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Q&A: New CEO bets on open source future for Acquia CMS

The Acquia CMS took the Red Hat model to content management by commercializing open source Drupal. What's next? We ask co-founder Dries Buytaert and new CEO Michael Sullivan.

On Monday, cloud CMS vendor Acquia Inc. announced Michael Sullivan, former Hewlett Packard Enterprise senior vice...

president and general manager for SaaS, has been named the company's new CEO. Sullivan will move into the position next month.

SearchContentManagement interviewed Sullivan and Acquia co-founder Dries Buytaert, who was also the lead developer on the open source Drupal content management system, upon which the Acquia CMS is based. Buytaert remains Acquia's CTO and also takes over as board chair.

Dries, according to your blog, there were more than 140 candidates to succeed longtime CEO Tom Erickson. How did Acquia choose Michael Sullivan?

Dries Buytaert, co-founder and CTO, AcquiaDries Buytaert

Dries Buytaert: There are a lot of reasons. First of all, there's a very good fit with Mike. That's not just a good fit between him and me, but also to our culture and personality and how we think about different things, like the importance of cloud and open source. I also felt Mike was really well-prepared to lead our business. Mike has 25 years [of] experience with software as a service, enterprise content management and content governance. Mike has worked with small companies, as well as larger companies.

At HP Enterprise and Micro Focus [acquired by HPE], Mike was responsible for managing more than 30 SaaS products. Acquia is evolving its product strategy to go beyond Drupal and the cloud to become a multiproduct company with Acquia Digital Asset Manager and Acquia Journey. So, our own transformation as a company is going from a single-product company to a multiproduct company. Mike is uniquely qualified to help us with that, based on his experience.

Mike, why was it a fit for you, and what excites you about the market position of the Acquia CMS and the company's future as a cloud CMS provider?

Michael Sullivan: I've been involved in both [enterprise] content management and web content management during the course of my career, so it's not new to me. I've always found it interesting and have had a lot of success in this space, broadly. There's a fundamental shift that's occurring in the content management world, where people are moving from static web presence to a different model of engaging with their customers -- an intelligent digital experience.

Michael Sullivan, CEO, AcquiaMichael Sullivan

Companies will need to compete on that basis in the future, and they need to have personalized experiences and work with customers through lots of channels, not just the website. Acquia sits at the intersection of a lot of these technologies -- Drupal, open source, SaaS, DevOps, machine learning, predictive analytics. If you look at what Acquia's already done and what they're working on, this is a company that has the right vision and a proven ability to execute ... and a history of winning. That was important to me; it makes it believable to me this company will succeed.

What do you see as Acquia's biggest challenges moving forward the next few years?

Sullivan: There's a lot of work to do. We have to move fast; we have to execute well. Our challenge is execution -- we know what we want to build, [and] we know where we want to go. The question is: How do we get there, and how do we get there efficiently?

What is the role of AI in the future of content management and the Acquia CMS?

Buytaert: There's a big future for AI in our space; it's something we're investing in, with a team of six people working on machine learning solutions in our space. We believe we are in the early stages of what will be a pretty big transformation of the web, or digital.

Historically, the web has been pull-based: You have to go to the web and search for information. We believe, in the future, more of those experiences will become push-based: Information will start to find you. The Holy Grail is delivering customers the right information for the right service at the right time, in the right context, on the right channel -- web, mobile, chatbots or voice assistants. That's a pretty big vision.

Drupal is evolving from a website management system to a digital experience platform.
Dries Buytaertco-founder, Acquia

To [accomplish] that, you need to build systems that are smart and can predict what users want at what point in time. If you can do that, you can really change the customer experience. Instead of having the customer find the information, it increasingly comes to you.

There's a lot of early examples of that; a simple example is [music streaming services] Spotify and Pandora. The old pull-based model is turning the knob on your radio to find the music that you want; Spotify and Pandora push you information that you like, so you don't have to go look for it. We think that will happen across every industry, and the Acquia platform will help companies build these digital experiences.

Dries, Acquia is expanding past the original concept of Drupal with headless CMS and all of these new SaaS offerings and CRM-style tools to help companies service customers. What will become of Drupal?

Buytaert: One of the great things about Drupal is that there aren't a lot of technologies that remain relevant for 18 years [since Drupal debuted]. The reason Drupal has been successful is that we've literally reinvented ourselves more than 10 times. Drupal is evolving quite rapidly; I would argue we're ahead -- an API-first player, compared to our proprietary competitors.

Drupal is evolving from a website management system to a digital experience platform; it's becoming a content repository, where you can manage content and can feed that content into a variety of different touchpoints or channels. It's not just specialized in creating HTML output for webpages, but we have integrations with Alexa, chatbots, digital kiosks, [and] we have a long list of customers who come to us because they want to move beyond building websites.

We've been investing in headless Drupal for four years, since before it was called headless. I feel like we spotted those trends and have done a pretty good job going after them earlier than our competitors.

Mike, what will the Acquia CMS look like in five years?

Sullivan: We have big ambitions for this space. Some of these pieces we already have plans for. I think we'll be in the position to do acquisitions over time. Obviously, I haven't had my first day yet, so it's hard to say for sure, but we think we are well-positioned to fill in all these pieces [to build the next-generation digital experience platform]. Five years is a long time; I'd like to think that we'll be able to do it a lot sooner than that.

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