The trends and challenges with API-first development

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Every piece of software, from billion-dollar projects years in the making, to the smallest of side projects, is partly based on what came before. Similar to constructing things in the real world, where cranes, drills and other mechanization have augmented the force that humans can generate on their own, APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) are invaluable to how modern software is designed and built. All developers are standing on the shoulders of giants.

Exchanging functionalities

APIs are a means of enabling two applications to exchange data and functionality, and fundamentally they have become a well-trodden way for developers to bring in additional features and integrate with the other popular software, without having to build them from scratch. For business software, this could mean using APIs to pull through customer information, contact history, or map data for use at a given moment. There are all manner of opportunities where APIs can help automate and augment common actions that a business might take around customer service or processing orders.

The other example many of us will be familiar with is a social login, where users can authenticate themselves using an existing social account they might have. Whether they know it or not, anyone with a mobile phone and a social media account is constantly tapping into API-linked applications. The benefit of APIs for developers is that in general, it simplifies and accelerates the development process by freeing up a developer's most valuable resource - time. A tech startup can concentrate their developer resources on the one thing they do best, and thanks to APIs, integrate with them to do the rest.

Nathaniel Okenwa

Nathaniel Okenwa is a Developer Evangelist at Twilio.

Bringing in specialist expertise

This speed has become particularly important with the emergence of software trends like serverless deployment and edge computing, as well as increased customer expectations around what software can deliver for them and their business. Prototyping, testing and deployment needs to happen much more quickly, at scale. Software can be tailored to meet the specific requirements of a given use case or customer. Applications need new services and features without needing a complete redesign of the whole system.

APIs, and the different software architectures that they enable, help make that happen. By abstracting an underlying program, and packaging it in a way that allows the client application to easily make use of its services, organizations get secure access to additional resources to help build small, modular applications. There are a wealth of third-party services and sources of data that organizations can leverage using this method. An API-first approach specifically involves more time thinking about the design of a specific API, before the code is actually written and the implementation takes place.

A different approach to development

API-first approaches are a totally different way of looking at software development, and require a suitable level of time, resources and priority from leadership to ensure it is a success. While they can’t be adopted overnight, the benefits are numerous. The main one is that it can help foster a more positive developer experience, as the documentation - which is what those who were not involved in the creation of the API use to understand them - and design is consistent. This makes the learning curve much shorter for those getting up to speed.

Developers can pick and choose the technology assets they need to build and deploy code faster, with APIs and their accompanying documentation serving as a model of best practices to follow. Creating something that offers tangible value becomes easier. Additionally, different teams can work at the same time on various aspects of the project - helping optimize the overall costs and timescales.

API-first is also a way of working that increasing numbers of developers are coming to expect, in a world where many services and applications are accessed via mobile platforms. The ideal end goal is to create modular, scalable and reusable APIs that are well-documented and therefore easy to integrate. Building a positive developer experience is especially pertinent at a time where finding and retaining top talent remains challenging.

APIs have been nothing short of transformative to the software economy. The clear benefits and efficiencies they can drive have seen them skyrocket in popularity. For those businesses yet to take up the advantages, they would do well to first look at the journey their customers are making. Identifying the pain points as part of this analysis - whether that’s having to share the same set of information multiple times, excessive delays or transfers, or other issues - can reveal opportunities where bringing in more of a data-driven approach, augmented by APIs, could help deliver information more quickly, and overall help businesses serve their customers better.

An API-first approach takes all the benefits of APIs a step further, as by designing their development process wholly around them, businesses can make it easier for their developers to build meaningful products for customers and meet emerging needs more quickly.

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Nathaniel Okenwa is a Developer Evangelist at Twilio.