I was lucky enough to attend the API Strategy and Practice Conference this week in NYC and was struck by the wide diversity of attendees. Sure, I expected to see the young guns heading up the industry’s hot new companies, but US Postal Service? Walgreens? AT&T? Target? An even bigger surprise was how relevant and interesting all of the discussions were. But it was obvious there is still the same old gap between the enterprise and the start-up that we have come to expect. For as long as I’ve been in the industry, the difference has always been around governance and process vs rapid innovation. Most large companies attempt innovation programs to find and nurture new ideas, but few take that innovation all the way to their production environments without putting them into the assembly line of Process. In fact, many of the large enterprises miss the point entirely by putting governance around their innovation programs.
And I have to ask… is that a Bad Thing? I have worked in both environments, usually because the start-ups I go to get acquired by larger companies, and there are downsides and upsides to both. What was different about the last couple of days is this: all of the technologists at this conference were there with innovation in mind. They are at the forefront of what has been dubbed the API Revolution and they are all doing compelling things with this technology, even the Big Companies. But the Big Companies have different external pressures. They are driven by the demands of their customers, who insist on reliability and quality above speed and creativity. Laura Merling, VP Ecosystems and Solutions at AT&T, kicked off the conference with a discussion about governance and then proceeded to run through slides that showed an API development process that was larger than most of the companies in the room. But that’s her reality – AT&T can’t ‘play’; their audience isn’t as forgiving (and hey, most of us are their audience and I definitely don’t want them screwing around with the backbone I rely on).
But to Merling’s point, governance does not have to be a dirty word in the API revolution. We see examples every day of APIs that have been widely adopted and now have the power to bring down multiple applications or websites at the same time. Wouldn’t you prefer to have those APIs governed to ensure they are well-designed, well-tested and monitored for performance? I know I would. Alistair Farquharson, CTO of SOA Software also presented about the importance of a governance model, which again spoke to the enterprise reality of a large customer base and the correlating visibility of issues that can arise due to lack of governance.
But as I said in my talk at this same conference, I have never seen the software industry have so much fun as it is right now. Developers can tap into the work of other developers and help each other build applications that are rich, full, and enticing from Day One. We are collaborating and cooperating as never before and the result is Innovation with a capital I. That was absolutely apparent at this conference – the breaks were filled with brainstorming discussions between attendees from different companies and I think we all came home with a million new ideas swirling in our heads.
So, I admit I find myself with a foot in each camp – I want to freely innovate without any more process than scribbling some thoughts on a napkin in a bar but I also want to make sure the industry on a whole doesn’t crash on its head because it has no process and quality controls in place. I have been talking for a while about the importance of ensuring quality in your APIs and not taking risks with your application by adopting unstable third-party APIs (I do carry some Big Company blood in my veins). But I struggle with how to marry the two things: governance and innovation together could make the perfect partners if we could figure out how to combine them.
Here are some ideas for driving creative thought in your organization without losing control:
All in all, this is a very exciting time in the software industry as we reinvent how we design, build, launch, and engage. I hope we can find a way to keep the enthusiasm high while still maintaining a level of quality for the users of our products. Merling’s lesson is one we need to listen to eventually: Governance is not a dirty word… we just have to find the right balance.