Can someone please tell me what an API is?
Are you getting the most of out of your software?
Labor Day weekend usually marks the end of summer, but it’s also the start of tailgating season! Light up the BBQ, crack open your favorite beverages, get ready to watch some football, and learn about APIs. Wait. One of these things doesn’t belong. Before you go and throw out the APIs like expired cheese, let’s take a closer look at what you can do with them — APIs that is. Please throw away the moldy cheese.
If you’re running a business in 2021 you are likely using a variety of software to support your operations. Is that software operating independently like kids on a Pop Warner football team? Do you want to upgrade so the software can take direction, communicate, and work together like an NFL team? Did you know you could make different pieces of software work together? That’s the power of APIs.
First things first, wtf is an API and how does it work?
A quick search on Google will tell you that API stands for “Application Programming Interface” and show you at least 441,208,172 blog posts explaining what that even means. For our purposes we’ll stick to the most popular type of API, the web-based API.
Web-based APIs are sets of commands that the software provider (the company offering the API) allows their customer to send to the service. Saying they are “web-based” means that they use the common infrastructure of the internet, specifically HTTP. APIs use the same HTTP methods that web browsers do, but instead of showing you a website, a program is using it to transmit instructions behind the scenes. Apps like Uber and Lyft collect payment for rides every single day. Both of them use an API from Stripe in order to charge riders’ credit cards for the rides they take.
Ok, thanks, but you still didn’t answer what an API is.
Let’s say that like me, you’re a big fan of Google Maps. So much so that in addition to listing your office address on your website, you want your customers to be able to visualize it and maybe even plan their route to your office, all while they are on your website. That seems totally fair. You have two options. Build a maps product or use the Google Maps API.
Let’s say you want to build it. Ok. At the very least you need to hire a team of software engineers, buy a bunch of servers, rent a warehouse to store all the servers, buy US map data from the US Geological Survey, and then you can start writing software and build out a map service that looks like Google Maps to put on your website. In 3-6 months you might have a working prototype.
Or you can use the Google Maps API to create a map view of your office. Copy and paste the code that the Google Maps API writes for you into the code for your website and congratulations. In less than 30 minutes, not only have you used an API, but now, you’re a web developer.
That code looks something like this. And if you saw it in the browser, it would show you a map of the address you asked Google to show. But that’s just the beginning.
Why does that work?
Most software companies have moved to offering web-based APIs for everything because their business model is to sell software. If they only sold packaged software, their sales process would be more difficult. Customers would have to be convinced to adapt to a new workflow. Offering an API lets the software company offer their core service as broadly as possible, for anyone to use in any way the customer sees fit.
Let’s take a company like Salesforce. You might use their website to put in a new customer record. You do this by signing in with your user name and password to www.salesforce.com. Then you go through the product to add a new customer.
Salesforce also has an API. Just like the Google Maps API has specific links to show a predetermined map area, the Salesforce API has specific web addresses that are designed to let programs do predetermined things. For example, if you’re using MailChimp to send emails to prospects and someone responds. You could either login to Salesforce and tag that marketing lead as a prospect. Or, since MailChimp built a Salesforce application using the Salesforce API, you can set that up automatically in MailChimp.
Salesforce offers an API because they want their customers to keep using Salesforce, no matter what other tools they are using. If customers of Salesforce had to ask Salesforce to integrate with all of their tools, Salesforce would never be able to keep up with that demand. Instead by offering an API to let other companies, or customers, integrate with Salesforce, they enable a level of unprecedented flexibility.
Another example, Uber and Lyft both have APIs to let anyone build an app to “call” for a ride. Airlines and hotel apps (like United or Hilton) use this API so that if you’re checking in to your flight or checking out of your hotel you can schedule a ride to your next destination based on when you’re landing at the airport, or checking out of the hotel. Saving you the hassle of switching apps, typing addresses etc.
In this case your airline app is like the quarterback and the ride share app is a wide receiver. An API lets the QB and WR talk to each other directly. You as the coach give one command. That command gets sent through to the different coaches and players (your business applications) and each layer translates the message for the next person on. The play is started and executed, and all you had to do was say what needed to happen.
Most software companies have their APIs available for free so that anyone building software products can integrate other APIs, or, of course, business owners can build their own integrations.
Just like football coaches draw up plays, you have probably made process workflows or playbooks for how your employees, business services, and software systems interact. Any of those interactions that can be structured and defined should be done via an API.
APIs are all around us. In 2018 a web hosting company reported that 83% of web traffic was API calls. APIs are so prevalent that there are API-first, or API-only, companies writing software to solve either very specific problems or very broad problems. The only way to use their service is through their API. There are a number of companies that have scaled to billions of dollars in revenue by providing APIs to customers to simplify an otherwise complex process.
