An Amalgamation of Open Source Benefits and Proprietary Luxury!

"We chose Drupal because it offers the best of both worlds—enterprise scale and open-source flexibility!"

Imagine a platform that seamlessly combines the benefits of open-source with the luxuries of proprietary CMS—the vision ZenSource is striving to achieve under the leadership of its captain, Jon Stewart. In an interview conducted by Alka Elizabeth, a sub-editor at The DropTimes, Jon Stewart, a leading figure in the realm of Customer Experience Platforms (CXPs) and Marketing Technology (MarTech), shares his insights. Armed with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, Jon is currently shaping the future of digital experiences with ZenSource.

"We chose Drupal because it offers the best of both worlds enterprise scale and open-source flexibility."

Throughout the interview, Stewart provides illuminating insights into his strategic decision to harness Drupal as the linchpin of ZenSource, emphasizing its open-source, enterprise-scale capabilities, and alignment with the evolving needs of clients who seek to avoid vendor lock-in and exorbitant maintenance costs.

"When we started to build our ZenSource platform, the last thing we wanted to do was create another proprietary CMS solution. The feedback we got most from clients and prospects was that they didn’t like being “locked in” to one vendor or software solution."

Additionally, Stewart expounds on the strategic use of Drupal in diverse industries, including higher education, financial services, and manufacturing, underscoring its adaptability, security, and multilingual integrations, which have established it as a pivotal asset in crafting tailored web app solutions. Moreover, he shares his vision for incorporating AI into ZenSource, foreseeing its potential to revolutionize content authoring and user experience, further solidifying ZenSource's leadership in the digital experience space.

In a profound reflection on personal growth, Stewart emphasizes how ZenSource has propelled him to explore novel avenues for enhancing client-audience interaction, a testament to his unwavering commitment to continually refining MarTech experiences. 

Please read on.

TDT [1]: “From Ryan Hall, SMA to the Frontier of Marketing Technology” must have been a long and compelling journey, but what made you choose Drupal to be a companion in this endeavor?

Jon Stewart: Essentially, we chose Drupal because it offers the best of both worlds—enterprise scale and open-source flexibility. When we started to build our ZenSource platform, the last thing we wanted to do was create another proprietary CMS solution. The feedback we got most from clients and prospects was that they didn’t like being “locked in” to one vendor or software solution. They wanted to be able to host, support, and evolve direction without needing to re-platform. Additionally, the expense of maintaining and enhancing their proprietary CMS platform was much more costly and time-consuming than it needed to be compared to open-source. We took that feedback and used it to directly solve the needs of our clients with ZenSource.

As a result, we chose Drupal as our foundation because of its open-source nature and enterprise scale and capabilities, as well as the fact that it was already familiar to so many marketers and IT professionals around the globe. An incredibly strong and active community, it allowed us many resources to help accelerate the development of our platform while also giving us the flexibility to build our components to meet the needs of our specific clients.

Jon Stewart, President of ZenSource, and Jake Bell, Chief Architect of ZenSource, attending 2023 DrupalCon in Lille, France.

TDT [2]: Given your degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, how has your journey led you to become a leader in designing and implementing CXPs and MarTech solutions, particularly using an open-source technology stack?

Jon Stewart: My Journalism and Mass Communication background was interesting because my college essentially let students choose one of two paths—one focused on online content and the other on print. While both paths emphasized storytelling, the online route intrigued me because it focused on utilizing digital mediums to create content. I explored skills such as web development, web design, videography, and more while learning how to write effectively as a journalist.

This led me to a world of working in digital agencies from my first internship all the way up to the creation of ZenSource. Beginning my career as a front-end web developer and transitioning into a full-stack developer, I worked with various content management systems to develop MarTech solutions for clients spanning government, healthcare, education, financial services, consumer products, and technology, including business software and information technology.

Having worked across so many different types of clients, I saw a lot of marketing use cases for many different CMS solutions. I started to gravitate towards open source because of the flexibility to customize, the deep developer community, and the resources and documentation available for developers. I was intrigued by how much of this was readily available and free to use, providing me with a solid foundation to create virtually any type of digital solution. Drupal 8, in particular, stood out with its admin improvements, security features, and enterprise-scale capabilities for multi-site management. These factors made it feel like the perfect solution for a wide range of use cases regardless of client size and budget.

