How API-First Accelerates Cross-Team Collaboration Posted in Strategy Kristopher Sandoval December 7, 2022 APIs and microservices unlock incredible business potential across the board for various use cases, data sets, and end users. These systems bring major benefits to the business as well as other domains. This is even more true when we discuss API-first — the selling point of this approach is too often a focus on the eventual business value that is unlocked. While this potential is important, API-first has even more dramatic and long-term impacts in several areas of work. Below, we’ll discuss a domain that benefits the most from an API-first approach — cross-team collaboration. API-first as a concept can have an incredibly transformative impact in a collaborative environment and can help drive an impressive increase in communication, collaboration, and effectiveness. Why API-First? Regarding internal development practices, API-first has, in many ways, become the status quo. This is relatively unsurprising, as API-first unlocks some significant benefits, especially when teams implement it within a structural scaffold designed to leverage its benefits across team, development, and business functions. Before we dive into some of the benefits API-first can deliver to cross-team collaboration, a simple question should be addressed — what is API-first anyhow? API-first, in its most basic form, is the idea that the API should come before the eventual proceeding elements. The API, and its consumption model, should be decided upon and developed ahead of the following processes, like the application layer or frontend UI. Those processes should derive their intent from the API instead of informing the API. For many developers, this is an obvious approach. But in the business world, the idea of having the API define everything, rather than functioning as a malleable product dictated by the internal processes first, often feels backward to business and team-oriented leaders. What is important to remember about API-first is that it’s not a simple change in approach. It’s a paradigm shift in the relationship between the API and the parts that interact with it that affect all aspects of the organization connected to it. When the API and its model are determined, everything that follows is intimately connected to and derives value from the underlying consumption stack. The Bezos Mandate Perhaps the best example of an API-first mentality in an organizational approach is the famous Bezos Mandate. Although the original source has possibly been lost to time, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is said to have issued a memo to his teams instructing widespread adoption of an API-first approach. It supposedly went as follows: All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces. Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces. There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team’s data store, no shared-memory model, no back-doors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network. It doesn’t matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pubsub, custom protocols — doesn’t matter. All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions. Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired. Thank you; have a nice day! What this mandate is expressing, and what API-first is based around, is the concept that all data, communication, and functionality must happen on a common set of interfaces regardless of the team or intent. Sales teams should communicate through this set of interfaces, and the standard APIs should serve as the unifying entities between them all. Benefits of API-First Mentality for Cross-Team Collaboration So with that understanding, what can API-first actually unlock in the sense of accelerating cross-team collaboration? Unified Workflows API-first creates common, unified workflows. Since the APIs in question are negotiated as the primary communication modality, the pathways are formalized. This leads to clear communication channels for existing teams, allowing for a greater level of synchronicity and communication. For new teams and team members, this benefit provides for quicker onboarding and easier integration of existing flows into new systems, as the desired outcome (common pathways) is already fundamentally built into the fabric of the organization. Enhance API Discovery Similarly, adopting a common set of communication pathways leads to better discovery, both in terms of surfacing information and clarifying the relationships between data points. This ultimately reduces friction when searching for information and data, creating a singular source of truth and allowing more actual work to be done. The benefit of having a singular source of truth cannot be overstated. Properly formed APIs should be understandable in context. They should also refer to data that is up-to-date and reliable by the very nature of being API-first. As such, making systems more discoverable is an incredibly beneficial asset. Abstracts Tasks from Location Adopting an API-first modality results in an approach where the API is typically separated from the underlying resources through abstraction. API-first is part and parcel with a microservices approach. As such, API-first shares many of the benefits of a microsevice-driven approach. Collaboration is most effective when people can create and collaborate without regard to where the resources live. If everything must be done on the monolith, then collaboration could be hampered by conflicting forces. Adopting an API-first approach means that there are no requirements or limitations based on the work being done beyond the work itself, allowing for a high level of dynamic development. Fosters Consideration and Justification One of the strongest benefits of an API-first approach is that it forces organizations to consider the reality of their stack and the tech they utilize. When the API comes before everything else, you invert the traditional relationship of “business unit driving technological solution” and adopt a “technological solution driving business unit” approach instead. In doing this, cross-team collaboration is facilitated by a culture of consideration and justification. What team should own which piece, how this piece should function, and how the interplay between the teams should be maintained is set by the API itself and the relationship between the underlying data units — this additional clarity that is brought through consideration and justification allows for clearer lines of ownership and a greater understanding on interconnected team entities. Data and Function Reusability Adopting an API-first approach has serious implications across the board, which is very obvious when considering data reusability. Data in a corporate environment can very quickly be siloed — teams can become protective over their domain and data, limiting portability. Even if teams are willing to share this data openly, a lack of clarity, documentation, and knowledge around the data creates a soft-siloing that can negatively impact future extensibility. Not knowing where data is located or how to manipulate it can cost organizations dearly in terms of lost potential value. API-first approaches mitigate both of these concerns. When common APIs make up the core of all business interactions, both the API’s data and functionality are open to those who may want to use them. This surfacing allows for the reusability of the core business value in the organization, unlocking huge potential and iterative capability for cross-team collaboration. Conclusion 58% of APIs are private, found the 2022 Postman State of the API Report. API-first is a compelling approach for accelerating internal operations and improving collaboration potential between teams. Unlocking more understanding, communication, and effective iteration can transform an organization overnight into a development powerhouse. Long-term, this adoption can lead to less frustration, less internal competition, and more valuable development practices. Going API-first is a robust approach for new organizations, a great system to constrain organizations that struggle with collaboration, and a superb method to better an already great team. What do you think of these benefits? Have we missed any major ones? Let us know in the comments below!