Our quest to see the Northern Lights

In February we spent a weekend in the Arctic Circle hoping to see the northern lights. I've been so busy, I only now got around to writing about it.

We decided to travel to Nellim for an action-packed weekend with outdoor adventure, wood fires, reindeer and no WiFi. Nellim, is a small Finnish village, close to the Russian border and in the middle of nowhere. This place is a true winter wonderland with untouched and natural forests. On our way to the property we saw a wild reindeer eating on the side of the road. It was all very magical.

Beautiful log cabin bed

The trip was my gift to Vanessa for her 40th birthday! I reserved a private, small log cabin instead of the main lodge. The log cabin itself was really nice; even the bed was made of logs with two bear heads carved into it. Vanessa called them Charcoal and Smokey. To stay warm we made fires and enjoyed our sauna.

Dog sledding
Dog sledding
Dog sledding

One day we went dog sledding. As with all animals it seems, Vanessa quickly named them all; Marshmallow, Brownie, Snickers, Midnight, Blondie and Foxy. The dogs were so excited to run! After 3 hours of dog sledding in -30 C (-22 F) weather we stopped to warm up and eat; we made salmon soup in a small make-shift shelter that was similar to a tepee. The tepee had a small opening at the top and there was no heat or electricity.

The salmon soup was made over a fire, and we were skeptical at first how this would taste. The soup turned out to be delicious and even reminded us of the clam chowder that we have come to enjoy in Boston. We've since remade this soup at home and the boys also enjoy it. Not that this blog will turn into a recipe blog, but I plan to publish the recipe with photos at some point.

Tippy by night
Campfire in the snow

At night we would go out on "aurora hunts". The first night by reindeer sled, the second night using snowshoes, and the third night by snowmobile. To stay warm, we built fires either in tepees or in the snow and drank warm berry juice.

Reindeer sledding
Reindeer sledding

While the untouched land is beautiful, they definitely try to live off the land. The Fins have an abundance of berries, mushrooms, reindeer and fish. We gladly admit we enjoyed our reindeer sled rides, as well as eating reindeer. We had fresh mushroom soup made out of hand-picked mushrooms. And every evening there was an abundance of fresh fish and reindeer offered for dinner. We also discovered a new gin, Napue, made from cranberries and birch leaves.

In the end, we didn't see the Northern Lights. We had a great trip, and seeing them would have been the icing on the cake. It just means that we'll have to come back another time.

From imagination to (augmented) reality in 48 hours

Every spring, members of Acquia's Product, Engineering and DevOps teams gather at our Boston headquarters for "Build Week". Build Week gives our global team the opportunity to meet face-to-face, to discuss our product strategy and roadmap, to make plans, and to collaborate on projects.

One of the highlights of Build Week is our annual Hackathon; more than 20 teams of 4-8 people are given 48 hours to develop any project of their choosing. There are no restrictions on the technology or solutions that a team can utilize. Projects ranged from an Amazon Dash Button that spins up a new Acquia Cloud environment with one click, to a Drupal module that allows users to visually build page layouts, or a proposed security solution that would automate pen testing against Drupal sites.

This year's projects were judged on innovation, ship-ability, technical accomplishment and flair. The winning project, Lift HoloDeck, was particularly exciting because it showcases an ambitious digital experience that is possible with Acquia and Drupal today. The Lift Holodeck takes a physical experience and amplifies it with a digital one using augmented reality. The team built a mobile application that superimposes product information and smart notifications over real-life objects that are detected on a user's smartphone screen. It enables customers to interact with brands in new ways that improve a customer's experience.

