Shares of open-source big data software company Cloudera (CLDR) had been without a permanent CEO ever since former CEO Tom Reilly announced his resignation back in June. However, on Jan. 13,  the company announced it had selected Rob Bearden, former Hortonworks founder and CEO, and current Cloudera board member, for the role.

Bearden had been on Cloudera's board since it merged with Hortonworks back in January of 2019, but ceded the CEO role to Reilly at that time. But when Cloudera ran smack into a big growth slowdown and Reilly announced his resignation back in June, the CEO spot opened back up.

In addition to Bearden's appointment, Cloudera also named Nicholas Graziano as its new Chairman of the Board of Directors. This is another important development, as Graziano is currently a portfolio manager at Icahn Capital LP, a subsidiary of Icahn Enterprises (IEP -1.94%), which took a massive stake in Cloudera this summer after the June swoon. While Cloudera has more than doubled off its lows since that time, the stock still only trades at around half its all-time highs set back in early 2018.

The new CEO and chairman appointments are quite intriguing and signal that Cloudera could be positioning itself for a sale.

Closeup of two men in business casual clothing shaking hands.

Cloudera has a new CEO. Image source: Getty Images.

Do I hear...?

How do these appointments signal a potential sale? A few reasons. Though Bearden is an entrepreneur and founder, he was also part of a few other companies that have executed strategic exits by selling to larger software firms. For example, he was COO at Springsource, a web application and management firm, which was acquired by VMware (VMW) in 2009. He was also COO at JBoss, an open-source middleware company acquired by Red Hat in 2006.

At the same time, Graziano will also likely push for a sale, as Icahn's holding in Cloudera has already been hugely profitable. Judging from disclosures, it appears Icahn's team loaded up on Cloudera shares when they were trading in the $5-$6 range, meaning Icahn has already doubled his money in just about six months. A quick exit would make for a very nice IRR indeed.

D.A. Davidson analyst Rishi Jaluria also thinks a sale is likely, and recently set a price target of $14 for Cloudera. He cited Microsoft (MSFT 0.46%), IBM (IBM 0.18%), or even private equity firms as potential buyers.

But who would want to buy the company?

It remains to be seen if Cloudera could fetch a buyer at a decent price, however. Though Cloudera has performed better-than-feared over the past half-year, there was a reason for its massive sell-off. This year, growth slowed mightily. While the headline growth figures are somewhat inflated due to the Hortonworks-Cloudera merger, the combined company's annual recurring revenue clocked in at just 13% growth last quarter. That's not bad for a regular company, but well below growth rates seen at many other data analytics-oriented software-as-a-service companies.

As an open-source big data analytics provider, Cloudera has seen an onslaught of competition, from both the large cloud giants, which have been able to offer their own in-house offerings, as well as start-ups such as Snowflake, a cloud-first solution that has also encroached on Cloudera's turf. To its credit, Cloudera has pivoted from its legacy on-premises offerings to its new cloud-based Cloudera Data Platform, which was unveiled back in June. After the CDP was released, Cloudera's results came in better-than-feared, but it's still unclear if the new offering will enable the company to accelerate its growth rate above these levels, and the company is still unprofitable -- though it's by no means alone in that area.

There are likely to be better bets

As you can see, I still own the few Cloudera shares I've owned for a while, as I do think the company has a shot to get bought at levels slightly above these. For those looking for a quick merger arbitrage play, the shakeup in Cloudera's C-suite could be intriguing; however, for longer-term Foolish investors, there are likely more exciting plays in the software space that have superior economic moats and better long-term growth outlooks.