As today’s online retail and service giants demonstrate, if you want to transform your organization to compete in the fast-moving digital economy, you need to start with an application programming interface (API) strategy.

But be prepared. Getting the technology in place to host and manage these essential building blocks for connecting people, business, and things is only part of building an API ecosystem. The real challenge is in getting your technical and business stakeholders to understand and embrace the benefits of APIs.

An API strategy success requires a collaborative effort. The business has to understand the value of APIs; and the technical people who are building APIs have to understand how they are going to help the business and determine the API hosting platform that is needed.

The good news is, the agility and business value APIs create are compelling reasons for your Sales, Marketing, HR, Customer Service, and other user groups to want to tap into an API strategy.

Over the past few years, the Dell IT API Strategy Team has been working to establish an API platform and inspire business users to adopt an “API First” mindset across Dell Technologies. While we are still in the midst of educating business users on why and how to leverage APIs, here are some insights we have learned that may help you with this important transformation.

Not your old-school API

You probably know by now that APIs have evolved far beyond the old-school version of a piece of software to provide a system to system integrations. Technically, a modern API is a set of programming instructions and standards for accessing a Web-based software application or a Web tool.

More expansively, APIs are now being used as gateways to unlock all of your digital assets and data for use by IT and other internal business units and departments as well as external businesses, customers, and partners. These coded subsets of business capabilities become critical components for applications to support new business models and new business channels.

The goal is to create an API ecosystem centered on a central catalogue where IT clients can create and publish APIs for consumption and from which users can consume them to connect more quickly with capabilities. APIs can then be leveraged to engage with partners and customers. In turn, API owners can get a view of who is using their interface.

API - Digital Assets

What can be expressed as an API? Just about everything.

For example, one possible use would be a store selling laptops that wants to tap into what products are available from Dell so it can show them on its website. With an established API catalogue with provisions for product resellers, that store could access APIs that tell it about all of the different Dell laptops and incorporate those APIs into the store website to be viewed by customers. The store could be assured the information it taps into is current since the API is kept up to date by the business entity that created it.

Or a developer who is building an application that uses a certain customer data subset, rather than having to have IT extract that information from the data lake for the app, could check the API catalogue to see if it already exists. By subscribing to that API and using it in the app, the developer saves time and avoids duplicating efforts.

APIs can also be used to provide product updates via a customer-facing portal, supply the latest sales leads, upgrade product feature for company channel partners, check on customers’ install base, and much more.

The catalogue is set up with various categories so users can scan what is offered in what business areas. And eventually, APIs also have potential to be monetized, though Dell has not yet tackled that prospect.

Setting the stage and reaching out

A few years ago, when Dell IT first began forging an API strategy, we were very centered on service oriented architecture (SOA) and with no discovery and no self-service.  We had no catalogue but only used APIs in the traditional sense to connect systems together, and they were pretty much siloed business-to-business.

We began by setting up an API hosting platform which would allow users to quickly build capabilities and share them.

There are many API platforms available in the market. Look for one which has out-of-the-box features to provide easy onboarding for developers and end-to-end visibility of your API performance. Remember, it is all about agility.

With the platform in place, we then began reaching out to business units to educate them on APIs and begin building our catalogue.

One compelling question to pose to business clients: What if you could go to a central catalogue and look up subsets of data sets for Sales, HR, Marketing, Engineering, Analytics, Products and more in the form of APIs and easily access them and use them however you need to?

The process of getting business units to create new APIs and express existing capabilities in APIs is a time-consuming one. But we are making progress.

Some Lessons Learned

  1. The technology part is easier but changing peoples’ mindset to transform is pretty hard.
  2. Support for API adoption needs to come from the top down as well as the bottom up. It should be sponsored by business leaders because it’s all about the business. And it requires widespread buy-in across the organization as a cultural change from traditional ways of operating.
  3. The management has to understand and convey the fact that that transformation will in fact create more value as well as an increased appetite for innovation and a greater competitive edge.
  4. Always start with smaller strategy implementations and see the successes instead of going for a big bang. For instance, take one department or one business unit and have them transform to an API approach. That will speak for other departments.
  5. Point out the benefits that developers, and thus the business units they work for, gain both from not having to repeat work and from gaining visibility into how their APIs are performing.

Changing the business mindset across your organization will certainly take time and education. But I am confident that the API strategy will resonate with businesses and developers at my company and yours as an essential part of digital transformation.

Ashok Muthukrishnan

Ashok Muthukrishnan

Sr. Consultant, Enterprise Architect at Dell IT
Ashok Muthukrishnan

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