Lift holodeck banner

At the hackathon, the Lift HoloDeck Team showed how augmented reality can change how both online and physical storefronts interact with their consumers. In their presentation, they followed a customer, Neil, as he used the mobile application to inform his purchases in a coffee shop and clothing store. When Neil entered his favorite coffee shop, he held up his phone to the posted “deal of the day”. The Lift HoloDeck application superimposes nutrition facts, directions on how to order, and product information on top of the beverage. Neil contemplated the nutrition facts before ordering his preferred drink through the Lift HoloDeck application. Shortly after, he received a notification that his order was ready for pick up. Because Acquia Lift is able to track Neil's click and purchase behavior, it is also possible for Acquia Lift to push personalized product information and offerings through the Lift HoloDeck application.

Check out the demo video, which showcases the Lift HoloDeck prototype:

The Lift HoloDeck prototype is exciting because it was built in less than 48 hours and uses technology that is commercially available today. The Lift HoloDeck experience was powered by Unity (a 3D game engine), Vuforia (an augmented reality library), Acquia Lift (a personalization engine) and Drupal as a content store.

The Lift HoloDeck prototype is a great example of how an organization can use Acquia and Drupal to support new user experiences and distribution platforms that engage customers in captivating ways. It's incredible to see our talented teams at Acquia develop such an innovative project in under 48 hours; especially one that could help reshape how customers interact with their favorite brands.

Congratulations to the entire Lift HoloDeck team; Ted Ottey, Robert Burden, Chris Nagy, Emily Feng, Neil O'Donnell, Stephen Smith, Roderik Muit, Rob Marchetti and Yuan Xie.

Acquia's next phase

In 2007, Jay Batson and I wanted to build a software company based on open source and Drupal. I was 29 years old then, and eager to learn how to build a business that could change the world of software, strengthen the Drupal project and help drive the future of the web.

Tom Erickson joined Acquia's board of directors with an outstanding record of scaling and leading technology companies. About a year later, after a lot of convincing, Tom agreed to become our CEO. At the time, Acquia was 30 people strong and we were working out of a small office in Andover, Massachusetts. Nine years later, we can count 16 of the Fortune 100 among our customers, saw our staff grow from 30 to more than 750 employees, have more than $150MM in annual revenue, and have 14 offices across 7 countries. And, importantly, Acquia has also made an undeniable impact on Drupal, as we said we would.

I've been lucky to have had Tom as my business partner and I'm incredibly proud of what we have built together. He has been my friend, my business partner, and my professor. I learned first hand the complexities of growing an enterprise software company; from building a culture, to scaling a global team of employees, to making our customers successful.

Today is an important day in the evolution of Acquia:

  • Tom has decided it's time for him step down as CEO, allowing him flexibility with his personal time and act more as an advisor to companies, the role that brought him to Acquia in the first place.
  • We're going to search for a new CEO for Acquia. When we find that business partner, Tom will be stepping down as CEO. After the search is completed, Tom will remain on Acquia's Board of Directors, where he can continue to help advise and guide the company.
  • We are formalizing the working relationship I've had with Tom during the past 8 years by creating an Office of the CEO. I will focus on product strategy, product development, including product architecture and Acquia's roadmap; technology partnerships and acquisitions; and company-wide hiring and staffing allocations. Tom will focus on sales and marketing, customer success and G&A functions.

The time for these changes felt right to both of us. We spent the first decade of Acquia laying down the foundation of a solid business model for going out to the market and delivering customer success with Drupal – Tom's core strengths from his long career as a technology executive. 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.

Tom is leaving Acquia in a great position. This past year, the top industry analysts published very positive reviews based on their dealings with our customers. I'm proud that Acquia made the most significant positive move of all vendors in last year's Gartner Magic Quadrant for Web Content Management and that Forrester recognized Acquia as the leader for strategy and vision. We increasingly find ourselves at the center of our customer's technology and digital strategies. At a time when digital experiences means more than just web content management, and data and content intelligence play an increasing role in defining success for our customers, we are well positioned for the next phase of our growth.

I continue to love the work I do at Acquia each day. We have a passionate team of builders and dreamers, doers and makers. To the Acquia team around the world: 2017 will be a year of changes, but you have my commitment, in every way, to lead Acquia with clarity and focus.

