There and back again

Today I started a new job at Acquia, the open source digital experience company. Yeah, that Acquia.

First day at Acquia in 2012

Since I left in 2015, Acquia has exploded to over $200m in revenue. Dries, Lynne, Tim & team have done a fantastic job turning Acquia into a digital experience powerhouse. Bigger, bolder, better. My journey back is a homecoming to both to a company I loved working for, and a deep passion for the web developed over more than two decades.

See, back in the early 90s, I studied computer science at the University of Illinois. I was a classmate of Marc Andreessen while he was creating Mosaic, the first widely used web browser. I was also a huge fan of the band Phish, and an active poster on the USENet newsgroup.

I decided to build a web page to list Phish tour dates. For a brief period of time, was the definitive resource for upcoming Phish shows. It probably looked something like this handcrafted in VI:

Upcoming Phish Concerts
<img src="phish.gif"></img>
<p>1993-08-14 World Music Theatre Tinley Park, IL</p>

A few years after graduating from Illinois, I moved to the Bay Area for my dream job as a sales engineer at Macromedia. I joined shortly after the acquisition of the company that became Flash (sorry about that) and a little bit before the first release of Dreamweaver 1.0.

Who knew the scourge this would become?

Products like Dreamweaver, Homesite, and Frontpage empowered a new “webmaster” role at companies who were in a mad scramble to get the corporate print brochure recreated as a website. Being a sales engineer at Macromedia during the dot com boom was the closest thing in my life to being a rock star. Well before embarrassing moments were shared forever on social media, I remember stage diving during a private Beck during Internet World Los Angeles in 1997.

The big topic? Oracle’s plans to create a network computer.

While Dreamweaver was fantastic (drag+drop HTML tables!), webmasters were overwhelmed. Web pages became web sites. Everyone wanted to publish content but the tools remained out of reach for most. Pure play web companies like were showing that the web could be so much more than just a slightly uglier version of the corporate print brochure. The companies I met with wanted something with the simplicity of Dreamweaver and the ability to handle growing complex sites and applications.

So in early 2000, I joined Interwoven, a pioneer in a new type of application called Content Management Systems. Interwoven had recently held one of the most successful IPOs of the dot com era and was so desperate to hire it offered a free two year BMW Z3 lease to new engineering hires.

Sadly, sales engineers didn’t count

This was the pinnacle of the “dot com boom”. Startups would IPO pre-revenue using the proceeds to lease office space along Route 101, buy a Sun E10000. And a Content Management System. Back then you didn’t hire more SDRs to scale, you bought more fax machines.

Your iPhone is way more powerful than this

After years of battling Vignette for Content Management supremacy, Interwoven emerged as the dominant first generation leader. We acquired MediaBin, a digital asset management company and then Optimost, a website testing pioneer. We built a rules-based personalization engine. And in 2007-2008, we helped create the category that became known as Web Experience Management. Websites had become web experiences. In all, I spent 8 years at Interwoven on all the way through our early 2009 acquisition by Autonomy.

I left Autonomy to join scrappy CMS upstart Ektron (now EPIServer) that happened to be located just a few miles from my house. Ektron was battling Sitecore to become the leader in Microsoft .NET content management. We successfully drafted off the growth of the Microsoft/Sharepoint ecosystem, and in early 2012 became a Leader in the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Web Content Management. All was going well until the day I got a LinkedIn InMail from a recruiter:

Yes please.

I had been following both Drupal and WordPress for many years. Back at Interwoven, I once convinced the Interwoven marketing team into setting up a WordPress blog instead of using TeamSite. Sure WordPress didn’t do everything TeamSite did (and still doesn’t) but it was easy. It was fun. It was, in many ways, better. I was less familiar with Drupal, but knew of Dries and had watched Acquia rise to become one of Boston’s best startups under the leadership of Dries and CEO Tom Erickson.

From VI to Dreamweaver. From Dreamweaver to Interwoven and Ektron. In my mind, no company was better prepared than Acquia for the evolution of Content Management to Web Content Management to Web Experience Management to Digital Experience Platforms.

Ambitious Digital Experiences

I forget exactly when I heard Dries talk about Drupal for ambitious digital experiences. But it was brilliant. One of those why didn’t I think of that moments.

See that’s the thing: Most digital experiences aren’t ambitious. They aren’t much better than my Phish page or the sites I saw created through Dreamweaver and Flash at Macromedia in the 90s. Yeah, the technology behind digital experiences is better, but for the most part, the experiences they power remain decidedly un-ambitious.

Sounds like an opportunity to me.

Tesla has made ordering a supercar as easy as buying a roll of paper towels on Amazon. I can order a Dominos pizza through my voice, watch, or just tweeting 🍕to @dominos. Enduring companies and brands win through creating moments that matter.

That’s why I’m coming back to Acquia.

Developers rule the world

You can’t buy an ambitious digital experience. You just can’t. But you can create one.

CMOs buy digital experience platforms with the right intentions but underestimate the importance of developers and the role of the tech stack. It’s the difference between begrudgingly enjoying meal purchased from the frozen section of your grocery store vs. dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Most digital experience platform vendors avoid developers at all costs because they ask too many tough questions: Tell me exactly how your platform supports modern front-end architectures like React? What standards do you support? How exactly does your cloud platform scale? How do you manage and govern hundreds or thousands of sites?

Twilio and Atlassian have built multi-billion dollar companies by giving developers exactly what they need. Acquia gets this.

