How to build an API-first organisation

The API economy has an almost ceaseless narrative on how to improve the way we create APIs.

Initially, we did “code-first” and built APIs from the ground up, using annotations to describe them (and building the tools to comprehend the annotations).

Next came API-first design, where we built API descriptions before writing a stitch of code and used that to drive the development of APIs.

The rise of the API-first organisation

However, the continued development of the API economy has led to the realisation that optimised design and coding practices alone cannot ensure success. Organisations must provide a conduit for business requirements and product design that allows APIs to be delivered to market with maximum efficiency and creativity and minimal impedance. This realisation has led to the rise of the API-first organisation, with team structures shaped around delivering APIs-as-products to market.

API-first organisations put APIs on an equal footing with other parts of the organisation. They are considered the primary means to bring products to market. To ensure they have appropriate gravitas in the company, API-first organisations engineer their structure around three parts:

  • Senior leadership dedicated to APIs.

  • A product organisation that understands the value of APIs.

  • Delivery and support teams are imbibed with an understanding of their fundamental importance to the business.

Not all existing organisations will recreate themselves as API-first. However, understanding API-first and the changes highlighted above can benefit all organisations in refining how they fulfil their role as an API provider.

Senior leadership for APIs

The first thing to note is that in API-first organisations, support for building APIs starts at the top.

Having a senior leader representing the interests of the product organisation and API builders is critical to success. The understanding in the industry of how important this is is becoming near ubiquitous. Commentators predict that the Chief API Officer will become a staple of Fortune 100 companies in the near future, with several organisations such as BNP Paribas having already recruited such officers.

The responsibilities of senior leadership in API-first organisations include:

  • Socialisation: Helping elicit interest in products that can be delivered as APIs and garnering interest and funding from areas of the business still maturing in their approach to delivering APIs.
  • Investment: Promoting investment in capabilities that help deliver APIs, including infrastructure components like API management.
  • Alignment: Creating an organisational structure that can sustainably create and deliver APIs. The system needs to support synthesising requirements from business functions, their translation into API-enabled products and delivering APIs at their own steam.

These responsibilities show how important API-focused senior leadership is at API-first organisations. However, they must be backed up by a product team geared toward creating and delivering APIs.

API-focused product teams

For an API-first organisation to be successful, the senior leadership team must be supported by a product team that understands API technology and how products in their target market are delivered using it. The hallmark of API-first is the bringing together of products and technology in this way.

Many organisations that are not API-first include API architects in their product teams to bring product development and API design closer together. API-first organisations, however, take this approach a step further. Product and technology work together to deliver product features delivered to the market as APIs. The focus is on APIs as the “delivery vehicle” for the company’s products.

The relationship between product and technology

The seamless relationship between the product and technology – working as one team – significantly increases efficiency in collaboration and decision-making effectiveness. Such teams will also work closely with technical, customer-facing stakeholders like developer advocates and evangelists  positioned to elicit feedback and put a product-focused slant on market ideas.

The symbiosis of product and technology is, therefore, of critical importance. Take a very practical example in this regard. In organisations that are not API-first, API versioning can be somewhat “hit-and-miss”, with versions turned out as-and-when with little appreciation of what they mean. In an API-first organisation, API versioning is key to the delivery of the company’s products.

API providers should offer an API that does not change every 5 minutes and, when it does, ensure the impact is minimised. A new major version in this context is a “big thing”. It will signal a new version of a company product coming to market that delivers significant benefits and new features.

Product teams in API-first organisations, therefore, work hand-in-glove with technology. They still need, however, to have the ability to deliver and support the APIs that bring the company’s products to market. Therefore, the delivery and support teams are critical to the organisation’s success.

API-first delivery and support

Support from senior leadership and a product team provides the basis for delivery and support teams that meet the needs of an API-first organisation. One might think that such teams might simply mirror those found in organisations that are not API-first.

However, there’s some differences that mean in an API-first organisation these teams function somewhat differently:

  • Alignment: Delivery and support teams need to be directly aligned with the products being shipped. This might seem the same to many organisations. Still, this alignment in API-first organisation is critical as it allows teams to act on requirements for a given API-based product and follow those through to completion.
  • Ownership: Simple alignment is not enough, however. As well as being aligned with a given product, the teams must also own the delivery of the API, from the cradle to the grave.
  • Autonomy: Alignment and ownership mean that delivery and support teams must have autonomy. Bringing a product to market with zero codependence with other APIs is vital to bringing products to market at their own pace. In many companies that are not API-first, there is significant codependence due to technical constraints or a need for understanding how vital the separation of concerns is. API-first organisations must avoid such codependence at all costs.

Empowering delivery and support teams in API-first organisations is therefore critical to making product teams – and the whole – successful in the API economy.

The commitment to what makes these teams different permeates the API-first organisation. The investment is significant. However, API-first organisations can set themselves apart by modelling themselves for success by having a structure that acts as a conduit for business ideas to be manifested as product features. APIs can then be leveraged to bring products to market quickly.