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August 30, 2018

Three API Projects That Can Help Avoid Digitization Exasperation

Betsy Bilhorn


Your CIO just read an article about APIs and is excited about how they can facilitate digital transformation, but isn’t quite sure what to do next. While slightly exaggerated, this isn’t an uncommon occurrence these days. Leaders know they have to enact digital transformation strategies, but they are faced with so many different technologies that figuring out which to use represents a conundrum. One problem most organizations must tackle is integrating new and old technologies to create a seamless digitized experience across the entire organization. CIOs need to show value early while laying the groundwork for longer term strategic goals.

Integration is one of the oldest problem sets in computing, having been around almost as early as the first pieces of software. APIs are not a new concept but the mainstream adoption and standardization of using APIs is relatively new within the last 5-7 years. API is the bridge for integrating older, valuable apps within your newer systems and processes in a standardized, repeatable way. API combined with integration is the key to enabling your digital transformation.

If you’re looking for a way to satisfy your CIO’s strategic vision and show value right away, here are a few starter projects:

1. Take a hard look at how you can re-purpose existing assets

One way to help simplify digitization strategies is leveraging what you have and doing less with more. You likely already have everything you need – you just need to unlock and access that data in an easily consumable way. Take the example of a marketing department who desires to do a targeted campaign to particular customers who spent over $1M in the past 12 months and have an excellent credit score. To properly segment their audience, Marketing needs data from an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, like those from Oracle or SAP, to plug into their campaign processes.

Even legacy applications can support modern APIs (Spectral-Design/Shutterstock)

As an IT professional, we all know how difficult it can be to get that data from an established ERP stack that’s been around 10 years or more. Even with vendor supplied interfaces, getting that data can require IT skills and time, each and every time marketing asks for it.

So how do you get the data to marketing in a repeatable, consumable fashion and ideally, in a controlled way that marketing can access that anytime they want? APIs. You can create a REST or OData front end to an integration process that filters and provides the specific financial information or you can use API proxy to simplify and narrow down the vendor’s API for just read-only, marketing appropriate financial data.

There are many other examples where you can repurpose or unlock information in older systems that do not have an API or their API is too complex for a sales, marketing, or financial ops person to use. Creating API front ends for your legacy information allows a standardized way for IT to provide access, quickly couple or chain together systems in a business process, and integrate systems easily.

We all know that no IT organization has the time or budget to rip and replace everything for newer apps and platforms. With APIs, you have a much better shot at augmenting your existing enterprise architecture with newer technologies that make sense while continuing to extract even more value from what you already have in place.

SaaS apps and monolithic systems can complement each other well when you use a standardized, agile approach to access and integrate via APIs.

2. Allow self-service, even for sensitive information

If you’ve spent any time in IT, you know one of the biggest friction points between IT and the business is access to sensitive systems and information. IT needs to provide controls in an increasingly difficult to navigate privacy and data governance landscape. At the same time businesses demand more data and more access for everyday business operations. We are quickly approaching a time where IT simply cannot keep up with all of these needs.  You will need to find a solution to allow access to requestors in a way that keeps everyone safe and happy. The “walled garden” is dead.

APIs can enable self-service data access (By SFIO CRACHO/Shutterstock)

There is a happy medium. As APIs have become more mainstream, many productivity applications and systems can ingest those APIs. Many new SaaS and cloud apps provide some level of low-code or no-code options to “integrate” external data sources and apps via APIs. While SaaS and cloud apps can limited in what they integrate to – for instance a product management SaaS app to JIRA – APIs are the standard for access and interoperability for almost all of them.

Through APIs, IT can now provide access in a self-service fashion while controlling exactly who, what, and how gets the data. In the example in the previous section, we could provide an API called “TopBuyersWithGreatCredit” where a marketing ops user could provide a date range and the API returns the names, emails, and perhaps, the total dollar amount spent on a read only basis. The marketing ops user doesn’t know or care what ERP system it came from and they plug that data right into their campaign anytime they need it. IT doesn’t have to keep providing this information manually. Data privacy and governance is assured. Everyone is happy.

3. Build apps instead of paying for external tools

We’ve all faced the situation where the business needs to move the needle and provide better offerings, services, etc. Typically the default is to look for a new app, system, or platform to provide that new capability or application because your existing applications don’t have it.

Many IT shops don’t have the time, budget, and resources to keep implementing new tools and apps.

Let’s take the two previous examples and leverage those benefits of APIs for a more complex situation:  the case of the “new” application or tool you needed yesterday to help the business.

APIs are a great way to streamline your beer-delivery system (moment/Shutterstock)

In this example, imagine you own a craft brewery. Your salespeople visit many different bars and restaurants to promote and sell your beer. You want an edge over your competition and your sales reps should be able to take care of any situation the customer might have while that rep is onsite. Check the status of a delivery? Discuss a new seasonal offering that you know will pair well with their new winter menu? Review a problem and submit a support ticket in real-time? No problem – except, how do we build an app to best equip those field sales reps?

The information we need comes from all kinds of systems: support tickets, client feedback, purchase history, social media posts about the restaurant. As an IT developer, I want to provide a tablet app that puts all this together seamlessly.

APIs become the enabler in this scenario. As we’ve outlined before, you can create various APIs that your mobile or tablet app can call as needed. Using a standardized methodology to access various data sources, it’s easy to add more capabilities and data feeds to your app as needed or change and delete old ones. You can mix and match APIs, build new ones quickly, and rapidly respond to business needs.

API Projects Can Jumpstart Transformation Journeys

The idea of integrating disparate systems and external data is not new. The explosion of apps and sources are new – there are over 150,000 different apps in market today!

IT has more systems to integrate and manage than ever before. Processes that may have been managed between two to three applications now might include up to seven or 10 systems or more. The common wisdom of not boiling the ocean holds very true here. It’s easy and very tempting to have grand strategies of putting together 19 systems to achieve the holy grail of segmenting all of your install base for marketing. Tackling this all at once increases risk for failure, not to mention a headache for your department and the business. Bite-size chunks that show value right away allows you to layer on success. We’ve tried to outline from simple to complex where APIs can help in that journey.

APIs have incredible power to boost IT’s productivity and drive business value. There are many examples where APIs can provide value – we’ve outlined a few of those that most IT organizations face today. By approaching your API strategy with specific goals and outcomes, you’ll find you’re quickly bringing differentiated offerings to your business and your market faster. Using APIs as the foundation of your digitization strategy will go a long way in ensuring success instead of exasperation.

About the author: Betsy Bilhorn is senior vice president of products at Jitterbit, where she builds go-to-market strategies for current and upcoming products. Prior to Jitterbit, Betsy was the VP of marketing and product management at Scribe Software.

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