You Can’t Be “Digital-First” Without API Design

By Steve Rodda, CEO of Stoplight

How a Solid API Strategy Can Help Your Company Transform

If you had told me a decade ago that a hundred-year-old beer manufacturer was one of our largest customers utilizing our API design software, I would’ve called you crazy. But, the reality is that Application Program Interfaces (APIs) are not just for technology companies anymore. They are for the beer company, the car manufacturer, the local hospital, and they are ingrained into each individual’s daily life.

Business leaders have caught on to this trend, forcing them to seek out the technology needed to manage APIs. According to a report by Markets and Markets, the global API management market size is expected to grow from $1.2 billion in 2018 to $5.1 billion by 2023.

APIs heavily impact markets and industries across the globe, and if you don’t have a solid API strategy, you’ve already fallen behind. Simply put, APIs are a megatrend that business leaders need to understand and build a scalable strategy around if they want their companies to be successful long term.

Traditional business strategies to innovate often rely on large sales forces, paperwork, and other pricey, outdated, and unsustainable practices. Forward-thinking companies recognize that building best-of-breed solutions with the right components isn’t just a nice-to-have; it’s a necessity to keep up with the pace of a digital-first world.

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Companies that aren’t thinking critically about how API technology fits into their tool stack and technology roadmap are destined to quickly go the way of the CD and Blockbuster (no offense to either, I was a big consumer of both back in the day). There’s a reason that Spotify and Netflix are the standards of today. They digitally transformed to meet their consumers where they’re at, and your company can also transform with a solid API strategy.

Why APIs? Why Now? 

APIs act as the connection between two programs that expose the select business or operational value of one to the other. They are a simpler method of connecting your infrastructure through the Internet and sharing your data with customers, partners, and even internal users.

Previously, if your business needed to perform a service or function, you would explore enterprise software options with lengthy integration requirements, out-of-the-box software solutions with hefty price tags and not a lot of customization, or even opt to build the solution in-house. We all know how long and messy that route can be.

Now, APIs bring those services and functions directly to your business, and what would often take weeks or even months to stand up can be successfully launched in hours or days.

Public APIs create colossal business value because they expand how you connect and monetize your data with other programs. When a company utilizes APIs, it allows for quicker innovation, enhanced reusability, increased opportunity for automation, and improved experience for both your customers and your employees.

On top of all of the reasons I just listed, the rapid, seemingly permanent move to remote work increases the need for implementing an API strategy. If you are not doing it already for your end-user and your customers, it’s inevitable for your employees. Remote work demands more communication, connection, information sharing, and integration between businesses’ technologies in their tool stack. What can solve for that? You guessed it, APIs!

If happy employees, better innovation, and improved processes aren’t enough to convince you, perhaps the bottom line will. MuleSoft’s 2020 Connectivity benchmark report stated that 35% of today’s technology leaders generated more than a quarter of their organizations’ revenue directly from APIs. Likewise, Softtek’s 2019 report stated that 55% of companies use APIs as a revenue stream (and I expect that number has grown even more by this point).

How to Implement a Good API Strategy: Design-First 

It’s clear that APIs have the potential to transform businesses to keep up with the digital-first demands of today’s society. But unless you have a quality API strategy, that digital-first transformation could fall flat. In the past, technology teams would utilize an API strategy focused solely on getting the code part implemented first. That’s what developers working on the API needed most, so it made sense.

I like to equate the code-first approach to a tent. Tents are for campers, and they solve all the needs an experienced camper would have. However, any regular person who doesn’t know how to camp (or code) would have difficulty setting up and utilizing the tent to its total capacity.

That’s where the design-first approach to your API strategy comes in. Instead of a tent, it’s a metropolis. It’s interconnected and readily usable by each and every stakeholder that comes across it because it is designed for all users in mind. Whether you’re the camper/coder or the wandering city goer/new end-user, your needs are met. You understand how to interact with the API, because it’s designed from the ground up to meet your needs, regardless of your previous experience.

The design-first approach to your API strategy involves having a set of plans upfront. Every serious building project starts with the design phase, where someone assembles a team that sets the vision and agrees to the process, goals, and finished product.

At Stoplight, we advocate for the same approach when building APIs. API design-first means that you describe every API in a way that both humans and computers can understand, all before you write a line of code. Every team in your organization will then speak the same language, and every tool will leverage the same API design before you head into building it.

This begins with all of your stakeholders participating in the design phase to write a contract that satisfies all parties; humans and machines will both understand the finished product. Your teams spend time in the design phase to ensure that when it comes time to start coding, they’re writing code that is high-quality, reusable, secure, and ready for market, all without worrying about needing to re-write it down the line. The design-first process then makes it easier to convince end-users and customers to adopt your well-designed API.

The design-first method to your API strategy means a better experience for your customers, end-users, stakeholders, and developers.

Digital-First Means Design-First

In the end, I’m genuinely excited to see that APIs are taking the world by storm. Famous American entrepreneur Marc Andreessen once said over a decade ago that “software is eating the world.” Well, it’s a new era now, and I’d like to add my own part to that statement. Software may be eating the world, but APIs are the teeth. It’s time you implement a solid API strategy if you want to gain the benefits of increased access to data and users, newer and faster services, and faster time to market for your business. And in my humble opinion, with my 20+ years as a developer and tech leader myself, you can’t correctly be digital-first without being design-first.

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