No singing the blues

Bluelight.com LLC may have taken a bumpy ride along with the rest of the online retail industry during the past year, but the company's CTO, Patrick Chan, says that he is unfazed.

"I'm still focused where I want to be -- on the technology," Chan says.

BlueLight.com was created in late 1999 as a separate Internet shopping site by Kmart Corp., playing off the idea of the retail giant's well-known "bluelight special," after a poll revealed that fewer than one in 10 of its brick-and-mortar customers had been to the original Kmart.com Web site. In May 2001, as the overall online consumer market hit a snag and BlueLight.com's sales growth slowed, Kmart decided to coordinate marketing and merchandising duties through the parent company.

For San Francisco-based BlueLight .com, which attracted more than 9 million users during the 2000 holiday season and now boasts more than 7 million subscribers to its Internet service, the reorganization meant tighter coordination with Kmart but not major changes in technology focus, Chan says.

"The engineering is essentially what it was [before the rollback]," Chan says. "What has happened is the list of projects was slightly reprioritized. There's a little more focus on integration efforts and less on some enhancements we were working on like cosmetic things [on the site]."

The shift follows changes in the online retail industry this year as Disney reined in its Web spin-off, and Staples Inc. withdrew the tracking stock of its online counterpart.

"This is part of a widespread trend of pulling Web operations back in-house to be part of a more traditional corporate structure," says Randy Covill, senior analyst at AMR Research, in Boston. "Companies with multiple channels have won," he says, and pure-play dot-coms have struggled to implement successful business plans.

BlueLight.com's technology integration with Kmart systems will bring about changes, Chan says. "Kmart is a little bit more involved in the project planning process," he adds. "We'll be working with them to upgrade and integrate their systems."

Chan says he has toiled for the past year to refine the site to better serve shoppers. "We are starting to mine data," he says. "It's not so much for performance because we did that last year for last Christmas. But it's to become more efficient. We did a lot of things to optimize performance.

"We've built the back end and the front end," he adds. "It's reasonably efficient, but systems change with new jobs and new developments and things fall through the cracks with new applications. The problem now is we have so many moving parts."

Despite layoffs in other divisions, Chan says he hasn't had to pink-slip anybody on his team, and turnover has been minimal. "We've grown, but not to be super large," he says. "We have about 150-plus people, so our groups are small enough that we can do very focused work. People have stayed, so there's no need for training."

Chan says he has avoided moving out of the CTO role toward other managerial functions because he remains committed to his technology functions.

"One of the deals I made with the CEO is I don't want to get too caught up in management," Chan adds. "That's not where my interest lies. I'm focused on technology."

He says he views his role as CTO as a roll-up-the-sleeves kind of job.

"My motto is, 'Sweat the small stuff,' " Chan says. "Maybe in a large organization that's not a good idea. But I've seen so many cases where small things can blow up and cause all kinds of problems. I'm very much hands-on when I can [be]."

Profile

Patrick Chan, BlueLight.com

Job title: CTO

Reports to: CIO

Mission: To sell the products that merchants come up with, and sell them as efficiently as possibleEducation: BS in computer science from the University of British Columbia; MS in computer science from the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, OntarioCareer path: Systems Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif.; Sun Microsystems Inc., also in Palo AltoMentor: James Gosling, vice president of Sun and developer of Java, because "he has a good mixture of theory and practice"Favorite escape: Fooling around with game designs

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