#538: Open source in the enterprise with Jon Stewart, ZenSource

As industries continue to evolve, the debate intensifies around the use of proprietary versus open-source solutions, especially within highly regulated sectors.

Joining us today to discuss this is Jon Stewart, President of ZenSource.

About Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart is the president and co-founder of ZenSource, an enterprise-grade open-source platform offering a Drupal-based CMS & secure cloud hosting platform. With roots in leading technical architecture and full-stack web development, his focus is designing and implementing customer experience platform solutions and driving the vision of ZenSource.

Jon strives to deliver the highest performing and easiest-to-use web experiences with the ZenSource platform through the creation of tools that enable clients to scale their digital ecosystems while staying true to their strategic vision. Jon is an innovative leader when it comes to providing MarTech solutions in highly regulated industries such as education, health, manufacturing, and financial services. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


ZenSource website: https://zensource.cloud/

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Greg Kihlström:
As industries continue to evolve, the debate intensifies around the use of proprietary versus open source solutions, especially within highly regulated sectors. Joining us today to discuss this is Jon Stewart, president of ZenSource, who brings deep insights into the value of an open source approach for future-proofing marketing technologies, enhancing client-centric innovation, and leveraging these solutions across various industries. Jon, welcome to the show.

Jon Stewart: Thanks so much for having me, Greg. It’s great to be here.

Greg Kihlström: Yeah, looking forward to talking about this with you. Why don’t we get started, though, with you giving us a little insight into your journey towards leading ZenSource and, you know, what inspired your focus on advocating for open source solutions in some of these regulated industries?

Jon Stewart: Sure. So, you know, I’ve spent my entire career in the digital agency setting, everything from the boutique agencies to the bigger New York, Chicago agencies. I basically started as a full stack developer through more of a tech implementation lead, user experience, biz dev, and just spent my entire career focused on digital agency client work. And it’s all been specifically focused around content management systems. And so ZenSource specifically was born out of full service digital agency primacy. At primacy, I ran the product experience group. and was doing countless CMS builds, website redesigns, web apps, CMS migrations, you name it. And we got to a point where we were working in so many different platforms where we were seeing trends, our clients were seeing trends of things that they liked, things that worked well, things that didn’t work so well, where was their friction, where were these different themes. maybe it wasn’t easy enough. We’d hear from clients that, I like the platform, but I’m really locked in from a license perspective or from a support perspective, and my vendor options are a bit limited. I always have to upgrade. The total cost of ownership is just more and more expensive. And for us, most importantly, we just saw that in some cases, because of these limitations, clients weren’t fully realizing their digital roadmaps. So we took that feedback and we decided to build our own platform. And knowing that there are tons of options out there for CMS, we knew what we liked, we knew what we wanted to make better, and we knew what we didn’t, what we wanted to fix. And so that’s why we started with open source. And we started with Drupal specifically. We knew going into this, because there’s so many great options in the market, we don’t want to build another proprietary platform that’s going to be very time-consuming, very expensive, and probably harder for people to want to adopt something new. But what we really liked about Drupal was that so many of our clients were already on it, or so many were migrating to it for a variety of reasons. So that was really attractive to us. And with the release of Drupal 8 in particular, the authoring experience got so much better. With it being built on Twig and Symfony, which are universally accepted frameworks, it just made it easier to do upgrades. It made it easier to secure the platform. Drupal, from a security perspective, has a really great security team, a really great review process for modules within the community. So we knew that we were kind of starting with a more enterprise level open source framework that was already universally accepted. But with that being said, being open source, we knew that we needed to provide enterprise high touch support. We needed to expand on security and we need to be able to scale for bigger web experiences. and take any of the perceived open source risk out of the equation and make our clients’ lives and their digital MarTech experiences better and easier. And the result was Zensource. So what we did was we combined Drupal CMS with cloud hosting, additional security services, training to provide what we consider open source flexibility and agility with that enterprise level security and scale.