To read Tom's thoughts on the transition, please check out his blog post. Michael Skok, Acquia's lead investor, also covered it on his blog.

Tom and dries

Friduction: the internet's unstoppable drive to eliminate friction

Friduction

There is one significant trend that I have noticed over and over again: the internet's continuous drive to mitigate friction in user experiences and business models.

Since the internet's commercial debut in the early 90s, it has captured success and upset the established order by eliminating unnecessary middlemen. Book stores, photo shops, travel agents, stock brokers, bank tellers and music stores are just a few examples of the kinds of middlemen who have been eliminated by their online counterparts. The act of buying books, printing photos or booking flights online alleviates the friction felt by consumers who must stand in line or wait on hold to speak to a customer service representative.

Rather than negatively describing this evolution as disintermediation or taking something away, I believe there is value in recognizing that the internet is constantly improving customer experiences by reducing friction from systems — a process I like to call "friduction".

Open Source and cloud

Over the past 15 years, I have observed Open Source and cloud-computing solutions remove friction from legacy approaches to technology. Open Source takes the friction out of the technology evaluation and adoption process; you are not forced to get a demo or go through a sales and procurement process, or deal with the limitations of a proprietary license. Cloud computing also took off because it also offers friduction; with cloud, companies pay for what they use, avoid large up-front capital expenditures, and gain speed-to-market.

Cross-channel experiences

There is a reason why Drupal's API-first initiative is one of the topics I've talked and written the most about in 2016; it enables Drupal to "move beyond the page" and integrate with different user engagement systems that can eliminate inefficiencies and improve the user experience of traditional websites.

We're quickly headed to a world where websites are evolving into cross­channel experiences, which includes push notifications, conversational UIs, and more. Conversational UIs, such as chatbots and voice assistants, will prevail because they improve and redefine the customer experience.

Personalization and contextualization

In the 90s, personalization meant that websites could address authenticated users by name. I remember the first time I saw my name appear on a website; I was excited! Obviously personalization strategies have come a long way since the 90s. Today, websites present recommendations based on a user's most recent activity, and consumers expect to be provided with highly tailored experiences. The drive for greater personalization and contextualization will never stop; there is too much value in removing friction from the user experience. When a commerce website can predict what you like based on past behavior, it eliminates friction from the shopping process. When a customer support website can predict what question you are going to ask next, it is able to provide a better customer experience. This is not only useful for the user, but also for the business. A more efficient user experience will translate into higher sales, improved customer retention and better brand exposure.

To keep pace with evolving user expectations, tomorrow's digital experiences will need to deliver more tailored, and even predictive customer experiences. This will require organizations to consume multiple sources of data, such as location data, historic clickstream data, or information from wearables to create a fine-grained user context. Data will be the foundation for predictive analytics and personalization services. Advancing user privacy in conjunction with data-driven strategies will be an important component of enhancing personalized experiences. Eventually, I believe that data-driven experiences will be the norm.

At Acquia, we started investing in contextualization and personalization in 2014, through the release of a product called Acquia Lift. Adoption of Acquia Lift has grown year over year, and we expect it to increase for years to come. Contextualization and personalization will become more pervasive, especially as different systems of engagements, big data, the internet of things (IoT) and machine learning mature, combine, and begin to have profound impacts on what the definition of a great user experience should be. It might take a few more years before trends like personalization and contextualization are fully adopted by the early majority, but we are patient investors and product builders. Systems like Acquia Lift will be of critical importance and premiums will be placed on orchestrating the optimal customer journey.

Conclusion

The history of the web dictates that lower-friction solutions will surpass what came before them because they eliminate inefficiencies from the customer experience. Friduction is a long-term trend. Websites, the internet of things, augmented and virtual reality, conversational UIs — all of these technologies will continue to grow because they will enable us to build lower-friction digital experiences.

