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Acquia CEO on DXP's future, content AI, acquisition strategy

After almost a year in the position, Acquia CEO Stephen Reny discusses the company's digital experience platform, and how AI and acquisitions will figure into its evolution.

Late last year, Acquia elevated software industry veteran and COO Stephen Reny to CEO.

Since then, generative AI has taken the world by storm, while Acquia and its competitors have continued their evolution from web content management systems to digital experience platforms. We talked to Reny about Acquia's future on the eve of Acquia Engage Boston, the company's biggest user conference.

Editor's note: This Q&A was edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you land in Acquia's CEO seat?

Stephen Reny: I joined Acquia in May of 2018. I was chief operating officer; I've had a long working relationship with our prior CEO, Mike Sullivan, going back to 2000. I was responsible for a number of things behind the scenes to run the company, and I was responsible for delivery to customers as well.

Stephen Reny, CEO, AcquiaStephen Reny

So I was pretty familiar with our customers, very familiar with our products and had my hands in pretty much every aspect of the company in some way. For me, it was a seamless transition to step in when Mike moved on. I think for the company, it was seamless, and I hope for our customers.

How would you describe the spirit of Acquia -- and how it keeps innovating in a very competitive digital experience platform (DXP) sector?

Reny: There's an energizing esprit de corps within the company. I think a lot of that comes from its heritage, in terms of being open source, and what [founder] Dries [Buytaert] built with Drupal transferred over to Acquia as well. What motivates everybody is to build really cool things and deliver great experiences for customers so that they can do really cool things and change the world. That's really what gets people out of bed.

How would you describe the direction in which the platform is going?

Reny: Three founding principles of the company were: No. 1, it was going to be based on open source; No. 2, it was going to be born in the cloud; and No. 3, every company needed a website. The company was founded essentially to be a commercial support vehicle for Drupal -- what Red Hat was to Linux, to use an analogy. Acquia then built a content management platform, so all of those people building Drupal applications could run it on Acquia's platform. That platform could do lots of smart things, and that would be difficult for those companies to do on their own.

The one founding principle we changed was that not just did every company need a website, but that every company needs a digital experience platform. So in 2017-2018, we planted that flag -- the DXP is what we believe customers need. We're going to add some adjacent capabilities, enhance some of the ones that we have and even add more scale to some of the things we do. Some of that we will build, some of that will come from partners, and some of that is going to [be acquired].

How would you describe Acquia's acquisition strategy -- what should customers expect to see down the road?

Reny: We wanted to be a leader in DXP, which informs the acquisition strategy that we've had along the way. Looking at what comprises a suite of DXP capabilities led us to buy a marketing automation solution from a company called Mautic, it led us to buy a low-code/no-code solution company called Cohesion, customer data platform [CDP] from AgilOne, and it led us to buy a digital asset management solution from a company called Widen.

What's next for us? We think about it in the context of the challenges that our customers have. Optimization is really important to us. If I think about optimization in the context of websites, I think about the context of content in the course of digital engagement as an example. So you will see us care lots about optimization, SEO and analytics. Those are some important areas for us to either continue to get better at what we do or to add some capabilities that perhaps don't exist.

Acquia took chances with Mautic and AgilOne -- marketing automation and the CDP were busy, crowded market sectors. What kind of Acquia customer decides to use your marketing automation systems and a CDP -- are these new users, or are they ripping and replacing?

Customers want to deliver data-driven experiences in an omnichannel way, and have those experiences be very consistent and personalized -- and they need those experiences founded in data.
Stephen RenyCEO, Acquia

Reny: If you're a customer who's got a franchising-type model, for example -- or any distributed model -- you need the ability to stamp out marketing automation solutions for each franchisee. To do that at massive scale and have them be unique instances that have their own separate security capability is really important. We are uniquely qualified to help them solve those challenges.

CDP is not necessarily a rip and replace -- it's not a given that you're going to be replacing a customer's existing CDP. There's a greenfield opportunity as it relates to CDP, for sure. Customers want to deliver data-driven experiences in an omnichannel way, and have those experiences be very consistent and personalized -- and they need those experiences founded in data. There are a number of customers that haven't stepped into the CDP waters; they believe in the promise of personalization, but haven't necessarily made the leap to put that personalization on steroids by having it be informed by data. So CDP is new for a lot of people.

We do have to compete in a number of ways. We have to compete as a full-suite DXP provider. There are also a set of point solutions we have to compete against if somebody were to say, 'I don't want the full suite from you. I want one part of your suite.' In that case, maybe the competitors for one part of our suite may not necessarily be the same competitors that are the DXP providers.

From your vantage point, is AI something we will be using the rest of our lives, or is it the flavor of the month?

Reny: You're going to hear more about it at Engage -- stay tuned for that. I don't think of AI as its own thing, per se. I don't think of it as this foundational thing on its own -- I think of it as a means with which you innovate. Tomorrow there'll be other ways that you can innovate as well.

I do think AI is part of innovation. There are things that Acquia can leverage AI to do that will help us run the company better. There are things we can do with AI that help us engage with our customers better from a service experience standpoint. And there are things that we can do with AI that will help make our products. We're looking at all three.

Acquia has always been a developer-centric company. Do developers want AI to write code for them? What's the feeling you're getting among the Drupal faithful?

Reny: Companies that are repositories for IP [intellectual property] have posted stats that suggest there's an eye-popping percentage of code that's AI-driven. Clearly, developers are leveraging AI to develop code. There are pros, in that it provides great speed and capabilities. The con is that you've got to make sure that you've got an eye toward governance, security and privacy.

Let's presume you are a developer and have thought through all of the security and privacy concerns. Yet you might inadvertently have given up your IP, depending on what AI tools you use to develop that code. You might have made your IP public without having intended to do so.

It'll be an interesting debate over time as to how AI gets regulated or not. I don't know how that's going to turn out. But internally, I can tell you that we are going to have our own governance for it. We have our own council that's cross-organizational. We make sure that however we're going to be leveraging AI, the three foundational principles that we have to pay attention to are security, privacy and protection of IP. Hopefully, everybody has put in place the right structures to make sure that AI becomes productive for all the reasons it should be, and not destructive for unintended reasons.

Don Fluckinger covers digital experience management, end-user computing, CPUs and assorted other topics for TechTarget Editorial. Got a tip? Email him here.

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