Open source delivers better innovation

Believe it or not, there was a time when open source was considered “risky”. FUD was rampant: open source isn’t secure! It’s not reliable. It can’t scale!

Once upon a time RedHat the only example of a successful open source company at scale. But then came Acquia, MongoDB, Mulesoft, Elastic, and many more. From the FAANG stocks to century-old Fortune 500 companies, now open source dominates every layer of the modern tech stack.

As more open source companies have gone public, there’s a growing trend to move away from licenses like the aGPL. Yet Acquia remains as pure of an open source company as there is.

Closed marketing clouds are still a bad idea

They were a bad idea (pre-cloud) in 2003 when Oracle released its Frankensuite that brought together Peoplesoft, Siebel, JD Edwards, and other legacy products everyone hated. The only thing unified was the license bill you received from your Oracle rep.

SaaS is prettier now

They were a bad idea in 2013 when I wrote this post on the Acquia blog about the rise of the Adobe Experience Cloud. Many years later, the foundational products behind Adobe’s Experience Cloud are still not well integrated and the problem is only growing worse as Adobe acquires everything it can to keep shareholders happy. Do I use Adobe Campaign or Marketo, not quite sure?

And yes they are still a bad idea now. I won’t show the obligatory Scott Brinker infographic to make this point, but history has proven over decades that innovation doesn’t come through product integration alone. While Oracle was busy assembling its Frankensuite, along came pioneers like Salesforce, Workday, and Netsuite.

Creating moments that matter

Machine learning is the next frontier of digital experience Let’s face it: website personalization hasn’t evolved much beyond simple A|B testing and the rules-based approaches I first saw at Interwoven. Mick MacComascaigh of Gartner has been talking about the idea of a “next best experience” for nearly a decade yet most personalization is nothing more than a last-in-first-out queue. Looking at you, retargeting.

One reason personalization remains a challenge is that customer data is stored all over the place. I’ll accept that, but I’m not okay with how companies like Facebook continue to abuse our my personal data in spite of new regulations like GDPR. Consumers want personalization, but on their terms.

I do think machine learning is the future of both creating and delivering digital experiences. There’s just so much that we can do to help guide users to create better content and deliver more moments that matter. While vendors brand their AI machine learning linear regression with cute names like Einstein and Sensei, the reality is that we’re very much still in the early days.

Creating moments that matter means embracing the entire customer journey. Today marketing teams have been restricted by tools that assume linear customer journeys that look like a funnel. But that’s simply not that case. A modern customer experience looks somewhat like a plate of spaghetti with nearly infinite twists and turns. We’ve evolved from delivering HTML files through a browser to delivering content everywhere through mobile apps, voice-enabled devices, screens, chatbots, augmented reality, and places we haven’t dreamed of yet.

Acquia has an exciting roadmap for both the future of customer journeys and machine learning. Stay tuned for more.

The rise of false clouds

Last week Lyft filed its S1 as its about to go public. I love reading S1s for the risk factors. The risk factor at Lyft that stood out was its relationship with AWS and a pre-committed spend of over $300m over three years. There’s was lots of armchair debate on Twitter over cloud economics and why Lyft shouldn’t just build its own bare metal infrastructure. The TL;DR is that it’s just too expensive and hard for almost any company to take on.

The cloud won.

Acquia pioneered delivering digital experiences in the cloud. Of course, these days every digital experience platform vendor offers something -as-a-service but when you really dig in, they are managed-services-as-a-service. They might not scale when you need it. They don’t offer than types of modern APIs that developers expect. They make it difficult to implement modern CI/CD best practices. They are optimized for a few sites, not thousands.

There’s just no better platform to build a digital experience than in than Acquia Cloud. As Steve Jobs used to say about Apple products, it just works.

Pick your boss, not your company

Over my prior three years at Acquia, I grew more than at any point in my surprising long wow I’m old career. My boss Tom Erickson challenged me in a way that made me a better person. I’ve never forgotten those three years: they were fun, challenging, and rewarding.

This time around I get a chance to work for Dries.

10 years from now, many of the products we use daily will go the way of Blockbuster. In 50 years, almost all of them will be a distant memory. Yet in 100 years I bet we’ll still be using Drupal. That’s a testament to Dries commitment to building a community that is bigger than any one person or company. It’s a privilege to be a part of something truly enduring.

Dries told me when I left in 2015 that we’d work together again. He knew then what I only recently re-discovered: that the excitement I felt creating my first web page in 1993 would turn into my life’s work.

“Little” Dries and I at DrupalCon Barcelona

8 responses to “There and back again”

  1. […] By the time Wargames came out, I was already well into my obsession with computers and programming BASIC on my trusty TI-99 4/A. But Wargames threw my obsession into overdrive. I figured out how to lock down my computer with a password (Joshua obv) to prevent unauthorized access my from snooping parents. I got a 300 baud modem for my birthday, fast enough to read scroll text in real time from remote systems. I discovered the magic of the BBS where I could play games, chat with other nerds, and yes, download WaReZ (look, I was 11). It was absolutely magical. I kept programming all the way through high school and went to the University of Illinois to study math and computer science. At Illinois, I worked as a UNIX admin responsible for maintaining DNS. I read the 1992 first edition of O’Reilly DNS and BIND cover to cover. Eventually I realized at age 22 that I wasn’t very good at programming and that it was time to find something else to do. […]

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