Greg Kihlström: Great. So yeah, let’s dive in here and definitely want to explore some of that more. So we’re going to start by talking about the idea of the migration from proprietary to open source. And we’ve got a lot of people listening to the show, a lot of people from the enterprise as well, and certainly some skepticism there, I would say, on both sides as far as a move to open source. But I think it’s, let’s talk about some of these benefits. You mentioned a few things. There’s cost reduction, there’s increased flexibility. So let’s talk a little bit, if you don’t mind, about those and what are some of those key benefits that you’re seeing from migrating from these proprietary solutions to open source?

Jon Stewart: Sure, sure. So yeah, you touched on one of the major ones around cost reduction. One of the things that we really like about open source is that you can download it and install these open source frameworks, these various modules and components essentially for free. There’s no paid service or paid license that restricts you from doing that. And with the various open source communities having so much market share and just increasing to have more market share, you’ve got thousands of developers around the world contributing code, contributing various modules and components to build out the experiences for our clients. So not only are you free to install these tools, build these tools, leverage a wealth of knowledge and technology in the community around the globe, but what it’s also doing effectively is freeing up that budget, those resources to do more custom work, to do more optimization for your brand. the freedom and the flexibility to build custom components at scale, something we talk about quite often is the content author persona. So we really believe at ZenSource that the technology should enable the web experience that we design, it shouldn’t dictate it. So what we like to do is take a user experience first approach with our clients, with the websites we build, with the apps we build, and then we build for the content author persona, which is the, you know, the client, the, the

Jon Stewart: The editor, the marketer, the IT team, whoever might be in the platform. And what we do is basically work with them to build out an experience on the back end that is just as usable as the front end. Because if we’re going to design a really amazing marketing front door for a health system or a university, we need to make sure that the tools that the clients are using in the CMS are just as usable in order for that to succeed so they can scale their content, so they can scale their experience. And so with open source, we can do that. We’ve built a foundation of what we consider to be a very frictionless, very easy to use, no code authoring experience, but client requirements are always different. their workflows are different. What they’re doing in addition to working within the MarTech tools that we build in their day is different. And this is one of many things they’re doing. So we go into each engagement, each implementation, and look at what is unique and important to them to remove that friction and make their lives easier. And by having that flexibility, by having that customization, open source allows us to do that, to really build these tailor-made web apps, websites, and CMS backends for our clients. The last thing I’ll mention there is it really helps robust product roadmaps and foster that innovation. With such an active developer community that’s constantly evolving and contributing to evolve the platform, it allows us to ideate more. It allows us to innovate more. If there’s something that we’re trying to achieve, a particular business or function requirement, chances are somebody in the community has done that or at least a piece of it that we can leverage and build on and improve upon. So you kind of just have this wealth of knowledge, this wealth of technology that every engagement I’ve walked into, there’s been a solution or something that we could build to achieve that client roadmap and continue to iterate that client roadmap. And that’s that’s been really exciting for us with open source.

Greg Kihlström: Yeah, I mean, definitely it, you know, in, in your experience, I know you’ve worked with a lot of different kinds of customers and a lot of different industries. And, you know, are there, are there times where open source might be a fit, but it’s just not the right fit? You know, are there, are there times like that? I know, you know, it’s, it sounds like there’s a lot of flexibility and a lot of benefits, but you know, are, are there times where it’s just, it’s not the right fit?

