APIs provide innovation and inspiration for IT leaders

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Apps are getting smarter at a ferocious pace; so why don't CEOs want to take advantage of these new technologies? I discuss API ecosystems and innovation with the CEO of Indix.

Apps are getting smarter at a ferocious pace.

They have gone from being able to do things like responding to requests for directions to proactively knowing “where we need to be next” and letting us know when we ought to leave based on current traffic conditions — not to mention offering to hail an Uber or place a Starbucks order along the way.

So I was surprised to see that 81 percent of respondents to KPMG’s U.S. CEO Outlook 2016 are “apprehensive about the integration of basic automated business processes with artificial intelligence and cognitive processes.” Considering 65 percent of these CEOs are also aiming to use “disruptive technologies to increase sales,” I expected far more excitement about the rapidly proliferating resources for doing just that. After all, few companies are likely to build their own Watson.

But APIs mean anyone can tap Watson’s capabilities and it’s only one option among many other new additions to an API ecosystem that now offers AI, natural language processing, machine learning, and more “as a service,” in the cloud.

For some CEOs, many of the reasons for worrying about their organization’s propensity to make the most of the API ecosystem may point back to their CIO.

In Apigee’s benchmark survey of IT organizations at 800 large companies — conducted in part to understand how well IT organizations are tapping the web API ecosystem to deliver apps with business impact — we found evidence of a deep and impactful “cultural divide” between IT organizations.

Only eight percent of those surveyed exceeded expectations on all of five measures of “app mastery”: time, cost, number, quality and business impact. Nearly one in three (31 percent) didn’t exceed expectations on any of these measures.

Among the top performers, nearly one in five (19 percent and 18 percent, respectively) agreed that “cloud first” and “outside in” described their approach to technology “very well.” Among the worst performers, it was one percent and none. Overall, more than eight in ten of the top performers agreed these two describe their approach at least somewhat well, versus about half of the poorest performers.

If the IT team isn’t excited about proactively seeking out and making the most of what’s new, it’s no wonder their CEO is worried. It’s a recipe for falling behind. And any CIO who isn’t seen as a go-to person for insight into “disruptive technologies to increase sales” is missing a golden opportunity.

As I (literally) travel the world to talk about APIs, I (figuratively) feel like a “kid in a candy store.” Just when I think I’ve seen it all, I discover something that sparks a new “a-ha moment.” To share this as a source of ideas and inspiration to CIOs who want to lead the way toward a “cloud-first, outside in” culture, this is the first in a series where I recount my conversations with forward-looking business and IT leaders. Appropriately enough, I’m starting at the very top — with a CEO: Sanjay Parthasarathy, CEO of Indix, a Seattle-based startup that makes structured product information accessible as a data-as-a-service API.

What makes a great “as-a-service” offering as a consumer and provider?

Sanjay Parthasarathy: The keys of a great “as-a-service” offering are that it’s programmatically accessible, scales from low to high volume, and simplifies an experience or eliminates duplication. Successful ones fill a need that shouldn’t necessarily be built and managed internally. Take billing as an example. Anyone who sells anything needs a billing system. Does everyone need to build one? No. Leveraging a billing API is best for most.

Less duplicative work on basic building blocks means you can move faster.

What’s super interesting on your API ecosystem radar?

Speaking of simplification: the commerce ecosystem is fragmented, complex, and there's a lot of room to simplify it using APIs. I see three areas with a lot of potential:

  • Discovery. APIs that help people discover the right products at the right time. These include APIs for chatbots, image recognition, sensors of all kinds, looking up product information, and product recommendations to name a few.

  • Context. APIs that understand what a buyer is doing, where they are and their priorities, so that the right product can be presented to them in the right way. I think of this as infinite channels of information and the APIs needed to deliver the right product experience across those channels.

  • Last mile. There's a lot of opportunity in helping close the sale, from shopping baskets, buy buttons, billing, delivery and returns. There's been a lot of work over these issues over the years but technology (especially APIs) is making it easier and a better experience.

This was a trick question: Indix is on my own radar — I was intrigued by a phrase you’ve used before “the Google Maps of product” — can you explain a little about what you mean by that?

Today, nearly every application and website is “location-aware.” At Indix, we’re working hard to do the same thing for products that Google’s done for location. Imagine if every mention of a product in text, or image of a product captured via camera or a sensor, could connect you to information about the product, reviews and feedback on the product, and the easiest and fastest place to buy it. I call this being “product-aware.” We still have a ways to go to get where location is today — but the opportunity to enable new ways for people to search for, discover, and buy and sell products is an exciting endeavor.

What advice would you give your peers in the C-suite?

Constant innovation and an aggressive approach to break away from the norm are the keys to success in today’s business environment. Connecting to APIs, and even exposing your own, presents one of the most effective ways to strengthen your offering to existing and new markets — and build your brand. The promise of a broad ecosystem of APIs is exciting and while not every need is covered by APIs, the momentum is increasing. Your organization will learn fastest by doing. If you’re not in the API game yet, this is the time to jump in.

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