Acquia CEO Tom Erickson and CTO Dries Buytaert.

What Drove Acquia's Leadership Change?

7 minute read
Dom Nicastro avatar

Acquia’s creation of an “Office of the CEO” shared by CEO Tom Erickson and co-founder and CTO Dries Buytaert simply formalizes what many already knew: Erickson and Buytaert run the company. 

“To be honest with you, this is really how we ran the company anyway,” Erickson told CMSWire in an interview this week. 

Making the announcement in a blog post last week, Erickson told CMSWire the move "formalized publicly the way we work together.”

Buytaert and Erickson have done so since 2009, when Erickson, a founding board member at the Boston-based digital experience provider, became CEO.

A Plan Many Years in the Making

So what’s the big deal? For Acquia, it’s really about what’s next. 

Acquia is looking to grow. 

It currently has more than 750 employees, reports $150 million in revenue and sports $173.5 million in venture capital funding since 2008, the largest rounds in May 2014 ($50 million) and September 2015 ($55 million).

It has visions of IPO.

Acquia regularly competes in the leaderboards in Forrester and Gartner industry reports on web content management. It’s one of the few open-source CMS companies to get those kinds of kudos, achieving high scores for its cloud vision from Forrester. 

The first step in this growth is replacing Erickson. As part of the change, Erickson will step down as CEO when the company finds his replacement to assume the role of chairman of the board. Buytaert will take on a more "prominent role" with the new office.

The new CEO will work closely with Buytaert, who created the Drupal open source content management system on which Acquia provides cloud hosting. 

Drupal ranks fifth in powering the world’s websites and has more than one million developers in its Drupal Community.

What It Takes to Be the New CEO

“At this point it’s about having a leader who is excited by being a public company and a CEO who enjoys challenges,” Erickson told CMSWire. “We still have a lot of growth to go. It needs to be someone who enjoys managing large teams and thinks about things in a ‘how do we get really big’ kinda way.” 

Erickson, who’s on the CEO selection team for Acquia, said public-company experience is not a “definitive requirement” but surely helps.

“Building a company is the No. 1 priority,” Erickson added. “If the company happens to go public, then great. If it happens to stay private for whatever reason, then great. This is clearly no longer about finding ways to scale our products or scale the company. These concerns are all gone.”

Why Now?

Erickson cited personal needs and more business and visionary exposure for Buytaert, a technologist at heart.

“I’m at a point in my career now where I’m 58, and I just started to do the math and said, ‘OK you can take the next steps in the company’s growth and you’ll be 64 or 65 before you can step out,'” Erickson told CMSWire. “And do I really want to be doing that as I move forward in the rest of life? Couple that with personal things going on, and the board and I and Dries felt this is a good time to make a change.”

Buytaert’s move into the “Office of the CEO” will allow him to be involved in a “number of new areas” and help him grow into a "modified role" once Acquia names a new CEO, Erickson added.

“I’m here to coach him and will continue to beyond the new CEO,” Erickson said.

Need for Innovation?

At least one Drupal stakeholder saw the move as Acquia’s way of bringing engineering to the forefront in a landscape filled with competitive MarTech tools.

Iztok Smolic, commercial director of Ljubljana, Slovenia-based AGILEDROP, which works with Drupal agencies, speculated that moving a technical founder could be the result of an organization having an “innovation crisis.”

While he doesn’t believe an innovation crisis caused Acquia’s move, Smolic said Acquia is looking for a new CEO that will boost the innovation.

“Acquia's next phase will be focused on building confidently on this foundation with more product innovation, new technology acquisitions and more strategic partnerships — my core strengths as a technologist,” Buytaert blogged last week.

‘Engineering Mindset’

Iztok Smolic
Iztok Smolic

Smolic said Buytaert not only has technical skills, but also the vision of why Acquia exists. 

“I hope it is to provide enterprise support for an open source project,” Smolic said. “Drupal has to move into enterprise space completely and have a company to stand behind it.”

Learning Opportunities

The delayed release of Drupal 8 — it took more than four years since it was in development phase — “took its toll” on Acquia, Smolic said.

“And with competitors like, and they have to go back into an engineering mindset,” Smolic added. “As Acquia has become a mature company, they have all the processes in place so that Dries should not have to take care day-to-day operations but focus on the vision. One other thing that might happen is that Dries will step down as Drupal Community leader and focus solely on Acquia.”

Drupal Territory

That comes with its own set of challenges. Being the creator of Drupal, Buytaert’s the voice of a community that numbers more than one million developers strong. 

Sometimes, it’s not always fun and games and technical chatter, either

“I can't know what his day-to-day responsibilities were as the CTO, but making him CEO would mean every decision inside Acquia will be more technical oriented from now on,” Smolic said of Buytaert's new role in the "Office of the CEO." “At the start, this was probably hurting the company. That is why he hired a CEO, so that the company could develop systems and sales to sell his products. Now that he has that in place he just needs to build great products for salespeople to sell. Also, a CEO that is also a founder is a great public figure for the company.”

Confidence, Hope for Future

Nikhil J. Deshpande
Nikhil J. Deshpande

Other Acquia/Drupal stakeholders remained confident for the future while some called it a wait-and-see game.

Nikhil J. Deshpande, who heads GeorgiaGov Interactive, web and digital services offered by the Georgia Technology Authority for the state of Georgia, said he’s always considered Acquia to be more of a strategic partner than a vendor.

His organization has hosted its web content with Acquia for the past six years, running about 85 websites on Acquia Cloud. It also works with Acquia on Drupal-based initiatives.

“I respect the vision and transparency the organization has shown through the interactions I have had,” Deshpande said. “It took me no time to realize this is a reflection of how Tom and Dries operate themselves. They have helped propel Acquia as a global technology and strategy leader. I appreciate how Acquia has communicated this leadership transition and as a client partner. It gives me confidence. I look forward to seeing Acquia reach new heights under Dries’ new role.”

Zach Ettelman
Zach Ettelman

Zach Ettelman, business development strategist for Denver-based Drupal digital experience agency Elevated Third, called the news “surprising” but added it sends Acquia in the “right direction.”

It’s just a matter of seeing how it plays out, he added.

“Tom laid a very good framework and foundation for Acquia,” Ettelman said. “It’s been nine years with him as CEO, and this is about getting to that next level. He and Dries have seen eye to eye on innovation within Drupal and within the Acquia technology. This is about ... pushing toward Dries' ultimate goal of having the company go public.”

Mick MacComascaigh, research vice president for customer applications at Gartner, called the leadership change a good move in that it increases Buytaert's role for determining the direction of the company.

MacComascaigh authored the latest Gartner Magic Quadrant on Web Content Management Systems.

“Their choice of CEO,” the analyst added, “needs to be one where the same level of symbiosis will continue to develop the character of the company.”