Spanning the Globe

By Karen Rosen, ATLANTA TREND™

It didn’t take extensive calculations to figure out Mark Ryan would get his first job at IBM. After all, working for Big Blue was a family tradition. Mark’s grandmother, who retired after 35 years with the company, had helped produce M1 rifles during World War II when IBM puts its workforce at the disposal of the U.S. government. His father worked on mechanical typewriters and some of the first mainframes in his 41-year career, and his sister has been at IBM for 30 years.

But Mark left the fold after 18 years, embarking on a journey that has taken him through stints at eBay, weather.com, Vodafone and Matria Healthcare, as well as the establishment of his own vineyard outside Calhoun, Ga.

“I’m the luckiest guy on the planet,” Mark says.

Last June he joined Travelport, one of the world’s leading global distribution system providers, with operations in 160 countries. Mark is Chief Information Officer with global responsibility for formulating and executing the company’s technology strategy, including software solutions and applications development. Travelport was recognized on the Information Week 500 list of the most innovative technology organizations for 2009.

Mark’s father, who will turn 84 in July (and has five PCs in boxes he’s never opened), isn’t surprised by how far his son has advanced in IT. “He’s more astounded at how I fly all over the place and think nothing of it,” says Mark, who has about 1,500 people reporting to him in development hubs and off-shore.

At the end of last year, the Travelport senior leadership took a whirlwind, 3½-week tour around the world with stops in Atlanta, Kansas City, Denver, Los Angeles, Sydney, Hong Kong, Italy, London and Dubai. In March, Mark went to Australia, spending only 31 hours on the ground.


Staying Ahead of Change

“To stay competitive, you have to be very quick,” Mark says. “You have to be nimble. You have to see where markets are going, and the markets are changing very rapidly.”

The travel industry is in flux with airline consolidation, as well as consolidation of online travel agencies.

“I think it’s a hugely exciting industry to be in,” Mark says. “It gives me an opportunity to utilize a lot of the skills that I’ve acquired through the years."

Mark developed a strong work ethic while growing up on a farm in upstate New York. After earning a two-year degree in technology, he was hired by IBM in early 1981 to work on mainframes. He went to school at night to get an engineering degree so the company would certify him.

As IBM got into long distance disaster recovery, Mark, a fibre optic specialist, became the go-to guy. He was loaned to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where as the chief integration architect, he pulled together hardware and software for all the disaster recovery facilities.

“What you have to do at the Olympics is make everything totally transparent, so if something does fail, nobody can know about it,” Mark says. “You do that in business today, it’s called business continuity. We were just a little bit ahead of our time when we were doing the Olympics.”

While he says he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything else, “I don’t know that I’d want to do it again. It was very high stress for 17 days and you work 20-hour days.”

Mark then joined with some Olympic colleagues to work on complex architectural solutions for IBM. “A lot of customers were getting into the Internet at that point in time and didn’t have anybody who was over 26 working for them – they were young, bright, great people, but they didn’t have any maturity of operational expertise,” Mark says.


Accepting New Challenges

IBM sent him to eBay where he met with CEO Meg Whitman – which became a turning point for both companies. Whitman offered Mark the job as Chief Technology Officer.

It was hard to leave IBM, Mark says, “but for me to pursue my career goals, it was time for me to make the next leap in the journey.”

He knew his crisis management experience could help eBay deal with frequent outages.

“They were struggling to keep their sites up,” Mark says. “They were growing at 40-60 percent compounded monthly. Yes, they had a great business model, but could they actually sustain it with the technologies that they had?”

Mark put in process disciplines to meet eBay’s needs. “If you have an organization that is growing very rapidly or changing on the fly, you have to have a much lighter weight process,” he says. “You can’t have this hierarchy where you need 17,000 people to sign off before you can do something, but you still require discipline.”

After Mark got eBay stabilized, he decided to leave the company. The commute to San Jose, Calif., had been tough on Mark’s family, which remained in the Atlanta area.

“EBay didn’t have an outage for a year after I left, and that’s a pretty good sign,” he says.

Mark next joined weather.com to help it handle drastic swings in traffic, which could go from 800,000 page views during normal weather to 39 million page views during a hurricane.

When an international recruiter approached him about a venture between Vivendi Universal and Vodafone, Mark realized this was the chance for the international experience he’d always wanted. He and his family moved to London for two years. Mark enjoyed the diversity of having people in eight countries, comprising 26 nationalities, reporting to him.


No Wine Before Its Time

When Vivendi and Vodafone parted ways, Mark spent two years building Ryan Family Vineyards, specializing in merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

“I got the vines planted and they don’t really mature until the fifth year, so it’s like watching water boil,” Mark says.

Itching for something to do, he became senior vice president and CIO at Matria Healthcare. He stayed a couple of years before returning to the vineyard to pick the grapes and get the wine ready for bottling.

When a recruiter contacted him about Travelport, Mark says, “It sounded like something that was up my alley.”

The company, whose parent is the Blackstone Group, had come together through mergers and acquisitions, including Galileo and WorldSpan.

“The first thing you have to do in an organization is listen,” Mark says. Travelport has “some of the smartest people I’ve ever met; now they have clear focus.”

Mark developed business filters that “I describe as those things that you have failed at, or those things that one of your buddies has failed at. That allows you to look at situations across industries and identify really quickly where you think there are danger spots and make a reasonably quick assessment where you should focus your energy.”

Mark says Travelport is today a focused organization striving for a common set of goals.

As a business to business model, rather than a business to consumer model, Travelport presents its services to both online and traditional travel agencies. “We really want to enable an experience for our users to embody the entire travel itinerary, rather than just being a provisioner of airline tickets or pricing,” Mark says.

With 2009 revenues of $2.2 billion, Travelport has a network of 420 airlines, 88,000 hotel properties, representing more than 290 hotel chains, and 30,000 car rental locations, representing 25 companies. It has one of the highest transaction load systems, with up to 1.6 billion messages per day and annually books 17 million car rentals, 23 million hotel rooms, 2 million rail bookings and 295 million air segments.

By aggregating content around the world, Travelport strives “to make sure that we have a good value proposition for our customers,” Mark says, “and for our customer’s customer.”


Secrets to Success

1) I’ve always attempted to surround myself with genius. You can’t be insecure in this business. I’d say all the folks that report to me are in their own science smarter than I am.

2) Being connected with a community of other experts, including other CIOs in the Atlanta community and beyond. “We share debacles,” Mark says. “We reward each other with accolades for the good stuff we do, but we know who’s gotten in trouble and therefore they become the regional expert on whatever that trouble point was. So when any of us even get close to it, we make a phone call, ‘Hey, what did you do? How did you make sure that you never ever got yelled at for doing that again?” Mark also stays in touch with peers who work for competitors to discuss industry-wide issues, such as security.

3) Staying connected in the community. “I think giveback is important,” Mark says. “I do several mentorships and I’m a big promoter of Women in Technology (WIT).”

4) Working with his team, “I think it’s about establishing trust and being diligent, achieving what you tell them you’re going to achieve. You need to set the standard of integrity that you’re going to expect from them.”

Mark Ryan is Chief Information Officer for Travelport. ATLANTA TREND™ expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Mark Ryan for sharing his thoughts with us.

 

 

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