Here are a few examples:
Stripe: An API for processing payments online or within a smartphone app
What makes it great: Write a few lines of code in your app and you get the power to process payments on a global basis. No need to go through complex and expensive compliance procedures nor build integrations with the various banks and payment gateways.
Twilio: A communications API for text, voice, and video within your app or website
What makes it great: With a few lines of code you have global communications capability to better serve and engage your customers
Plaid: An API to allow you to conduct bank transactions
What makes it great: A simple API allows you to connect with just about any bank or financial institution in the US.
We know that APIs sound intimidating, but one thing Silicon Valley has done lately is make building these API integrations even easier. If you can draw arrows between your various software systems, you can link them up without writing any code. These types of applications are called no-code platforms, such as Zapier. More recently low-code solutions have been growing as well. Low code solutions, such as EBH favorite Pipedream, take care of the hard part of managing API integrations and let you create the logic with minimal amounts of code.
Zapier: A “no-code” API platform
What makes it great: Zapier writes the required lines of code for you. If you’re using one of the 3,000+ apps that Zapier has integrated you can point and click to create your own, custom API integration.
Pipedream: A “low-code” API platform that enables you to write much more powerful, flexible API integrations without needing to be a full time developer.
What makes it great: Pipedream solves the API and data infrastructure problem. Like Zapier, they have a number of built-in integrations so you can create your own custom API integrations. But you can also write code to integrate products that Pipedream hasn’t done themselves. More interestingly, you can write your own logic for those integrations.
Integrating your various business applications through a low-code tool like PipeDream is just the beginning of your tech enablement journey. These platforms are going to be core to allowing your business to offer new services and features. Almost any future technology enablement in your business will use at least one API. You need to have the Run Pass Option in your playbook if you want to win.
Since we’re on the topic of APIs we wanted to highlight some recent funding news to highlight just how much focus is on API platforms, integrations, and development.
API platform Postman valued at $5.6 billion via TechCrunch
Postman is a very helpful tool to help anyone experiment with APIs. There are many advanced features as well that help software teams build and test those integrations. In fact, the EBH team uses Postman to test APIs every day.
Healthcare provider API company raises $17M via TechCrunch
Verifiable is an Austin based company that is building a service to help healthcare providers connect with insurance payers. By building an API the company makes it easier for any healthcare provider to work with any insurance company. The company is still very early and young, but they are building and offering an API to solve hard problems for their customers.
Q&A with Tod Sacerdoti, Founder and CEO of Pipedream
This month we are thrilled to have Tod join us to talk about APIs, connected software, and Ted Lasso. Tod was the Founder and CEO of BrightRoll, a programmatic, digital, video ad marketplace. Tod and the BrightRoll team created tremendous value for the video ad industry, by enabling their customers to bid for ad placement programmatically - which means through an API. Tod is now working on Pipedream, where the team aims to build the best place for people and businesses to build their own API integrations.
Pipedream is an incredible service that is used regularly by tens of thousands of developers. What makes Pipedream so unique?
Many customers have really asked us for solutions that combine the best of the serverless platformslike AWS Lambda or Google Cloud, but with the efficiency and simplicity of no-code platforms.
Getting the right combination between the two is very powerful because it gives the flexibility of no-code platforms, but with the customizable logic of writing code to a software developer. Combining these two enables you to quickly cover any use case.
Developers seem to agree with that vision and we’re seeing great adoption of our tool. We add 500-1000 new developers a day to the service. This is without any paid marketing so far!
What are the most common use cases you see for Pipedream? Any particular use cases you’d like to highlight for SMBs
Pipedream is a flexible platform. You can choose to write code and accomplish anything you want. With that in mind, we see an extremely broad set of use cases. There’s two overarching themes of use cases, but none of them are a “majority.”
The two themes are sending data into a “database” or into a “messaging application.” I say “database” in quotes because while some developers are sending data into Amazon S3 or Snowflake, there are just as many who are sending data in Google Sheets or Airtable.
The data going into a messaging application is usually a message or an event trigger. That messaging platform might be an automated text, Slack message, or email.
I think both of those use cases are very relevant for SMBs. Today on Pipedream, SMB’s are predominantly using Pipedream to send data into Slack, Airtable, or Google Sheets.
Pipedream seems tailored more towards software developers, but what should nontechnical folks understand about the power of Pipedream?
The target customer we focus on today is the developer. With that said, nontechnical users can still get tremendous value out of the product.
Pipedream is a resource you can tap into for specific use cases. For example we have two ways in which nontechnical users can interact with the platform. Firstly, they can build lots of workflows with no code required!
