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"We're calling the API as a product strategy this fundamental culture shift in how we think about our APIs, so it implies that an API drives significant business value," — Olivia Califano, Sr. Product Manager at Procore Technologies.
This week on the API Intersection podcast, we spoke with Olivia Califano, Senior Product Manager, API & Developer Tools at Procore Technologies, a construction management software company. Procore is focused on connecting all the stakeholders in a construction project, from owners to general contractors.
Olivia focuses on API governance and developer tools, ensuring that teams are building with consistency and following best practices and standards. She primarily focuses on internal tooling to support their larger API strategy and external tools such as their API reference documentation and SDKs to help developers onboard.
These past eight months, Olivia's entire world has revolved around implementing the "API as a Product" strategy across her organization. We were fortunate enough to get a front-row seat to their struggles, what her team has overcome, and where the API as Products strategy's early days led their team.
API as a Product is an established and increasingly popular software development concept. Like Software-as-a-Service, an API as a Product exposes and monetizes an organization's unique functionality or services. These services are typically delivered over HTTP. The API is at this model's core of the business's value. For API-as-a-Products, the API is not only the delivery method; it is what is delivered.
The Problem that Drove the Fundamental Shift
"APIs shouldn't really be treated as a technical artifact, but we need to start thinking about it as a product fully deserving of proper design thinking, customer research, prototyping...really everything including long-term monitoring and maintenance," shares Olivia.
The fundamental shift in viewing their APIs as products really manifested for Olivia's team when customers kept coming to them and complaining about significant limitations with efficiency and performance issues, such as customers hitting response times and timeout errors. This required making multiple API calls to get the data they needed, and it was clear that they needed a new fundamental way when it came to designing their APIs
"It started as this grassroots campaign. We were like, hey, something fundamental needs to change and how we're thinking about APIs and API design because we're facing all these problems and at the end of the day due to a bunch of rapid organic growth," shares Olivia.
Previously, their team was doing their best to scale with this growth, trying to deliver API after API or endpoint after endpoint to meet the demands of their customers and partners. But, they quickly realized they needed to change their core design principles and best practices if they wanted to scale with efficiency to meet the demands of their growing customer base.
Getting Buy-in From Stakeholders
"Gaining buy-in from our stakeholders was our biggest challenge. The strategy started from the bottom up, but at the end of the day, this really needed the buy-in of everyone, not just product, not just engineering, and not just our exec team," shares Olivia.
But before a business can build upon its value proposition, the API team must be able to articulate clearly how the proposed APIs will deliver that value. While this seems obvious, it's frequently challenging for companies to pinpoint exactly how an API will maximize their value proposition.
Olivia's grassroots team came up with a strategy and presented it across different groups and channels, eventually taking it to senior leadership to show the value in shifting to an API as a Product approach. Olivia emphasized that there wasn't an immediate tie to revenue that they could offer to prove the value of this approach, so they had to dig deeper to prove the value. They came with the customer data, the scaling of support issues, and the significance behind maximizing their learning and development budget to prove the value to senior leadership. They also were sure to host smaller feedback sessions with key stakeholders across the company to further adopt their approach.
"Going out and evangelizing the strategy because we're going across individual teams to promote the strategy and capture it, and hone in on their specific feedback for how we should implement it at their level. Having these smaller like one-to-one person feedback sessions helped us evangelize it across the company and get company-wide buy-in," shares Olivia.
Olivia's advice to other teams looking to gain stakeholder buy-in for an API as a Product Strategy is that if she were to do it over again, she'd present the performance data much earlier to their executives in the process. Show them upfront as soon as customers get these long response times and cannot scale with their previous strategy. She recommends always tying it back to revenue early in the process, if applicable, and having more conversations with stakeholders about where they want to go in terms of scale.
"It's important to note for them that you can't just keep throwing out more features. You must build a robust platform underneath it all, allowing you to scale properly. Make sure your stakeholders understand that and getting them on board with the product strategy from there is much easier," shares Olivia.
API as a Product Strategy in Action
"So our strategy is broken up into two parts. Part one was going back and fixing the issues that have accumulated with our existing APIs and identifying five key areas of improvement. Part two was thinking about how we can design for the future, which meant aligning the company around those core principles and standards moving forward. That's where the governance part comes in," shares Olivia.
Olivia's team wanted to measure and improve the critical areas around documentation and implementation and ensure the two match. Consistency across your APIs and correctly documenting them are common issues multiple API teams run into, so it's essential to create standardization of your API product. That's their big goal for 2022, and the other three areas of improvement relate to consistency, efficiency, and coverage across their API space heading into 2023.
Viewing their APIs as products now has allowed them to build the tools necessary to support those products. For example, they built a health dashboard to help teams stay accountable for their performance issues and needs around accuracy. The API team has also created an in-house tool that allows teams to integrate their endpoints with the tool and the tool then processes data and outputs into a report that enables internal teams to better understand where accuracy issues exist within their documentation. Their tool actually generates an "API accuracy grade," and they've seen incredibly high adoption of the tool being integrated into their developer workflow.
For more tips on implementing this strategy in your organization, check out our best practices guide.
The Importance of Product Managers
"Product managers are fundamental to the success of this API as a Product Strategy. They provide background into who our customers are, which can help illustrate why we need Product teams to be fully brought into our strategy," shares Olivia.
She emphasizes that product managers fit in when considering those broader use cases for their partners, lesser stakeholders, and internal development teams. Often, developers are focused on the 1-2 core audiences consuming their API, but the product manager can bring the importance of other consumers for consideration to the table. The API product should work for ALL stakeholders, not just the primary consumer.
"It's vital that product managers understand the real customers, the real use cases, and user scenarios of who will be using the API and that they document those use cases per audience bucket. Product managers play a critical role in the success of API as a Product strategy; we couldn't do it without them," shares Olivia.
As the business leader for an API, an API product manager often develops a vision and go-forward strategy for its API products, including defining which APIs are required via research on the business needs and the needs of developers and internal and external consumers.
In Olivia's case, her team has a product manager dedicated to their marketplace and drives an immense amount of business value from their marketplace strategy. The product manager's strategy focuses on diversifying the types of partners that are building on their platform and understanding the different stakeholders consuming their product.
Let's Start Building Some APIs as Products!
"If you're starting in the early phases of the API as a Product Strategy design, just keep going at it. Make sure to document everything, reach out to teams proactively to understand their problems, do proactive research, reach out to customers, bucket customer frustrations and then take it from there," shares Olivia. "Finding those key areas that then you can start to practice and teach to your different teams is a great place to get started."
Here at Stoplight, we're also big fans of the API as a Product Strategy, and we recommend checking out our API as a Product best practices guide for more tips and tricks. I'm eager to see where Olivia's team is at with this strategy a year from now, so we may have a follow-up episode for you! I also gave a talk at Nordic API's live stream earlier this year on this exact topic as well, if you want to know my opinion. As always, subscribe to the API Design blog or our podcast for more insights.