Jon Stewart, President of ZenSource, Jake Bell, Chief Architect of ZenSource, and Joe Verrastro, Director of Full Stack Development at ZenSource, at the 2023 DrupalCon Europe in Lille, France.

TDT [3]: What do you strive to achieve with ZenSource? How does the vision for ZenSource and the stride towards it contribute to your personal growth?

Jon Stewart: We are striving to create a platform that seamlessly combines the benefits of open-source with the luxuries of proprietary platforms. ZenSource strives to be a CMS, DXP, and cloud hosting platform that empowers our clients to scale their brand story and keep their data safe without the need for constant redesign. Instead, clients can continuously scale and deliver on their roadmaps.

At the core of our CMS component, ZenCMS is Drupal 10. We've spent time building our code base using the finest modules from the Drupal community, thoroughly vetting and enhancing them when necessary. This meticulous process, combined with the development of our own modules, results in a truly frictionless authoring experience. ZenCMS incorporates a service to handle security patches, incremental and major version updates, and the seamless integration of new Drupal features for each of our clients. The idea is to create a Drupal foundation and leverage the power of the community, as well as invest the time to improve upon it for our client content authors. We have built integrations with numerous marketing automation tools and other microservices to create a fully digital experience platform over API.

Additionally, we have used AWS to build a fortress around the CMS. ZenCloud offers highly secure, highly scalable cloud hosting with additional security controls built in for the most regulated of industries. Both platforms are backed by 24x7 support and dedicated, local teams aligned to our clients that know their code, environment, and business inside-out.

From a personal level, ZenSource is enabling me to find new and improved ways for our clients to communicate with their audiences. If I can push ZenSource to improve the customer experience of our tools, our clients can develop more effective MarTech experiences for their audiences.

TDT [4]: What inspired your focus on leveraging Drupal for web app development, particularly in industries such as healthcare, higher ed, financial services, and manufacturing?

Jon Stewart: The dual capability of Drupal as both an accelerator for rapid development and a highly customizable platform makes it particularly appealing for industries where versatility is crucial. It’s always been very prevalent in higher education, making it familiar and attractive to those clients. With our ZenSource install, higher education clients are consistently impressed by how we’ve taken what is familiar and made it better and easier to use. For healthcare, Drupal is becoming increasingly popular because of its emphasis on security, its ability to deploy many sites, locations, etc., from one instance, and its API-first approach to integrations such as credentialing databases and health libraries. In financial services, we’re often being asked to create tools like financial wellness apps, where Drupal gives us the flexibility to develop something totally custom and unique. And in manufacturing, we’re often solving for locations and audiences across the globe, where things like multi-lingual integrations are very important. That’s another place where Drupal excels with numerous methods to achieve such functionality.

Jon Stewart, President of ZenSource, presenting at DrupalCon 2022 on the topic, “Finding the Best Drupal Partner with Your RFP”.

TDT [5]: From your perspective, how has open-source technology evolved to meet the needs of enterprise organizations, particularly in the domain of MarTech?

Jon Stewart: The emphasis on security is the most notable feature of enterprise organizations. We work with some of the biggest enterprise organizations in the world and Drupal serves as their CMS backbone. Drupal’s commitment to security review and process for development is a huge factor in the evolution of open-source, making it attractive to enterprise organizations.

TDT [6]:  How has your background in architecture and full-stack web development enhanced your ability to address the unique challenges in implementing ultra-secure cloud hosting and data protection for clients in regulated industries? Could you provide any examples of a specific project?

Jon Stewart: Coming from a development background gives me a unique insight into what does and doesn't work in hosting and what's needed for a successful project. People tend to think of infrastructure and development as separate fields, but these days, they're not. AWS has many services and features to build secure and scalable cloud environments, but many of them require integration with the system you’re targeting. For example, hosting providers that specialize in AWS are aware of services like Key Management System (KMS) but they may not know that Drupal has modules that integrate quite well with it. Having the development and hosting background enables you to ask the right questions to ensure you're utilizing your hosting environment in the best way possible.

