Product teams often serve as the nexus between all organizational units within a company, ensuring that a specific line of business follows a clear roadmap and that cross-functional alignment drives success. At their most empowered, product owners are like miniature CEOs for each offering within a company.
Unfortunately, in today’s complicated IT landscape, not everything that should be thought of as a product receives the designation. In my time as a digital consultant, I’ve seen one particular technology too often dismissed as back-office minutiae — application programming interfaces, or APIs.
APIs can be the glue that binds a company’s resources together and the mechanisms through which an enterprise’s data, functionality, and other digital assets are accessed and distributed. They enable software systems to communicate and let developers leverage software for new applications and digital experiences, abstracting underlying complexity into a consistent interface that allows data and functionality to be combined and reused with unprecedented flexibility.
Unfortunately, many business leaders see APIs as middleware and thus as undeserving of the resources of a full-fledged digital product. Their organizations create APIs as one-off projects, with engineers moving on to other projects when they are done and no one looking after an API’s maintenance or whether it offers utility beyond the bespoke use case for which it was created.
This is a problem because APIs can unlock digital assets that otherwise would be captive within enterprise silos. An API that exposes a customer database can likely be used and reused for numerous purposes, for example, and treating developers as customers of this API can help increase adoption of and the amount of innovation around it. But such a powerful outcome is unlikely if an API has been created only as a system integration detail rather than as a product with an owner who oversees a full lifecycle, from ideation to adoption to iteration. Put bluntly, a project-oriented attitude toward APIs misses the boat.
Pitney Bowes, a company I’ve worked with at Google Cloud, offers a high-profile example in which a notable enterprise has treated APIs as products and given its API program the same treatment it would give to any go-to-market offering. After selling traditional mailing and shipping solutions for nearly 100 years, the company transformed itself into a provider of digital logistics and e-commerce solutions by building out 160 public APIs and 400 internal APIs. This enabled its developers and partners to easily consume the company’s location intelligence and shipping services in new, agile ways. It also accelerated the company’s internal project timelines, shortening the average project lifecycle from over a year to just a few months. What’s more, APIs not only introduced efficiencies and reduced costs, but also opened new revenue streams. Because developers can more easily leverage individual Pitney Bowes business capabilities for their applications, the company’s services are manifesting in new ways — such as when Pitney Bowes technology is harnessed to let customers print USPS shipping labels from within the context of an online marketplace.
Manage APIs as products
Traditionally, but wrongly, APIs have been considered pieces of other products. They’ve been built by the IT team at the request of product owners every time a project came up that required one. When the funding spigot is flowing, APIs generally receive support. But once the project runs its course, the APIs are neglected and quickly grow outdated.
Without consistent resources, APIs can’t be adapted to fluctuations in the enterprise and market dynamics. Worst of all, project-oriented APIs often end up siloed within the business unit that gave birth to them, which defies the benefit of modern APIs: to not only allow enterprise assets to be reused by other business units and partners but also accelerate the business’s innovation by increasing the number of developers interacting with its capabilities.
In contrast, if an API is treated as a product in its own right with its own owner lobbying for consistent funding, the API can be iterated according to shifts in internal and market trends. Ideally, the product owner should continually monitor an API’s engagement and collect and synthesize analytics to improve quality of service. Product-minded companies frequently launch APIs as minimum viable products in order to get ideas to market faster, then use API consumption analytics to understand developer engagement and refine APIs to be even more attractive, powerful, and intuitive.
With the help of management tools that facilitate dynamic changes, an API product owner can also help ensure that developers benefit from the latest and greatest build with minimal interruption.
Virtually all traditional product ownership responsibilities can be easily applied to an API. An API product owner is responsible for galvanizing the entire company around their API’s value. Their team can answer any questions users may have about the API’s value proposition or how to use it. It may sound trivial but having dedicated experts available to assist with any question that may arise can be a boon to an API’s velocity.
Additionally, if a dedicated product owner is assigned to pilot a company’s aggregate API program, they can use comprehensive monitoring and analysis of all API traffic to derive insight into which APIs drive value and which don’t. This can save considerable time and money from being wasted on the wrong bets. The product owner can also create API bundles segmented according to each developer community the program wants to serve. Here, the goal is not just to expose enterprise assets, but also to encourage repeat consumption. When it comes to third-party engagement, these bundles should seek to improve partner stickiness to cultivate and maintain new revenue channels. Just as any product is only useful if it has users adopting it and sticking with it, APIs are typically valuable when they attract communities of repeat users.
Tools and processes that turn APIs into strategic assets
To drive an API as a strategic asset, an API product manager should support the API with management tools and processes.
First off, it’s necessary to establish comprehensive security layers for an APIso cross-functional internal groups and third-party partners are comfortable using it. Mechanisms that apply protection with introducing user friction — such as OAuth, API key verification, XML/JSON threat protection — are strongly encouraged. It’s also often prudent to integrate machine learning functionality that can detect bot attacks and other adversaries before they breach an API and affect either its developer users or the end users consuming those developers’ apps.
Enterprise software products are typically afforded visualization tools, dashboards, reports, and self-service functionality to drive adoption — and APIs should be no different. Comprehensive portals that highlight API features (including knowledge centers, interactive documentation, blogs, and forums) should be crafted to promote developer consumption. Anything that is likely to magnetize collaborators and expedite registration should be provided for an API. A primary goal of API-first development is to increase velocity, so offering developers a self-service experience while maintaining visibility and control over API usage is crucial.
Manage with an “outside-in” perspective
Perhaps the most important role an API product owner must fulfill is maintaining a staunch outside-in approach.
In an inside-out perspective, enterprise leaders look internally for gaps and fill them with existing IT capabilities. Internal intuition untested by the market can define planning, and the resources that IT already has — rather than those that customers demand — typically restrict options. In contrast, an outside-in approach requires the company to listen to what the market is asking for and to respond appropriately. Outside-in thinkers start by asking what the customer needs, then build strategies from there. Because customer preferences are moving targets, an outside-in perspective is constantly evolving and seeking new data. In the case of API programs, product managers should find ways to align API user data with business KPIs, which can be essential to organizing stakeholders and achieving buy-in for the program throughout the organization.
Because both consumers and developers will abandon products that do not meet their needs, an outside-in perspective is increasingly non-negotiable. The product owner needs to analyze rapidly-changing market trends, understand the competitive landscape, keep a pulse on customer and stakeholder needs, and facilitate a backlog of changes that can help the company satisfy the market. Essentially, API product owners are the end-user advocate — and that’s for both for developers using the APIs and the people touching the applications powered by those APIs.
None of this means product owners need to be entirely risk averse, however. They should have the freedom to experiment with hypotheses and to make adjustments — but to make experimentation viable over the long run, they also need to have the foresight to kill a project immediately if the early end-user response is poor. If the product owner is not learning and iterating, they probably are not pushing the API program forward.
Calling all product professionals
If an enterprise plans to pursue an API-first mandate, it’s crucial that the API program is a well-funded, autonomous business unit. Without a visionary owner, APIs will not be able to usher in the transformation experienced by companies such as Pitney Bowes. The API-first philosophy requires that APIs are built prior to applications and that the API provide a value proposition of its own — which means that if an enterprise wants to accelerate innovation and take advantage of APIs, its first step should be to hire API product managers.