Jon Stewart: Yeah, I mean, you know, the one time where I would say it’s not necessarily the right fit is just when a particular organization is on a platform that is working really well for them. If they’ve got a particular solution, whether it’s proprietary or other, if they’ve got a good team that’s supporting it, it’s hosted, it’s secure, it’s scalable, and they’re able to iterate and they’re able to innovate and continuously evolve their digital roadmap and evolve their digital ecosystem, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to change it. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. But what I often see is when a client is looking to replatform and they’re actively in search of another CMS DXP because they’re not happy, I’m hard-pressed to find a use case where it doesn’t make sense. We talked about the low cost of entry, the countless integrations, the customization, the composable architecture component of it, where we can implement all of these microservices and build this ecosystem moderately over time. But, you know, one thing we talk about a lot with our clients is when it’s done right, you never need to re-platform or redesign again. We hear that more and more in new business opportunities now more than ever, but it feels like increasingly I’m hearing it more and more that Companies are looking toward open source because they want to work on a platform where it’s easier to upgrade, it’s easier to iterate and connect these different components, perhaps over API, over three, five, six, seven years with their digital roadmap. And instead of replatforming, having an expensive upgrading and wiping the slate clean and doing it again in five to seven years, they just want to have a platform that can continue to scale and refresh and add to. And that’s where when a client is looking to looking to replatform 9 out of 10 times, it tends to make sense for these reasons.

Greg Kihlström: So in your experience, I know I’ve run into this in my years as well. I’ve sold both open source as well as proprietary platforms as running my agency a while back. And there are, let’s just stereotype it, there’s the skeptical CIO, CTO that they’re kind of let’s say they’re dead set against open source, for some reason, they read something, they had some experience way back when or something like that. So, you know, there’s certainly some skeptics out there. How do you talk with them and, you know, convince them and kind of bring them up to speed on where open source is currently at and things like that in a, you know, in a collaborative way? And, you know, how do you do that with leaders?

Jon Stewart: Yeah, great point. So a few different ways. You know, essentially, there’s a lot of really great companies out there now that are adopting open source, you know, similar to ZenSource, where their goal is to help offload some of those internal headaches of IT. In addition to our marketing partners, our IT partners have a day job on top of it. There’s countless things that they’re working on with their own business processes, their own infrastructure, and maintaining these web apps, these different ecosystems that we build is just another thing they have to maintain, they have to secure. And if we can help offload that and completely take it off their plate and know they have peace of mind they have a scalable secure system it’s it’s generally advantageous for you know the the cto the cio uh that we talk to and when open source is done correctly it’s very secure and that’s probably the thing that we talk about most to make sure okay great yeah it’s it’s customizable it’s flexible i get that it’s easy we’re gonna save money on licensing but how do we secure it And in ZenSource in particular has done that in a few different ways. First of all, with open source, you have to maintain it. You have to make sure that you’re patching all of your modules and you’re doing the incremental and the major version upgrades. That’s a service that we offer where we proactively install, monitor the community for vulnerabilities, for updates to our modules, our ecosystems, and we’re patching, we’re testing, we’re proactively upgrading, taking that risk out of the equation, but also offloading that effort from IT. We’re also building a fortress around our platform, our CMS. So by bringing a tool into the mix like AWS for hosting, which is what we use, we’re able to leverage a wealth of really, really secure infrastructure, you know, global cloud scalability to keep their brands and their data safe. So my discipline kind of comes from two sides of we put discipline into proactively maintaining your application to make sure that it’s as secure as possible while also building this AWS cloud fortress around it and integrating other security tools on top of it. A big thing for us right now is security as a service where we’re proactively doing ongoing pen testing, vulnerability scanning, load testing, and putting a team in place if there’s any remediation needed. So if you’re launching an app and then iteratively evolving it, you know, your various sprints and codes changing and features are rolling out and the environment’s changing, having that proactive, regular discipline to scan and remediate and have a team in place to support that is huge. So I think that’s really the biggest pieces. It’s never really a challenge to sell the CIO, the CTO on the benefits of the experience of the platform and the cost, but for us, it’s really, figuring out how to best secure it and keep those brands safe, keep their data safe. And that’s where we spend a majority of the conversation by talking about how we’re doing that from the cloud perspective, from the environment perspective, but also from the application perspective.

