The best API strategy is not to start with an API strategy

'You don't start with an API strategy. You start with a business strategy and customer experience. Then you figure out what APIs need to be in place'

APIs have become the building blocks of the digital economy, serving as a ready-made environment for sharing and accessing functions and data. But APIs should be the last thing one thinks about as a digital strategy is formulated.

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Photo: Joe McKendrick

Business requirements first -- APIs later, says David Berlind, editor of ProgrammableWeb, in his keynote presentation at the recent MuleSoft Connect event in New York. (Fun fact: David was part of the original team that launched ZDNet's blog series in 2004.) 

"The APIs come at the very end," he says. Every effort should start with customer experience and business strategy, he explains. "You don't start with an API strategy. You start with a business strategy and customer experience. Then you figure out what APIs need to be in place, so information can be exchanged between you and your partners. Then you think about the design of those APIs, the technical specifics and tactical stuff. Then you have an API strategy, and an ecosystem."

There has been plenty of talk that the "i" in CIO or IT should stand for "innovation." However, Berlind believes imagination is more appropriate. "For decades now, we've been struggling to keep the lights on in IT, reduce costs, do more with less. In my view, its time to rethink that process. Get the organization to understand the power of the API, and how it could be such a game-changer to whatever industry you're in."

APIs are providing IT teams the opportunity to offer unprecedented flexibility to their businesses. That means it's time "to teach your clients, your business users, that it's now a new time for them to re-imagine the customer experience that you're putting out, to re-imagine business outcomes."  

As an example, Berlind wonders out loud why airlines can't provide more personalized experiences to passengers. An idea he proposes is for airlines, seatback screens could be dynamically configured in each flight to deliver personalized information and settings based on passenger preferences and profiles. 

Berlind provides four pillars that make up a successful API-supported initiative:

  • Establish a digital strategy: "Not an API strategy, but a business strategy," Berlind advises. "Try to avoid the conversation about APIs altogether. This is where you imagine incredible new customer experiences, business outcomes, get executive alignment around those outcomes, get executive backing to that business strategy."
  • Align the organization and culture: "It's important to get everybody in the organization aware of where the APIs are. But it's also equally important to make sure the entire organization understands the power of the APIs, and how it allows them to imagine different outcomes -- outcomes that were quite unimaginable just a few years ago. It's a big organizational change, a big cultural change, and you'll hear more about this in the coming keynotes."
  • Evaluate, build, and deploy the supporting technology: "What you get when you start to think about what technology you need? What security do you have to put in place because if you have public APIs? What testing software, regression testing, what best practices?"
  • Engage your ecosystem. "Once you put your APIs in place, and you're forming an ecosystem around that, then you have to engage that ecosystem," says Berlind. "You have to provide them all the information they need in order to work with your APIs. Build hackathons, do all the things you have to do in order to engage your ecosystem Treat API as a real product -- not a project."  

It's difficult to be imaginative with business systems because people aren't conditioned to expand their thinking within fairly rigid business settings. "When we go to the movies or watch TV, the directors and producers of that content are robbing us of our imagination," Berlind points out. "They're turning your imaginations off. They're getting you to operate within restrained parameters. Similar to the constraint parameters that your clients and business users are operating from, because they're not fully aware of what the machine is capable of. If you take the collective imagination of everybody in the room, imagine how powerful that would be. In terms of coming up with new customer experiences and new business outcomes. You may have thousands of people, tens of thousands of people, they're not all IT people, they're not all CIOs. Imagine if you harnessed that collective power of your entire organization."