How To Enable Third-Party Developer Success

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The chances are good that there’s an app or service you currently use because it makes your life easier. It’s not perfect, and there are plenty of things you can think of that would improve it, but it helps you enough that you’re willing to overlook its imperfections.

If you’re an API provider, there’s a possibility your developer users feel the same way about your service. At our 2019 Platform Summit, Zameer Masjedee from Shopify spoke about steps the company has taken to improve their relationship with API consumers and improve buy-in to Shopify’s API offerings.

Below we look into ways to improve support for developers who are using your API. We’ll look at measures Shopify took to improve the culture around their APIs, and see what the impact has been. More than that, though, we’ll be prompting you to consider how you can shift your focus from “Developer Experience” to “Developer Success.”

Watch Zameer Masjedee from Shopify present at our 2019 Platform Summit:

Act Like APIs Are Part of Your Product

“We try to do 80% of what merchants and e-commerce businesses need really well, and the remaining 20% we leave up to our app ecosystem,” said Masjedee.

That point is critical for Shopify and any other companies that rely on third-party developers. It demonstrates that, unless you have measures in place to keep all developers (even the 20% with fringe use cases) happy, you risk operating with an incomplete product.

If you’re reading this blog, APIs likely are essential elements to your service. Thus, it’s vital to keep users happy. That means providing excellent documentation, offering effective support, and potentially allowing the consumption of your APIs using different protocols.

That’s certainly the case at Shopify. As we’ve seen before, they continually invest in their developer community and customization options. “We support our APIs in both REST and GraphQL, and we also have about half a dozen different SDKs,” said Masjedee. The only downside of offering your APIs for consumption in a variety of different ways is that it means your team needs to be well-versed in supporting each one.

Go Beyond Support

Masjedee talked about the steady growth of the Developer Support team at Shopify, from one team member in 2015 to ten in 2020.

“We call it the Developer Support team, you might have heard of it as Developer Evangelism, Developer Advocates, or Developer Experience. They’re all pretty synonymous,” he said. “The underlying mission is the same: make it as easy as possible for people to consume your APIs and for people to succeed.”

But there’s another aspect to what Masjedee and his team at Shopify do.

“Developers use APIs in the funkiest of ways. They do things you never expected, sometimes never hoped they’d do, and come up with a lot of creative solutions… They’re very vocal about their ideas, so the Developer Support team is a liaison between the developer community and our product teams.”

Shopify’s strong sense of developer community helps to explain the company’s pivot from “Developer Experience” to “Developer Success.” Masjedee describes how integral this mindset is to bring new partners on board. Potential partners want to talk to a technical voice and have a clear understanding of what working with Shopify can do for them.

Offering resources beyond documentation, such as a fully-fledged developer platform that outlines what’s possible (and what isn’t) with your APIs represents a serious opportunity for growth.

Bigger Data = Better Service

When revamping their Developer Success program, Masjedee and his team asked themselves the following question: “If we want to build a program that’s intended for large merchants that are using our APIs rigorously, what would that look like?”

He says that they identified three core concepts:

  • Solutions Engineering
  • Optimization
  • Opportunity

The first of these, Solutions Engineering, refers to moving away from the retroactive approach of fixing bugs as they spring up sporadically, and shifts focus to ensuring that practices are going to be successful in the long term. In other words, future-proofing APIs rather than sticking plasters over their faults.

That ties into the second concept, Optimization. Here, having developers use the most recent version of their API is crucial. This involves demonstrating the tangible benefits of keeping up to date, or “working alongside developers to make sure they’re doing what they should be doing and not just because they have to” as Masjedee puts it.

As for Opportunity, Masjedee talks about Shopify’s drive to learn more about its developers’ tech stacks, team structure, whether or not they outsource functions, and so on. In addition to helping with more technical problems, this knowledge offers other benefits: “We have beta programs and early access programs, and because we have information about developers’ tech stacks, etc., we’re able to offer them to the partners they’re most relevant to.”

When it comes to APIs, one size does not fit all. A deeper understanding of what different teams, based on their size and output, want from your APIs will always improve the process of iteration and offer more valuable feedback than treating all of your API consumers as if they’re the same.

Developer Success Is Your Success

If you’re unsure about the goals of your developer experience program, Masjedee outlines what some of them were at Shopify:

  • Involvement in the product cycle
  • “Oh s**t” button
  • Better data
  • Improved efficiency

More involvement with the product cycle, which doesn’t necessarily have to mean a greater degree of control over the roadmap, is a good thing because people are more invested when they know what’s coming next.

If they know something is around the corner then they may hold off on looking elsewhere, but if they know something isn’t on the agenda then they can consider using another API in tandem with yours to achieve their desired results. As in many areas of business, transparency is key.

The “oh s**t” button refers to a failsafe that allows API consumers to get eyes on something that’s gone wrong or represents a serious problem for them in a timely manner. Experiencing regular unplanned downtime is bad, but having no measures in place to tell users you’re aware of it and when they can expect a fix is even worse.

We’ve addressed how obtaining more data about users makes it easier to understand what partners of different sizes want, but this also feeds into building more efficient processes. Masjedee provides an example of assisting a partner in switching from REST pagination to cursor-based pagination, and how this helped to save tonnes of carbon emissions by reducing loads.

It’s not enough to say that your focus is on developer success; you need to demonstrate it. Thinking about the suitability of some of the measures outlined above for your organization is a fantastic way to start moving in the right direction.

It’s important not to underestimate the extent to which API consumers can soar when you give them the right tools to do so. Masjedee provides the example of Bold; they raised $22 million of funding in 2019 to build “the middleware for all e-commerce.” Because of Bold’s close ties with Shopify, the success of the former is great news for the latter as well.