As I round out my first year as a Forrester analyst, a trend I’ve noticed in my inquiries is frustration with making API programs successful. Common complaints:

  • API documentation is poor.
  • Adoption remains low because APIs aren’t reusable.
  • There are too many APIs because IT keeps creating new duplicative and similar APIs.

Of all the suggestions I make on inquiry calls, the notion of API product management has resonated most often with clients. The reason for this is simple: IT is the wrong organization to lead your API business strategy. To put it bluntly, your IT-led API strategy is doomed to fail.

Why IT Fails

Anyone who has worked in IT long enough will find this comic relatable. It also demonstrates how far too many IT-led API programs turn out. How do you avoid letting your API program fall to this fate?

The life of a software engineer. A man stands in front of a foundation with tools to build a house. He says, "Clean slate. Solid foundations. This time I will build things the right way." Much later... Several buildings of unrelated architecture are stacked on top of each other with random connections of supports, ladders, and stairs connecting them. The man says, "Oh my I've done it again, haven't I?"
Image credit: Manu Cornet

The root cause of this problem is the misconception that APIs are primarily an IT concern. APIs should be viewed as interfaces into business capabilities, not as interfaces into IT systems. Forrester found that organizations taking a business-led approach via API product management are better able to create new business opportunities, increase agility, increase revenue, and improve customer satisfaction versus those that don’t.

Organizations reaching this maturity have remained low over the years, but Forrester has seen this mindset gaining noticeable momentum in the past year or two. In fact, I’ve spoken with a large financial services firm that said its API strategy goes all the way up to the board of directors. This isn’t just for Silicon Valley digital natives! Even “boring” financial services firms must view their businesses as digital businesses and APIs as their digital products.

First Steps Toward API Business Maturity

The first step toward this is changing from inside-out API design to outside-in. Inside-out design is when IT looks at existing IT systems and designs APIs to reflect those systems. Outside-in is when business looks at end users and designs APIs to reflect how the enterprise delivers value to those users. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How do you discover the needs of your users? How do you measure if you’re actually meeting their needs? How do you ensure that API onboarding is a smooth experience? Answer: through API product management.

API product managers do not report through IT. They usually have a business background. Yet their products are obviously closely aligned with IT. Thus, your architecture must reflect an API product management orientation, both for being able to rapidly create and modify products but also to collect data that enables you to measure business KPIs that the API product managers define. Your API governance must include the API product manager perspective.

Most fundamental of all, you must get business on board, ideally at the level of CEO or board of directors. Many business organizations struggle to understand why they should care about APIs, still thinking of them as some IT technical implementation concern. As an IT leader, you can help your business leaders understand what it means for an API to be a digital product and how API product management can open the door to new business opportunities and new channels.

To learn more, please read Forrester’s report, API Product Management Is Key For API Success. Also, keep an eye out for a forthcoming Forrester report defining the job description and associated competencies of API product managers.