We've only just begun to capitalize on enterprise APIs

A chat with MuleSoft founder Ross Mason, passionate advocate for APIs.

Where would we be without APIs?  For starters, we probably wouldn't have the iPhones or Android-based phones that are part of our daily routines today. Their features were created by developers and engineers with access to APIs, only a couple of examples of the innovation made possible. 

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Photo: Joe McKendrick

Organizations have only just begun to capitalize on the potential APIs deliver in terms of technology agility and business growth. That's the word from Ross Mason, founder of MuleSoft and a passionate advocate for APIs. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mason, whose company -- focused on enterprise systems integration -- was acquired by Salesforce in May 2018. The acquisition, Mason explains, provided a way for Salesforce to "connect the system layer to the engagement layer," incorporating MuleSoft's role to not only "modernize, but modernize your assets in away they can be used in Salesforce." 

The challenge, Mason relates, is there are many on-premises systems that will be around for a long time to come. "Any company built in the last 10 years has either very little or nothing on-premise," he says. "What we're dealing with are companies built 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 20 years ago. There's a lot on-premise data and systems." While a number of companies have indicated they intend to move many of their data centers or existing systems into the cloud, this can be very time-consuming and expensive, process, he says. "The economics don't really work out. Notice that people don't talk about 'lift and shift' anymore." Instead, Mason predicts hybrid cloud arrangements will be the rule for many decades to come. 

That's why the API proposition is so powerful. Not just any APIs, but what Mason describes as "modern" or "productized" APIs that will bring functionality into the digital world. "A modern API has well-defined contracts, is discoverable, and is designed for reuse outside the team that has built it," he says. "You can apply security policies separate from the implementation. Those characteristics make modern APIs suitable for lots of different scenarios." 

Both publicly available open APIs as well as proprietary internal corporate APIs have roles to play, Mason continues. As internal APIs progress, they tend to open up to wider audiences, he observes. "Most enterprises.. start with very ad-hoc APIs that aren't really built for reuse," he says. "What happens is companies will have a smaller set, maybe 10 to 15 APIs internally. Then, they start to open them up more broadly -- to other divisions, for instance, or third parties and development groups," 

The challenge is bringing new capabilities and order to what Mason calls "a big ball of mud, with layers and layers of stuff just glommed on over the years. It's nobody's fault, its just the way enterprises evolve."

Leveraging an API-driven enterprise means cultural change within organizations, Mason says -- from mega-projects to continuous development and improvement. APIs provide "developers building blocks, things they can go and take in themselves, and build much, much faster. That drives new innovation."

The shift means a more evolutionary architecture, something that requires a shift in mindsets as well, Mason advises. The most pronounced change will be from mega-project thinking to ongoing flows of continuous development and continuous improvement. "Enterprise architects tend to overinflate projects, because they believe it's the first time and last time in five years they can work on a project," Mason says, "APIs allow you to iterate in an evolutionary architecture. The API itself is just a software building block, and if you put three or four of those together, you're creating an evolutionary architecture. It allows them to move quicker and make changes over time, versus 'hold the process and try to design the perfect view of the customer or the perfect view of the product.'"

Developers, architects and other professionals also will realize career benefits as they build out an API-enabled culture. "You can enable people to get at data data much quicker," Mason says. "You give people more time for their jobs by normalizing access, and helping drive reuse and agility. You're responding to strategic requirements. That's great for your career. If you want a defensible job in the future, somebody who manages productized APIs.. is going to keep it for the long haul because every new technology trend leverages APIs. Every connection to IT -- even augmented reality, machine learning and AI -- is through one or more APIs."