CTO Talk: Q&A with Acquia’s Dries Buytaert

Robert Scammell 2nd July 2020 (Last Updated July 2nd, 2020 12:14)

Dries Buytaert is the CTO and co-founder of Acquia, a software-as-a-service company that provides enterprise products, services, and technical support for the open-source web content management platform Drupal — which Buytaert also founded.

CTO Talk: Q&A with Acquia’s Dries Buytaert
Dries Buytaert,CTO and co-founder of Acquia.

Dries Buytaert is the CTO and co-founder of Acquia, a software-as-a-service company that provides enterprise products, services, and technical support for the open-source web content management platform Drupal — which Buytaert also founded.

Acquia has around 1,000 employees and works with some of the world’s largest organisations across sectors including retail, government, academia, and more.

Founded in 2007, the venture capital-backed firm helps organisations with “their most challenging websites and applications”. In 2009, the Obama Administration turned to Drupal and Acquia to move the WhitHouse.gov website from its previous proprietary content management system. Last year, Vista Equity Partners bought Acquia for $1bn.

In this Q&A, the 24th in our weekly series, Buytaert explains why he wants to make it easier to scale and sustain Open Source projects, why there’s “no lack of hype” in the world of website technologies and shares his views on software regulation.

Rob Scammell: Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?

Dries Buytaert: I’m a startup founder, technology executive, academic, Open Source evangelist, hobbyist photographer and father of two wonderful kids.

I’m the founder and project lead of Drupal. Drupal is Open Source software for building websites and digital experiences. I’ve been working on Drupal for more than 20 years. Today, 1 in 35 of the world’s websites use Drupal.

In 2007, I co-founded Acquia. Acquia provides solutions to build, operate and optimise digital customer experiences, primarily based on Drupal. I have been Acquia’s CTO for 12+ years. As Acquia’s CTO, I run both Product Management and Product Marketing.

Everything started with me creating the Drupal project in my dorm room. Drupal was a hobby project. It powered a single website — my website.

In December 2000, I made a code commit that would change my life; it is in this commit that I called my website project “Drupal” and added the Open Source GPL license to it.

In the years following, I learned that a successful Open Source project requires much more than writing code. I found myself as an “accidental leader” and worried about our culture, attracting a strong team of contributors, finding revenue streams to grow and sustain Drupal, and much more. I learned that to succeed, it’s not enough to just have a great product.

Today, I wear a lot of different hats: manager of people and projects, evangelist, fundraiser, public speaker, board member, product leader, and more. At times, it is difficult and overwhelming, but I would not want it any other way.

What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?

There are a lot of very important trends: Open Source, cloud computing, machine learning, big data, the Open Web, and more.

I am lucky that Acquia is focused on many of those trends.

For me personally, the uber-trend that spans all of those trends is the “democratisation of information and knowledge”. It’s made possible by combining all of the above trends. I see this as the trend that has the most transformative and positive effect on society.

Which emerging technology do you think holds the most promise once it matures?

I’m very interested in making it easier to scale and sustain Open Source projects. Why? I believe it to be the only way to solve some of the world’s most important problems.

For example, as the web evolves from a luxury to a basic human right, it’s important that it remains open and well-governed.

We can’t expect Google, Facebook or other large technology companies to focus on building a pro-privacy, anti-monopoly, open web.

Evolving and safe-guarding the internet is a complex, global, multi-stakeholder problem. The web needs to remain open, and to be open, it needs to run on Open Source. But this requires that Open Source communities are long-term sustainable.

In many ways, Open Source has won. Most people understand that Open Source provides better quality software, at a lower cost, without vendor lock-in.

But the problem of Open Source sustainability remains unsolved. How do we create global Open Source communities that will thrive for hundreds of years to come?

Making it easier to grow and sustain Open Source communities is the last hurdle that prevents Open Source from taking over the world. If we can solve that problem, we can take on much bigger problems in a transparent, multi-stakeholder way.

The blockchain world holds a lot of promise for me in this regard. It’s where they are experimenting with funding models, democratic decision-making models, and more.

But we’re also doing some pretty interesting things in the Drupal world that are worth paying attention to.

How do you separate hype from disruptor?

In my world — the world of website technologies — there is no lack of hype.

In order to separate hype from disruptors, you need to look far into the future. To figure out the long-term future, focus on what won’t change.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is often asked to predict what the future will be like in 10 years. One time, he famously answered that predictions are the wrong way to go about business strategy. Bezos said that the secret to business success is to focus on the things that will not change. Amazon knows that a decade from now, people will still want faster shipping. As a result, they are not afraid to invest tens of billions of dollars into faster shipping.

By focusing on things that won’t change, you know that the time, effort and money you invest today will still pay dividends 10 years from now.

In my world, we know that ease of use of website building and cost of ownership have been multi-decade trends. No-code and low-code website building solutions have been a trend since the early 1990s. There is no doubt in my mind that 10 years from today, we’ll still be working on making website building easier.

That’s a pretty good filter to run against some of the trends in the web world (JavaScript frameworks, static code generators, JAMstack, WYSIWYG SaaS solutions, etc).

What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given?

To always be learning and growing.

Where did your interest in tech come from?

My dad encouraged me to get into programming when I was seven years old.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Every day starts with coffee, some reading, a shower and breakfast. After that, I have 8 to 12 meetings. The topic and attendance of the meetings vary widely, as I help run a for-profit company, a non-profit organisation, and an Open Source community. I work on strategy and roadmaps, oversee technical teams, have customer meetings, talk to industry analysts, interview potential hires, review budgets, help drive messaging and positioning, give interviews (like this one), write blog posts, and more.

What do you do to relax?

I enjoy the simple things; watching a good movie or show, playing board games with my family, reading non-fiction, playing tennis, sailing, skiing, listening to music, hiking, photography, having fun with spreadsheets (yes, really), hanging out with friends, investing, trying out new restaurants, and working on my blog.

Who is your tech hero?

I admire Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett. But also lesser-known people like Henry Crowell (Founder of the Quaker Oats Company) or Phil Knight (Founder of Nike). Neither of them are traditional “tech heroes”.

Success can come from technology innovation, but also from business model innovation, smart capital allocation, persistence, and long-term focus.

What I like about these four is their long-term focus and their persistence, as reflected by their long tenures. They focused on growing one or two companies, not 10. All four are also great allocators of capital.

Last but not least, I fundamentally believe that good businesses have the power to improve the world by giving back. Warren Buffett, Henry Crowell and Phill Knight are great examples of that, as is Bill Gates.

What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?

Software algorithms influence political elections, calculate the results of DNA tests used in trials, decide on how to avoid deadly collisions, and much more. Closed-source algorithms affect society on a large scale today. There are a lot of ethical and societal issues wrapped up in that, which have not been paid much attention to. We need some form of software regulation or transparency, without the need to slow down innovation.


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