TDT [7]:  In your opinion, what are the primary advantages of using open-source technologies to future-proof MarTech stacks? How do you approach advising and implementing strategies to ensure clients' MarTech stacks remain future-proof and adaptable to industry changes?

Jon Stewart: We often hear clients in pitches say, “I never want to redesign again after this project." Today, our clients want to focus on scaling their platforms and their brand stories. They don’t want to be faced with a costly redesign and/or re-platform 5-7 years down the road. Open-source technologies like twig and Symfony, which Drupal is built on, allow us to enable our clients to do this. For example, the version upgrade process has become much easier and less costly. We are able to keep our client’s platforms secure, supported, and on the latest version so they can focus their energy on their long-term digital roadmaps. Not to mention, being API first allows us to integrate third-party services with ease, which also helps us scale for unknown future needs while keeping upgrades much more efficient.

TDT [8]: In your experience working with open-source technologies and MarTech solutions, how do you see the role of AI growing in these domains, and what potential impacts do you anticipate AI having on the future of customer experience platform design and implementation?

Jon Stewart: We've already begun integrating AI into our platform, with OpenAI playing a crucial role in our content authoring environment. This tool helps aid the writing and refinement of content. Looking ahead, I anticipate further advancements in its power and intelligence, and I see the potential user experience shift in how users search within a website or app.

As we leverage the Drupal database to grow the pool of available data, the integration of AI and machine learning will enable us to build smarter, more specific search tools. This evolution will empower users to navigate more seamlessly and precisely. The data within the open-source solution will enable users to drill down with ease and granularity, resulting in more relevant and targeted search results.

Jon Stewart, President of ZenSource, and Jake Bell, Chief Architect of ZenSource, presenting at DrupalCon Europe 2022 held in Prague.

TDT [9]: How has your transition from building websites in college to dedicating your career to creating MarTech solutions shaped your approach to understanding clients' business challenges?

Jon Stewart: Since my college days, I've been involved in building a multitude of websites, ranging from static HTML and CSS to the most complex and enterprise-level web platforms and apps in content and digital experience. Through extensive user testing and feedback received over the years, I've gained a deep understanding of how clients use these tools to scale their business strategies. With an enormous amount of real-world data to look back to, it has helped shape my approach to how we develop such tools to make realizing their digital strategies easier.

It’s not just about how clients use the tools themselves; it’s how they use the tools alongside everything else in their daily operations. If you can understand the day-to-day operations of your authors outside of the CMS, you can remove friction inside the CMS as well. For example, we’ve integrated a Learning Management System inside ZenCMS. When a user interacts with it, the LMS will step-by-step guide them through a task they choose, such as creating a new page or adding a content module. A far simpler tactic is organizing fields in the order, a page is written with intuitive help text. In either case, by improving retention and limiting the number of places a client needs to go to create content, you are taking a step forward in optimizing that content and, in turn, helping create an easier solve for a business challenge. The more intuitive your tools are for client authors, the more time and energy they can focus on using such tools to get their users to interact, convert, and increase ROI.

TDT [10]:  My last question could be an obvious one to ask at the beginning of 2024. ZenSource was named a notable Digital Experience Platform by Forrester in 2023, where do you set the benchmark in 2024 both for ZenSource and yourself?

Jon Stewart: In 2024, the benchmark for both ZenSource and me is one and the same. We want to continue to provide a best-in-class CMS and cloud hosting platform for our clients, offering unparalleled security for regulated industries, utilizing AI in innovative ways on the CMS authoring side, and expanding our world-class client support team of architects, developers, and trainers. We’d like to continue increasing our reach and brand awareness through dedicated digital PR efforts; so more organizations come to ZenSource as their first choice for CMS, DXP, and cloud hosting solutions. 

Disclaimer: The information provided about the interviewee has been gathered from publicly available resources. The responsibility for the responses shared in the interview solely rests with the featured individual.

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