the industry are likely to be off-putting to women technologists.

"Women can be inhibited from pursuing IT careers, partly because the industry is still so male-dominated," Decker said. "When I get résumés, only about one in 10 is from a woman, and the majority of my staff are men."

Decker, who is active in a mentoring organization for women executives, said women who want to go far in e-business must accept a certain amount of chaos in their lives—but as a startups e-business plans move forward, most can regain control of their schedules. "Theres no doubt that the number of roles for women in e-business is increasing and that, especially for women with a well-rounded business sense, along with technical knowledge, theres a tremendous opportunity," she said.

However, her words of wisdom for up-and-coming e-business entrepreneurs applies to both men and women: "Never walk away from a business discussion without having voiced your opinion," she said.