Second, if you run into an issue - you can find a technical resource through our community, Pipedream employees, and even contractors who can step in and help as well. The community has open sourcedlots of common workflows. Pipedream employees are actively engaged with the community. And finally, if you’re trying to use a service that doesn’t have an API or doesn’t have a built-in Pipedream integration, there are many developer contractors willing to work on that.
A very common use case that we see is technical employees setting up complicated workflows and nontechnical folks in charge of maintaining and troubleshooting the workflows on an ongoing basis. Just because the engineering team built a workflow doesn’t mean nontechnical people can’t step in and contribute too!
APIs can be extraordinarily powerful, but also very nebulous — how would you describe the power of APIs to nontechnical business leaders?
I think APIs are the connective tissue that enable software applications to interact and work together with other applications to solve business problems. You’re not limited by manual data entry or coordination anymore.
How do you see the "API Economy" evolving in the future? Are there important developments that you see on the horizon?
There is the inevitability of “more.” More software applications, more APIs, individually more capable APIs as well as greater interoperability of APIs. You can’t launch a new software product today without an API. These are the foundational elements of how the API Economy is evolving in the future
Something that I’d really like to see on the horizon, but I’m not sure is likely, is standardization around APIs. My last business, BrightRoll was a programmatic ad marketplace for video ads. We, and our peers, did a tremendous amount of work around standards to make the APIs. We all knew that those APIs would run the online ad business, especially video ads and having them work together would make it easier to work with as many platforms as possible.
We did a tremendous amount of work to make those standards efficient for all players. The biggest surprise for me in my work at Pipedream is how there’s a real lack of standards in terms of APIs and how they work together. It seems like such a barrier to entry, efficiency, and innovation in this category. I’m not sure that any one player has enough market share to make an impact on this - but it’s definitely an untapped opportunity and one I hope we can address in the future.
What are the biggest misconceptions around APIs?
I think the biggest misconception about APIs is that developers inherently like them. I’ll go a little deeper on what I mean.
Most popular software apps either build deeply integrated partnerships with other applications or companies: so-called blockbuster or marquee applications. For example, pick your favorite issue tracking software building a native Slack app integration. Those integrations usually happen in one of two ways.
Either it’s a massive project, done 100% internally with a tremendous amount of work, and then a commitment to maintain it basically forever.
Or the platform will say, “here’s our developer platform and our API docs. Good luck.”
The misconception is that customers that you have are technical and they care about your API, they want to work with your API, etc.
The reality is that most developers prefer not to work with someone else’s API. They would rather the problem they are trying to solve, or integration they are trying to build, work right out of the box.
That misunderstanding creates such a massive gap in expectations and workload. To be frank, most code written today is just “glue code” that connects the various applications. And that’s something Pipedream is aiming to make an impact on by bringing efficiency, and hopefully standards, to that problem.
What do you think is the most popular API out there?
Google Search trends, and Pipedream usage tells us something quite surprising. Discord is the most used API on our platform.
What company do you wish had an API?
Well, Google has an API for just about every product they make, however, I wish it was more modern. Google has the most archaic and complex process to enable approvals, integrations, etc for their customers. I wish they would modernize that especially since our whole business runs on GSuite and we make Google the default choice for our users as well.
In terms of actually wishing for an API, I think Pipedream needs to have an API. In fact we’re going to be doing some significant work on our product and API. Our own API docs and capabilities are not where they need to be and we’re hell bent on making sure we have that done right. It keeps me up at night and I'm most focused on it at the moment.
What are you watching or reading lately?
I’m a documentary nut, so I’ve pretty much watched every documentary on the planet already. In terms of shows, “Ted Lasso” and HBO’s “Hard Knocks” are my #1 shows at the moment.
This year’s Hard Knocks is on the Cowboys and I have to say, draft Dak Prescott as your fantasy QB this season. He looks great, he’s gonna be a beast this year.
Writing software on the internet requires a “server” which is just a fancy computer and introduces more complexities to manage when all you want to do is write some software. Large tech companies like Google and Amazon have products to help with this and Pipedream is more focused on this problem
S3 is Amazon’s “Simple Storage Service” and Snowflake is a popular cloud data warehouse. Simply put these are two very popular services for storing data. These companies offer API to write, read, and delete data from your private, secure data storage. You don’t have to worry about maintaining servers and database consistency and failover, they do the hard, technical stuff for you.
Open source refers to “open source code.” In other words any code that people have written are being given away for you to use in its entirety or to reference and write your own. Open source helps the entire community and makes it so that people aren’t redoing the same work over and over again.