Greg Kihlström: Yeah, yeah, that’s great. Well, I want to talk a little bit more about another point you mentioned as far as flexibility. And, you know, one of the things that flexibility allows is, you know, more rapid iterations, more rapid improvement, continuous improvement. all those things. And I want to talk about that in terms of building more customer-centric experiences. So can you talk a little bit about that? How do you look at things like usability testing, A-B testing, all of those kinds of things in terms of how open source can allow this and allow it to allow greater exploration there?

Jon Stewart: Yeah, sure. So what’s interesting about that is our product roadmap is almost entirely based on client user feedback. The open source community, the Drupal community, is based largely on user feedback and iterating based on user feedback. So when we go and we evolve our products, what we’re doing is using this feedback that we’ve gotten from our clients over the years to solve their pain points, to improve upon challenges or prove upon some of the opportunities they’ve laid out for us. Admin friction, for example. We specifically designed ZenSource. That was our first piece of our mission statement, was to build something, design something that made authoring faster, more intuitive, and increase retention for authors that aren’t in the system every day. We’re also looking at things like content scale and brand consistency. One of our clients, Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, they built a site with us a few years back where we built this system, master brand sort of experience, but they had dozens and dozens of department sites that we needed to migrate over a series of a few years. And we went into this knowing that it needed to be low to no code in order for them to do this and also maintain that brand consistency for all of these dozens of authors, dozens of sites coming together in this system. So what we did was we built their experience in you know, through things like content training, through things like admin CMS training, we do iterative releases, we gather feedback from them, you know, what’s working well, what’s what could be easier, what could be better. And we we iterate on that and we and we release and release and we get to a component where by the time we go live, the CMS and the experience is really tailor made for what they what they need to do. And that’s one example where it’s worked really well. But then, you know, kind of going back to The open source community aspect of it, oftentimes we’ll get through one of these sprints and we’ll uncover a new requirement or we’ll see something, we really pressure test the system with real content that we need to improve upon and we often look to the community. We often joke that the community provides and we have to give back to it as it gives to us, which is why we contribute code, which is why we maintain modules, because chances are if there’s something that we need to do or a use case we need to solve for, we can find something that’s been battle-tested and that’s been through some experiences that we can pull back to essentially solve for that client challenge. So through our own processes in terms of how we iteratively release, but also look to the community and the scale of the open source modules and components that we can pull from, it helps us to really take that real-time user feedback and make actual code changes and experience changes out of that.

Greg Kihlström: you know, a lot of your customers, they might be approaching things in that old school way of like, okay, we redesign our website every three to five years, and then, you know, kind of set it and forget it and move on. So, you know, that iterative approach might be a little different to them. But I would imagine those that really get it and embrace it, that creates a stronger relationship between ZenSource and your customers as well, wouldn’t you say?

Jon Stewart: Oh, absolutely. It’s, it’s, we’ve done it both ways over the years. And when you do that sort of, you know, we, what we really try to do is we take a requirements first approach on the customer experience side, as well as the UI. So business and functional, but also back into admin experience. So that at the outset, we’re really working with our clients to define all of those interactions and how they’re going to work within the system. Very often we’ll bring them into more of a, sandbox type environment to get them familiar with our tools and our design system and our code base and how we’ve built the admin, which gives them a frame of reference when we’re doing those activities. But doing that big bang release of here’s your entire experience, let’s train you on it and let’s go, just doesn’t tend to work. And when we can prioritize a release, let’s give you a few tier pages and content modules, you know, the high value content first and we’ll come on site and we’ll workshop it and we’ll bring our privacy partners from the user experience and content strategy teams to train them how to map and migrate content and input it in real time while we’re also training them from the technical side of it and when we’re using real content to train as we’re building, that’s where we get the really good feedback. That’s where we get the really good insights of what works and what can be better. And when we’re able to take that feedback and be more agile based on the speed and the scale and the flexibility that open source gives us, we can act on that quickly. And as we’re continuously iterating and taking their feedback, in these different sprints before we get to go live and then you know having a plan of course for how that evolves beyond go live down a two or three year roadmap it really builds a lot of trust and it really has been successful for us because the clients are being heard and we’re building something that makes sense for them and their workflows and that’s really exciting for us.

