Seven Conversations Overheard at DeveloperWeek 2014

Mark Boyd, February 20th, 2014

Industry conferences such as DeveloperWeek 2014 are a great way to take the temperature of current industry thinking: whether it be discussions among developers over coffee, an aside in a panel presentation, or the chance to compare two presentation styles from developer-focused services. With ProgrammableWeb at DeveloperWeek in San Francisco, here is some of the buzz that we heard.

“API user experience is a competitive advantage”

Developers are a resourceful lot, with problem solving built in to their DNA. So maybe API user experience isn’t so important? After all, if developers needs to wrangle data out of an API to use it in their app, they are going to do it. This was the devil’s advocate position suggested by our own Executive Editor, David Berlind, in a panel on API Enablement held on day two of the DeveloperWeek conference. And yes, if a developer does need the data locked behind your API, he or she will figure out a way to get it. So in that sense, the developer experience isn’t as important as the data asset being exposed. But the minute someone else offers access to a similar data source via an API — and provides a more accessible and pleasurable developer experience to get to it — developers will jump ship immediately. Meanwhile, industry leaders like PayPal’s Jason Harmon are finding that focusing on user experience isn’t just about external developer engagement: He is having success in encouraging internal business teams to collaborate and share information more effectively by focusing on the user experience for the payment company’s private APIs.

“Where are all the iOS developers?”

As competitors scrambled to form teams at the DeveloperWeek hackathon, it became obvious that one ingredient was in short supply: iOS developers. This became a theme across the two-day conference as well, with several presenters noting the workforce shortage of iOS developers. Some conference attendees even joked that this was why the Native app versus HTML5 argument refuses to go away: It is in part a response to the fact that there aren’t enough iOS developers to build all those apps. PhoneGap must be pleased.

The developer evangelist’s secret weapon: Coffee

One of the more bizarre aspects of DeveloperWeek was the lack of catering at the two-day conference. For an industry event with so many moving parts — in addition to the conference and hackathon, there are also hiring mixers, demo nights, workshops, and open houses held across the city every night for a week — it was strange that you had to walk two blocks to hydrate during the conference days (there was not even water supplied). Developer evangelist Tony Blank from Context.IO was quick to see the opportunity in the organizers’ shortfall. He arranged for two large takeaway containers of Starbucks coffee and soon had a long line of developers at his stall keen to learn about his company’s API… over coffee, of course. Within an hour or two, several other exhibitors were doing the same.

“People will only ever remember your first iteration, so get it right”

API developers are familiar with the painstaking challenges involved in releasing an API: You have only one chance to get it right. Once developers start coding with your API, it is very hard to go back and change the structure of it. So agile development has its shortcomings when working with APIs. But it turns out, though, developers experience this problem as much as API providers do. Several presentations all cautioned against releasing a crappy minimum viable product, as that is the version of your product that end users will remember. Larry McDonough from BlackBerry lamented that, despite being consistently listed as having the fastest mobile browser according to independent tests, consumers remember only the browser that shipped with early models of the BlackBerry device. Jay Srinivasan from Appurify argued that “you don’t get a second chance.” He shared data on mobile app usage that showed that 83% of users won’t open an app again if it has two buggy crashes, and no amount of updates will win them back over.

“Internet of Things is actually the Internet of APIs”

Being a cynical type, I tend to publicly eye roll when panel moderators fill time with the question, “So… Internet of things or Internet of everything?” What does that even mean to ask that? But in at least one session, panel members were generous enough to take the question seriously. Their response? It is best called the Internet of APIs. As connected devices proliferate (exponentially), it will be an Internet of APIs that enables the connected world to function.

Security isn’t a separate conversation

Across the conference, there were no specific sessions held to discuss security issues facing developers. At first, this might seem to be an oversight, with recent examples from major retailers having their sales data hacked and multiple apps having user passwords stolen, suggesting the need for a focus on coding for security. Perhaps this was because next week in San Francisco there will be the RSA Conference that focuses solely on security issues. Or maybe it was because security isn’t a separate conversation for developers, as built.io’s Nishant Patel told me: “It’s part of every single conversation we have. A soon as you start thinking about having an app, you start thinking about which users have access to the data.”

Storytelling trumps API promotion

If you want to get developers using your API, tell them a story. It was interesting to watch two very different presentation styles at DeveloperWeek. On the one hand, you had Dun & Bradstreet, who presented their big data APIs to developers on the main stage. They walked the audience through the capabilities that their API provides. They highlighted the company’s willingness to work with external partners to access a wide range of business and financial data via an API to help third party developers build new products and services. On the other hand, you had Andrew Fogg from import.io, a tool that is able to scrape data from Web sites and remix it via API into new apps and business products. Fogg rushed through the tool overview and instead spent his presentation time sharing case studies of how businesses have used import.io to build new app products. Audience impact: The D&B guys were able to pack up their presentation in peace, while Fogg was surrounded by developers keen to learn more.

DeveloperWeek continues for one more day in San Francisco. ProgrammableWeb will continue reporting on key conversations, interviews, and product launches for the remainder of the event.

By Mark Boyd. Mark is a freelance writer focusing on how we use technology to connect and interact. He writes regularly about API business models, open data, smart cities, Quantified Self, and e-commerce. He can be contacted via e-mail, on Twitter, or on Google+.

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