API evangelist Kin Lane is still spreading the word

API evangelist Kin Lane spreads the word about APIs, shedding light on the pitfalls and challenges of opening a public API, as well as the benefits.

Is your business serious about application programming interfaces? Do you know they're the "next big thing?" Do you understand how a well-conceived API could make your business boom? If not, you haven't been listening to what Kin Lane is preaching.

I don't actually do anything on my own. I shed light on what others are doing.

Kin Lane,
API evangelist

We caught up with Lane at the 2012 Gartner Application Architecture, Development & Integration Summit in Las Vegas, and had the chance to quiz him about the topic he knows best. Lane styles himself the "API Evangelist" (that's the name of his blog as well), and sees his role as that of a messenger, bringing the good news about APIs to stakeholders outside the development sphere. He wants business leaders and business owners to grok the true benefits of APIs and why they deserve a place in the IT budget.

Where does Lane fit in?

A big IT industry conference is kind of like a marine ecosystem: You have the sales reps on the prowl like sharks looking for prey; the various experts showing off their knowledge like brightly colored parrot fish; and the attendees, sea anemones who just kind of let the whole experience wash over them, picking up what they can and letting the rest flow on past. In this sea of information, Lane is the remora hitching a ride on bigger fish.

As API evangelist, Lane keeps his finger on the pulse of APIs by tagging along with small businesses, enterprises and government agencies, tracking what they do with APIs and how they achieve success. He modestly describes his place in the IT industry: "I don't actually do anything on my own," he says. "I shed light on what others are doing. I'm not the 'guru' of API, just a luminary." That being said, he has a pretty big spotlight at his disposal. Here, he shines it on the question of what it takes to make APIs work for your business.

The Holy Trinity of APIs

For too long, the API has been viewed solely through a technical lens. But Lane believes this is just one aspect of a much more complex and far reaching topic. He says a real understanding of the potential benefits and pitfalls of public APIs comes from looking at the entire picture. He has studied the API strategies of more than 8,000 organizations. He's discovered that the organizations that use APIs successfully have a good balance across three areas:

  1. Technical. Developers bring their knowledge of RESTful, JSON, scaling, and all the other knobs and twiddly bits to the table when a company or agency starts considering the role of an API within its organization and in the marketplace.
  2. Business. Stakeholders, especially leaders and those in charge of the purse strings, really comprehend what an API can do for their business. They understand their business model and can explain the thinking that went into decisions such as deployment and partner selection.
  3. Politics. This is all the boring stuff that can come back and bite you in the tail if you don't watch out. Organizations that are successful with APIs over the long run pay attention to terms of use, data retention and policies, and the rest of the fine print.

If you build it, they won't come

Too often, businesses think, "Our competitors are doing the API thing, so we should too. Look! We have some APIs already. Let's just expose them and everything else will fall into place." That's just not the case. Simply announcing an open API might not provide any benefit. You must have the right strategy, the right tools, the right budget and the right people. Another thing that sets the success stories apart from those just scrambling to keep up is an understanding of all the building blocks involved beyond just programming, Lane says. That means leveraging docs, code samples, FAQs, forums and more to create an entire package that makes APIs truly deliver business value.

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