Acquia on Why Web Publishers Love Drupal—And How the Startup Balances Business With Belonging to an Open-Source Community

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the Drupal Association had hired earlier to redesign the website, to redesign the Drupal 7 administrative user interface and rethink how it works. And we are committed to applying those patches to Drupal 7. Of course, it’s also in our interest to have Drupal be a usable product and not to have a giant learning curve, which frankly has been the knock.

We also built Acquia Search, which is built on Apache Solr, which is a distribution of Lucene [an open-source search engine]. And we deliver that as a hosted service, but we also contributed the code to the community, so that whether someone wants to use our cloud-based service or not, they can still take advantage of the improvements we made.

X: But being so closely tied to an open source project must make business a little trickier for you than it would be otherwise. You aren’t completely at liberty to innovate—whatever you do, it has to pass muster with the Drupal community.

TE: That’s very perceptive, and it’s something we consider whenever we make a major decision in the organization. The good news is that the culture of Acquia was created around this. With Dries, it’s inherent in his person, and our other founder Jay Batson is also very sensitive to this. Because it’s just part of our culture, it’s not something we struggle with, it’s just part of what we do every day.

Because the community is so strong, it’s very easy for us to garner enough talent to do a code sprint to add some major feature or functionality. That’s one of the pros. But you can also imagine some of the challenges that working with a community of that size brings to you. Many of the primary contributors who provide code to the Drupal core are Web designers, and the reaction when Acquia was created was that we were going to create this big service organization and take away their business. So we’ve had to be very sensitive to the fact that we’re not building websites, we’re building services, both human and automated, that are complementary to [designers’] offerings.

Anytime you have a community this size, there are going to be people who are doubters and people who are enthusiastic supporters and people who are waiting to figure out where you’re going. In the year we’ve been here we’ve won over probably the vast majority of the doubters we had, and now we’re getting to the folks who have been pessimists. I continue to work personally with some of them to help them understand how our strategy complements what they are trying to do.

X: Did you draw from the Drupal community to build your engineering staff?

BH: We’ve maintained very high hiring standards, with Dries and some of the early folks on our engineering team. But we’ve very much looked to the Drupal community, for people who are interested and can bring Drupal skills to the table. Peter Wolanin was a PhD research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry who was a major contributor to the Drupal 6 core and decided he wanted to work on Drupal full time. Robert Douglass wrote the first book about Drupal [Building Online Communities with Drupal, phpBB, and WordPress, from New York-based Apress]. I came from the content management space—I was at eRoom, and ended up [acquired by] EMC, and I was looking to go back to a startup.

X: What do you wake up worrying about at night? Are there two or three really key things that Acquia has to accomplish, or avoid, in the next year or two in order to succeed?

TE: Avoiding any kind of schism in the Drupal community is a good start. We absolutely think about that every day. In every major action, we talk about how do we make sure the community stays together. But Dries and Drupal are so tied at the heart, it’s in Dries’s DNA for that to happen. We just have to let him be an adviser to us.

Second, when you are starting with a product that is so powerful [Drupal], you have to make sure you continue to add value as a company. So we spend a lot of time thinking about what we can do for the community and what we can do next. A good example of that is that we have a survey running: “Okay, we’ve launched Acquia Search, now what would you guys like to see next?”

The last part, from my perspective, is helping enterprise users who are much more familiar with the traditional CMS vendors to understand the vast capabilities that Drupal has. The people in our organization, including Bryan and myself, have a long history of helping companies be successful with enterprise deployments. So, how do we tell people in the enterprise, who are trained in the traditional models, that this is the way forward, that open source is the new thing?

[Correction, August 19, 2009, 12:30 p.m.: In the original version of this article I described Joomla, along with WordPress, as a “souped-up blogging platform.” I’ve since learned otherwise—a Joomla project contributor wrote to say that Joomla, like Drupal, is “really best for sites that [are] about the management of rich and diverse content types and as a framework for web applications.”]

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