I have thought about APIs quite a bit lately.  It’s what keeps me up at night.   I am NOT one of those tech guys who like to talk about exactly how business models, data access layers, and RESTful APIs are going to change the way IT operates.

You see I grew up with a different version of API.  I grew up begging my ERP vendor (name omitted intentionally) to release an API for even the simplest things like bar coding my items in inventory, providing up-to-date inventory data to my sales team, or adding a simple twist to a slightly inefficient user interface.  You see I grew up hearing “no” quite a bit.

Access Courtesy of Access

Back then vendors didn’t want to give access.  Control was far more important.  It was the lack of access that interestingly led many enterprise users to the Microsoft platform AccessThey used Access to make ERP-generated data more meaningful to their workflow.  For IT, it was a nightmare and for the organization this created serious questions around decision support.  Was this data accurate?  Many departments built their own databases to support their siloed workflows.  This was a no-win situation…born from a lack of access. Behind the scenes, the “no” I was hearing around the vendor API meant figuring it out on my own.  I remember wanting them, no pleading for them to allow me to ADD VALUE to my business unit.  “Just give me access!” was my war cry.  I could fix the inefficiencies if they would just let me (ah, I was young and naïve back then).

Maybe all those internal Access databases were not so bad after all (okay, bad example).  Really, they were the early stages of 3rd parties using a different technology to innovate on top of an existing platform – sort of a beta app store.

Not Your Father’s API

Today’s APIs are not your father’s APIs (I know this because I am a father, and I remember those APIs).

Today’s APIs are all about creating value both internally and externally.  What I see is tremendous value in taking the next step for productivity improvements within an organization.  Organizations are starting to build value internally and then using that knowledge to add value externally (maybe even using APIs to create new customers altogether).  Exposing the ERP APIs (or building them off a data warehouse) also enables consistency across the organization, something that a bunch of disjointed Access databases couldn’t do.  APIs are rapidly opening the doors for organizations that have a mobile workforce.  For example, a large civil and electrical contractor uses APIs to help manage its remote service contractors and equipment.

They were able to take a somewhat antiquated enterprise system and build enterprise-level APIs on top of the data.  This allowed them to utilize both iOS and Android platforms to enable their remote users.  It more importantly allowed them to expand the capabilities of an existing system while spending a tiny fraction of what an upgrade or new platform would cost.  They were able to take contractor time tracking from a weeklong endeavor down to a couple hours.  They can now track exactly where each piece of equipment is, whether it needs maintenance or is out of compliance and why.  They know all this without having to find a sheet of paper, investigate a specific issue, or implement a complex new asset tracking system.  There was also an interesting side benefit.  Rather than depending on the enterprise software’s one-size-fits-all workflow, they were able to get exactly what they wanted; best practice with a twist of differentiation.

What Keeps Me Up at Night

It is this kind of expansion of capabilities that keeps me up at night.  It’s not because I think of how awesome things could have been back then…but rather how awesome things are going to be.  I think about how we will be able to spend more time innovating for our customers.  It’s also about how much more satisfying our jobs will become as are no longer wondering “how does spending an entire day reviewing hours entries actually provide value to our customers?”

Next time, I’ll talk about getting started preparing your organization for the API revolution.  Hint: It starts by embracing the reasons those old Access applications existed in the first place.