BAPI NY: The Power of Transformation
As this week's Business of APIs Conference opened on the stage of Avenue Q in NYC, nobody there needed reminders of how software has transformed the world we live in and how APIs have transformed software. The line-up of speakers included many of the people who shaped the connected world in which we live today, and the people who are shaping the world in which we will live tomorrow.
From Oren Michels' opening talk about the history of Mashery and its foresight in predicting the need for API Management as software developers began to rely more and more on the power those structures could provide, it was clear that this conference was going to be one that inspires many to take chances and move the industry forward. As the first API Management company, Mashery has had a front-row seat to this transformative decade and so is uniquely positioned to showcase both its origins and its journey.
One topic that was explored over and over during the day was forging a path, not only where no-one has gone before but possibly where you had no intentions of going in the first place. When Naveen Selvadurai talked about the early days of Foursquare, one note struck a chord with many in the audience - he told the story of how an enterprising developer who wanted an Android version of Foursquare reverse-engineered their as-yet-unexposed API to make Foursquared for Android. (For what it's worth, I was one of the early adopters of Foursquared so I was amused to hear the backstory of where it came from) Rather than fight the tide, the Foursquare team decided to follow the path that was opening before them. They joined forces and used Foursquared as the basis for their official Android app. It's about taking chances, leaping before you look, and exploring the power that comes from combining the world of developers with the world of APIs.
When Alexis Ohanian took the stage, he reinforced the message of that power. Ohanian told the charming story of how reddit was born in a non-descript house in Medford MA by two kids writing in LISP. Who woulda thunk? But Ohanian's message to all of us was about power - the power of a technology-driven world, the power unlocked by APIs, and ultimately, the power of developers. We've built a complicated infrastructure of software that connects our world and we don't have enough developers to sustain it. If business is going to continue down this path of innovation through technology, we need to find ways to encourage young people to code - as Ohanian emphasized, it's all about "developers, developers, developers."
And, indeed, businesses today rely on developers, both internal and external, to expand their reach and their offerings. So how do you engage them? How do you publicize your APIs and get them to innovate on your behalf? Peter Coffee from Salesforce likened it to hosting a party - make your API engaging, social, fun... and expect some bad behavior (a sure sign of a good party, according to Coffee). During the panel discussion hosted by Mashery's Devon Biondi, "Think Like an Entrepreneur", the panelists all acknowledged the importance of developers in reaching their business goals. It isn't true that if you build it, they will come - you need to market it through developer evangelists (Tobias Peggs, Aviary CEO, likened them to "gold dust") and then let the developers have full reign to create and innovate. David Bloom, CEO of ordr.in, exhorted all of us not to be jerks :-) - don't tell the developers what to build; let them practice the artistry they're good at and innovate freely.
But it's not just about developers - you need to remain flexible and transparent with your consumer base as well. Sometimes your real value takes shape in ways you didn't expect - don't fight it, advises Christian Rudder from OKCupid. While they were focused on building a great dating site, they were simultaneously building an amazing storehouse of human behavioral data. How do men perceive themselves in relation to women, and vice versa; does race play a role in how people pursue a relationship - questions that they didn't even set out to ask but found themselves with answers for. And by exposing that data to their customers, they suddenly found themselves with a whole other product on their hands than they started out to build... data. And how do you expose data these days? Why, an API, of course.
In the "APIs First" camp were Sal Visca from ElasticPath and Lynda Smith from Twilio, both of whom are focused on the API as the core architecture for their business. By ensuring first that you have a clearly articulated, properly architected API, you can be more flexible and scalable. Back to the earlier discussion about letting your customers inform your next move and letting your path emerge as you follow where they lead... it's imperative that you first design an API that lets you do this and that you commit your organization to the care and feeding of that API. Additionally, a well-designed API can affect your bottom line - keeping things RESTful is much cheaper than allowing FTP requests for data, for example according to Dave Abbott of SportsData, LLC.
It takes a keen understanding of APIs and how they are being used throughout the software industry to put companies like Foursquare, ordr.in, Runkeeper and reddit on the same stage as Capital One, IBM, and Aetna. But the reality is that APIs are not only transforming our culture through these new companies but also through innovation and transformation at some of our oldest institutions. As the granddaddy of the group, one would expect Aetna to be playing catch-up with the other big boys, but Jesse Givens made it clear that Aetna's Carepass initiative is not only completely clued in to the concepts behind Quantified Self but also keeping a close eye on all the latest API trends and developments. Likewise, impressive forward-thinking on behalf of Capital One Labs and IBM, both of whom are embracing developer-centric, API-centric, cloud-centric innovation to better supply their customers and industry with the ideas of tomorrow. Compared to the others in the vertical, AthenaHealth seems like a youngster yet they too are using APIs to transform the health care industry on behalf of doctors - to such an extent that they recently purchased the Arsenal Mall outside Boston to house a healthcare innovation center.
But nobody at the conference had more to say about the power of transformation in the connected world than Leila Janah of Samasource, whose suite of programs are targeted at using our first-world resources to change third-world lives permanently and concretely. While she didn't focus her talk on APIs, it's clear that APIs are the underlying energy for the tools that bring in donations for medical care, microwork for technical teams, and training for people who need it. It was a great way to end an inspiring day.
When it comes to the power of APIs to transform business and the world, Mashery has the distinct advantage of rubbing elbows daily with innovators like the ones who took the stage at BAPI NY and I think I speak for all of us when we express our gratitude to our customers and our industry friends for sharing their knowledge and experience with our attendees. If you missed the two US-based BAPI conferences, never fear - there's one more in 2013, in jolly old London. And I have no doubt it will be just as engaging and exciting as the others. Join us!