July 06, 2012

Developers Mean Business, and Vice Versa


One morning in April 2001, scores of tech workers pondered the arrival of dozens of black penguins spray-painted on street corners from San Francisco’s SoMa district to the Haight Ashbury. Beside each stenciled penguin was a peace sign and a heart. It quickly emerged that these new arrivals were in fact IBM’s attempt to engage the open source software community with clip art linked to the birth of Linux and the Grateful Dead. That stunt misfired in its over-simplification of the open source community spirit, confused its target audience and buried their common goal: to unseat Microsoft’s then dominance in server software.

This week’s headlines about developer community reactions to recent API changes by Twitter and others no different. Amid the commentary from either side about who owes who what, we’re burying the lead: the fruitful relationships developers can and do have with the business, and vice versa. Every business with an API will encounter this steep learning curve at the intersection of business and technology. In the case of Twitter, it is at one of the most challenging junctions: learning to work with one of their most precious assets to further the direction of a company that developers catapulted to fame, while recognizing Twitter’s ownership of its data, and the ability to best monetize it for its own success.

The reality is that a developer ecosystem is a two-way street in its calmest state. Many brands in part owe their success to the developers who proliferated their product across new channels, and developers in part owe their successful apps to the data fueling them. Y-Combinator co-founder Paul Graham called this ecosystem a self-service business development channel. Could self-service now be an oversimplification of this ecosystem, as APIs fuel even more business-critical developer systems?

Many companies are attracted to APIs in part because the initial investment so often pays for itself. Though the initial overhead of allowing developers API access to your business is probably lower than the cost of not too many fancy business development lunches and strategic partnerships, there exists a maintenance quotient to any API investment. We see this every day in the trenches with our clients who partner with the developer ecosystem to offer APIs that scale across mobile and other new digital channels. The trend is for more expansive API use by developers to create increasing opportunities closer to core business than ever before. When done most successfully, business scales as a result of, developers working together with API providers to carve out mutual growth opportunities. In today’s rapidly changing environment of online channels, the smart API bets aren’t made by distancing the community once the factory-fresh shine has come off the developer portal.

As developers become increasingly important to more business functions, trends begin to emerge out of what works for the business of any one API. At the current rate of API creation, API providers need to look critically at developers’ threshold for control to remain competitive in their market. From that perspective, business that can make the case to developers that their API that has both developer and business interests to heart. From API to design to deprication, the many great API providers are engaging in constant dialogue with the community to marry provider business goals with developer opportunity, and evolving the API to benefit both sides.

Each lesson learned with today’s APIs produces a best practice for tomorrow’s developer environment. Oversimplification almost certainly prohibits API success. As well-respected developer programs at major tech players take cover from mud slung about “one way API streets,” the focus on API success remains the same for everyone: to grow their business by constantly scaling across new and rapidly evolving business channels.