Why You Might Need a Chief API Officer

Why You Might Need a Chief API Officer

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APIs drive much of the modern web. Nearly every interaction, big and small, ultimately starts — and ends — with an API. Unfortunately, these interfaces often exist in a sort of shadow domain for many organizations, without a delineated line of ownership or a superstructure built around them for trust, clarity, and understanding.

Below, we’re going to talk about the importance of understanding APIs and why leadership should care about governing them. We’ll consider why this is important at the executive level and introduce a new role — the Chief API (or Interface) Officer.

What is an API?

An application programming interface (API) is a component that connects different systems and applications through a common set of standards, protocols, and rules. In essence, it is a contract between two systems regarding how they integrate. While it exists as a codebase with translation instructions, the design of this interface often reflects the data standards, controls, assumptions, design modalities, and the general ethos of the development team and the user base.

APIs come in many varieties, and you’ve likely interacted with hundreds of them before reading this piece. Whereas web APIs connect internet systems, devices, applications, and servers, system APIs help render graphics or convert network streams into understandable information. Standard and well-built APIs can deliver incredible value to users, allowing for rapid development, high user experience, and predictable fault correction and error identification.

The Currency of Communication

Now, the question may arise: why is it important for everyone in the organization to be aware of APIs? After all, they are technical in nature, so only the “techies” need to know about them. And unless you’re in sales, you don’t need to know all the fine details of what your organization is selling. Right?

That thought process misses a huge consideration: in the context of API development and end-user experience, communication is vital. Proper communication can unlock huge benefits for the organization in the long run, and poor communication can, in many cases, be a breaking factor for organizational health.

The reality is that APIs cannot function without three core elements: trust, clarity, and understanding. Without trust, you cannot convince users to adopt your product, and without users, there is no sustainable business model. Without clarity, users will be unable to understand how your product functions. Finally, without understanding, developers will use the product incorrectly and ultimately lack understanding about the use case in action.

Executive Awareness Around APIs

Any of these elements are critical on their own, but in concert with one another, they are amplified both in the positive and the negative. A trustworthy implementation that delivers clear instructions for use could target an incorrect understanding of the use case, thereby creating a wonderful product without an audience. Conversely, a strong product-to-market fit with a great onboarding process that lacks any sort of trust will also see huge issues in adoption.

Technical interfaces may be seen as “too tactical” for executives. However, a lack of vision into the benefits APIs offer can be hugely detrimental. This is also complicated because API success is typically considered within a scale of years, requiring immediate tactical ability and long-term strategic thinking. Accordingly, having a single role that owns the success of API initiatives while bridging these two goals is becoming vitally important. Consider the following from David Biesack, Chief API Officer at Apiture:

“We all know how vital APIs have become to digital organizations’ strategies. Assigning the responsibility for executing that strategy and API vision to one person can help the organization focus and achieve success. Since APIs are outward-facing software contracts (the core of partnerships and integrations) and lifecycles are measured in years or decades, their architecture and evolution require a different approach compared to traditional software implementations.”

How Leadership Can Direct Developer Experience

It doesn’t stop there, either. A lot of strategic vision might be ignored for tactical focus. Let’s say you are a developer working on the onboarding experience for developer end users. You might be convinced that you need to have a detailed and robust guided system with opportunities to dive deep into every single topic at every single point.

Leadership might know, however, that the onboarding funnel must prioritize new users since the data suggests this group needs it the most. In the context of making financially sound decisions, this means that the developer experience needs support — but in a radically different strategic-minded way than the tactical-minded plan.

The problem is that there’s no direct way for the developer cohort to know this without having executive leadership who see the bigger picture. Without a vision of the overall strategy, there can be no argument for counter-designs or approaches.

Adaptation, Not Control: Business Evolution

As you can see from these examples, the real problem boils down to two domains: the inability to adapt and the lack of context to drive adaptation. The business world changes, and often on a dime. Kristof Van Tomme, Co-Founder and CEO of Pronovix, who has written on the necessity for Chief Interface Officers, had this to say:

“In today’s dynamic business landscape, where change is the only constant, the luxury of perfect planning and control is a rarity. Nature’s genius lies in its adaptive ecosystems, where myriad subsystems seamlessly interact through a small set of strongly conserved interfaces. In the accelerating and complex realm of the corporate world, organizations must draw inspiration from nature’s playbook to thrive. Just as living systems depend on well-designed interfaces, businesses must prioritize interface design as a critical lever for ensuring coherence and success.”

Simply put, businesses must evolve constantly to stay ahead of the curve and deliver cutting-edge offerings. The only way to do that is to be forward-thinking, and this cannot be done without substantial investment in understanding the current state of things. Organizations must have a firm grasp of the interfaces they own and operate for current tactical health and long-term strategic investment.

Arguing for the Chief API Officer

Of course, this is easier said than done. The ownership domains in the executive suite often create opportunities for siloing, which can be a smokescreen against ongoing efforts. How, then, do we break down the barriers?

One solution is to create a new position as Chief API Officer or Chief Interface Officer. This role would be a C-Suite staff member who is an advocate and expert on APIs within the organization. This person would help bridge the tactical and strategic gap we discussed earlier. Coherence can be achieved by creating an officer role who can take ownership throughout the organization of what is often a cross-vertical or grey-area domain.

To once again quote Kristof Van Tomme:

“With a Chief Interface Officer at the helm of an organization, companies can harness the power of strategic interface design, to help them navigate through the intricate tapestry of modern business challenges. […] A Chief Interface Officer can be useful for organizations that are employing a platform or ecosystem strategy, and become essential for larger organizations that need to employ these strategies to maintain internal coherence.”

However, a certain level of empowerment and ownership must be established to adopt the Chief Interface Officer role. These officers must own the interfaces and be subject matter experts throughout the organization. While they don’t necessarily need to own the approval or denial of anything to do with interfaces, they should be consulted heavily and empowered to “pump the brakes” where needed.

Another argument could be made based on cost and complexity. For instance, it may be more expensive not to have a singular role to oversee the entire API program. According to David Biesack:

“Not all organizations are large enough to staff a dedicated position. However, diffusing the many facets of an API program across multiple roles can result in a fractured or inconsistent API program. For example, if API security “belongs” to a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), it may be harder to implement an effective, true shift-left policy: one where API security is a central pillar of the API design process, where many vulnerabilities can be designed out of APIs before they have been implemented, tested, or deployed. As the company and its API program grow, staffing a position to oversee the API program can help ensure no key aspect of the API program is neglected, especially during the critical formative years. An API program is an increasingly necessary investment, and not supporting it adequately puts it and the company’s success at risk.”


Ultimately, as with any C-Suite role, the adoption of a Chief API Officer will depend heavily on the organizational structure, design, and desire. If the role works within the confines of the organization, however, it can deliver exceptional enablement and success across an API-driven culture and should be a prime consideration for any new business entering the space.