Greg Kihlström: So last thing I wanted to talk about with you was, you know, we talked about more generally open source and the enterprise and maybe, you know, some, some hurdles to overcome there. But, you know, I wanted to talk about open source and regulated industries. So, you know, healthcare, higher ed, financial services, all of the above and more. So, you know, how would you characterize some of the specific challenges as well as opportunities of implementing open source and some of these regulated industries?

Jon Stewart: Yeah, so with regulated industries, the compliance requirements, the compliance specifications for things like HIPAA, for example, are always top of mind. And they’re always things that we need to make sure that we’re solving for and we’re building for to stay within compliance. So that’s really the biggest challenge is making sure that any data we collect, any experiences that we build, any cloud environments that we’re standing up are meeting these regulations and staying ahead of any future regulation or requirements that we know about. But that also creates a really great opportunity for us because You know, Drupal, for example, has that really great security board that does the module review process. You have so many eyes on open source constantly looking for vulnerabilities and so many eyes in the code that it’s in many ways more secure because there are so many more people constantly pressure testing this. And that’s where I come back to that security as a service. That’s been a really big opportunity for us and a really big value add because it helps with a few things in regulated industries. There’s the core support aspect of it where we’re making sure that we’re constantly securing the modules and in searching for vulnerabilities and doing the upgrades. But there’s also that pen testing and that vulnerability scanning and the remediation that goes with it. And it’s also giving us an opportunity for our own security teams to come in and constantly look for the regulatory requirements. What are the things we need to do in terms of data retention and financial services? What are the things we need to do in terms of data encryption in healthcare in various forms we have throughout sites and health systems, for example? So these are all very, very real things that we’re dealing with every day in and outside of regulated industries more and more. With the Internet of Things expanding in the different surfaces in which there’s potential for malicious activity, it’s only growing. So by providing more proactive security services from both the regulatory perspective as well as the skinny implementation perspective has really been beneficial for us to help build these applications in regulated industries.

Greg Kihlström: Yeah, well, John, thanks so much for joining the show. One last question before we go here. Where do you see open source going in the, you know, in the near future here? You know, what, what trends or innovations should companies be paying attention to as they’re considering adopting an open source approach?

Jon Stewart: Sure. So, I mean, I think the biggest one right now that we’re focused on and I hear it on your show all the time is the different really exciting things that we’re all doing around artificial intelligence. So, What we’re doing is starting to look at things like open AI to improve the content author experience, using artificial intelligence to actually populate content, to actually migrate content, to speed up and remove even more friction from the way in which our clients interact with the tools that we build. That’s probably the biggest and most exciting one right now on the back end. Also on the front end, the different design system components we build, the various search tools that we build, find a doctor, find a location, program finders, depending on, you know, plan finders, depending on the industry we’re working in, using artificial intelligence and that machine learning to get better results for our users based on intent and better, more refined search results to help with conversion. You know, based on AI, those are the types of things that we’re really focused on right now. And I see those just continuing to evolve. That’s very exciting. I think the other thing is there’s just becoming more and more of an adoption of open source across all industries. And I think for organizations that are embracing open source and investing in open source, it makes sense to also invest internally in your own IT teams and your own marketing teams to develop components, to co-develop with your vendors, with your agency partners. Because the reality is it’s with its turnkey architecture, with its composable architecture for scale, with things like speed to market and be able to be more nimble and move quickly. It’s working its way across organizations more and more every day. And the more we can embrace it and be aware of it and invest in contributing, I think, back to the community and building components and learning more about it and how we can be more secure, how to be more scalable, with that adoption and that education is just going to continue. So it’s certainly an exciting time, both from things on the AI side, on the experience side, as well as just seeing the increased adoption and the different resources in place to help support it.