The Business of APIs: Interview with an API Evangelist

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Kin Lane, an API Evangelist, blogger at KinLane.com and API Evangelist, contributor to Programmable Web, and all-around expert in APIs.

Kin is an engineer who has been building database driven web apps for 12 years, and working with data for over 20. Watching API usage really rise in the last few years and seeing it drive innovation in social, cloud computing and more, and so much talk on the technical side of the world, Kin began to explore the business side of APIs. What does it take to deploy, what business elements do you need to support an API? Not just what resources from what department, but what are the building blocks you need to support developers?

As an API Evangelist, Kin follows a broad spectrum of API players including Twitter, Facebook, Google, eBay and Amazon to figure out what the best practices are in order to educate business leaders and developers. He currently works on behalf of a local online advertising platform CityGrid to market its API to developers to bring in more, and cultivate the ones they already have.

Interview recap

What are the big mistakes businesses make when serving developers?

  • API registration. Developer approval can slow down the process
  • Poor documentation. If you can reduce onboarding time from 8 hours to 30 minutes and make it really easy to get going with great documentation, your developer’s chances of success increases
  • No quality code samples. Provide samples in as many programming languages as possible
  • No clear value proposition. A developer shouldn’t have to think too hard about why he or she should get hackin’ on your API. Offer real value

What’s the best way to gather feedback from developers to provide input into your roadmap?

Within your API ecosystem, a forum where devs can post comments is key, as well as some sort of email address or ticketing system. But you can’t expect developers to only dialogue on your domain. Have a presence on StackExchange, Twitter, LinkedIn, Stumbleupon, Reddit, HackerNews, etc, where developers already are. Gather feedback within and outside your ecosystem, and evangelize it internally to evolve the roadmap. (That’s a truly “open” API).

If you’re a developer, in terms of ecommerce, how important is social?

As a business that is using other people’s APIs, what are some of the ways can you protect yourself from that API not being around tomorrow?

There’s a lot of complaints around APIs that they can disappear at any moment, they don’t care about developers, or they’re unstable, and that’s true in some ways, but it’s true with any business vendor. The corner sandwich shop should have multiple vendors, if one doesn’t deliver one day, there should be a plan B, C or D.

But that doesn’t always apply, especially when it comes to Twitter and Facebook. Where else do you go to get Tweets? It’s difficult to have a plan B, but you should have some form of cache so that when Twitter breaks (which it often does) your app can still function. Have some kind of failover within your code. When applicable, have multiple APIs. For example when Google stopped supporting their Translation API, and then brought it back as a paid product, there are a number of other you could substitute to keep your app working.

Social is hot, but where is there opportunity outside social to build great new experiences in the ecommerce world?

Twitter Firehose and Facebook Timeline are obvious, second to that are some of the pioneers in the space like Flickr. Instagram built a very cool app with social hooks to the other networks, and these hooks made it a viral app. Another one is the video space, we haven’t seen it all yet. Youtube doesn’t embody it all, there’s room for innovation from some of the quiet players out there. E.g. mashups, splicing in products into television, movies, video games, layering in content to sell things to users, then beyond that console or online gaming. APIs allow splicing of products and services to embed commerce.

Kin and his partner have authored The Business of APIs, available on Amazon. Check it out.

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