Think beyond with Acquia Labs

Acquia labs space

For most of the history of the web, the website has been the primary means of consuming content. These days, however, with the introduction of new channels each day, the website is increasingly the bare minimum. Digital experiences can mean anything from connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices, smartphones, chatbots, augmented and virtual reality headsets, and even so-called zero user interfaces which lack the traditional interaction patterns we're used to. More and more, brands are trying to reach customers through browserless experiences and push-, not pull-based, content — often by not accessing the website at all.

Last year, we launched a new initiative called Acquia Labs, our research and innovation lab, part of the Office of the CTO. Acquia Labs aims to link together the new realities in our market, our customers' needs in coming years, and the goals of Acquia's products and open-source efforts in the long term. In this blog post, I'll update you on what we're working on at the moment, what motivates our lab, and how to work with us.

Acquia labs space timelapse

Alexa, ask GeorgiaGov

One of the Acquia Labs' most exciting projects is our ongoing collaboration with GeorgiaGov Interactive. Through an Amazon Echo integration with the Georgia.gov Drupal website, citizens can ask their government questions. Georgia residents will be able to find out how to apply for a fishing license, transfer an out-of-state driver's license, and register to vote just by consulting Alexa, which will also respond with sample follow-up questions to help the user move forward. It's a good example of how conversational interfaces can change civic engagement. Our belief is that conversational content and commerce will come to define many of the interactions we have with brands.

The state of Georgia has always been on the forefront of web accessibility. For example, from 2002 until 2006, Georgia piloted a time-limited text-to-speech telephony service which would allow website information and popular services like driver's license renewal to be offered to citizens. Today, it publishes accessibility standards and works hard to make all of its websites accessible for users of assistive devices. This Alexa integration for Georgia will continue that legacy by making important information about working with state government easy for anyone to access.

And as a testament to the benefits of innovation in open source and our commitment to open-source software, Acquia Labs backported the Drupal 8 module for Amazon Echo to Drupal 7.

Here's a demo video showing an initial prototype of the Alexa integration:

Shopping with chatbots

In addition to physical devices like the Amazon Echo, Acquia Labs has also been thinking about what is ahead for chatbots, another important component of the conversational web. Unlike in-home devices, chatbots are versatile because they can be used across multiple channels, whether on a native mobile application or a desktop website.

The Acquia Labs team built a chatbot demonstrating an integration with the inventory system and recipe collection available on the Drupal website of an imaginary grocery store. In this example, a shopper can interact with a branded chatbot named "Freshbot" to accomplish two common tasks when planning an upcoming barbecue.

First, the user can use the chatbot to choose the best recipes from a list of recommendations with consideration for number of attendees, dietary restrictions, and other criteria. Second, the chatbot can present a shopping list with correct quantities of the ingredients she'll need for the barbecue. The ability to interact with a chatbot assistant rather than having to research and plan everything on your own can make hosting a barbecue a much easier and more efficient experience.

Check out our demo video, "Shopping with chatbots", below:

Collaborating with our customers

Many innovation labs are able to work without outside influence or revenue targets by relying on funding from within the organization. But this can potentially create too much distance between the innovation lab and the needs of the organization's customers. Instead, Acquia Labs explores new ideas by working on jointly funded projects for our clients.

I think this model for innovation is a good approach for the next generation of labs. This vision allows us to help our customers stake ground in new territory while also moving our own internal progress forward. For more about our approach, check out this video from a panel discussion with our Acquia Labs lead Preston So, who introduced some of these ideas at SXSW 2017.

If you're looking at possibilities beyond what our current offerings are capable of today, if you're seeking guidance and help to execute on your own innovation priorities, or if you have a potential project that interests you but is too forward-looking right now, Acquia Labs can help.

Special thanks to Preston So for contributions to this blog post and to Nikhil Deshpande (GeorgiaGov Interactive) and ASH Heath for feedback during the writing process.