How APIs Cut Development Time By 85% And Transformed Our Business

James Fairweather, Chief Innovation Officer for Pitney Bowes, explains how focusing on the broad adoption of a critical technology and pattern of development enabled the 100-year-old company to reshape the way it works and the way it helps clients succeed.

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In conversations with other businesses in my industry, I often hear “digital transformation" associated with buying equipment or services to solve a problem. This notion misses the greater potential of digital transformation to transform how people work together, how companies get economies of scale and deliver better client experiences from their transformation investments. The right transformations can change how clients perceive an enterprise.

This was our experience at Pitney Bowes. We discovered that focusing on the broad adoption of a critical technology and pattern of development—in our case, API management—enabled us to create operational and organizational changes that went well beyond the benefits of the technology alone.

Building and streamlining with APIs

Pitney Bowes is a 100-year-old company that for many years has focused on solutions that help clients send physical mail. We saw an opportunity to extend our core business beyond mail to include the shipment of small parcels, and the facilitation of returns—both domestic and international—including the handling of duties, taxes, and compliance with customs regulations in 220 countries. We saw a need in the market, and it was a natural extension of our business and capabilities that our clients confirmed. 

Doing this meant we needed to rethink our existing processes and create many new ones. One important step was our turn to APIs, which we use to efficiently access commonly used data sources, share resources, adopt common patterns, and reuse existing technological capabilities. This well-established practice helped create repeatable processes, instead of relying on custom-crafted software integrations. Using Google Cloud's popular API management platform, Apigee, sped the rollout and enhanced developer familiarity. 

Being API-facing has delivered so much more than technology improvements. Teams can now share resources more readily and interoperate on the fly to reach specific goals. Some of our inspiration for a consistent and repeatable "API-facing" developer model came from Southwest Airlines. Since 1987, Southwest has used only 737 jets, which has eased aircraft maintenance and turnaround, and created a common client understanding of what to expect on a Southwest flight. We envisioned APIs having a similar impact for us—by consistently pointing both internal developers and external clients to the same well-tested and scalable technology interfaces, we now have an environment of familiarity, high reuse, and minimal exceptions. It’s a better developer experience and helps sales and support teams better explain our solutions to clients.

API-led development has changed the way we operate. As part of the change management, we moved to interoperating teams and created a campaign of cross-organizational "micro celebrations" throughout our transformation journey to highlight our victories and publish statistics on our progress. By celebrating sales wins and technical milestones, we educated people about our new digital technologies. This built confidence in our solutions and our direction—a key part of creating successful change. 

APIs have been critical to our continued high growth in the delivery of shipping services to clients. Internally, the quality of our tools, the unity of our people, and the urgency of change have enabled us to speed the creation of new value in the form of new applications, services, and offerings—in periods measured in just three or four months. Prior to the consistency brought by our API environment—we saw similar projects take two or more years to complete. That's a reduction of about 85%.

All of this has been critically important during the upheaval caused by COVID-19 and its rapid increase in retail home delivery. Our API-facing approach has supported our dispersed workforce and helped us engage with clients and onboard new clients quickly—in the face of a rapid increase in consumer driven ecommerce shipments—all aspects of our new realities under COVID-19.

Where we’re going with APIs

Our next step is to use APIs to better manage our services and enable more client choice. Thanks to API-based business logic, our clients can now review multiple shipping scenarios and choose the one that best matches their stated strategy—for example, the lowest cost delivery route that meets a specific on-time delivery criteria, or the option that uses specific modes of transportation to more economically move the parcel, or ensure the lowest environmental impact. Our goal is to expose these rule-driven scenarios and decisions as APIs and enable clients to create their own rules and scenarios that they can invoke programmatically.

We’re also planning to offer capabilities built on data science models to clients looking for the benefits of advanced analytics in their logistics. These models are exposed as APIs, so our clients can rapidly integrate the insights and predictions into their experiences. Using logistics network simulations and data-driven decision-making exposed as APIs allows our clients to easily leverage our more intelligent logistics and delivery system, which is fast becoming the new standard in business operations.

Early in the Information Age, a writer noted that "we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us." API management has reshaped both the way we work, and the way we help our clients—from small businesses, enterprises, and retailers to large marketplaces—succeed in the increasingly complex world of commerce.

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About the author

Dr. James Fairweather, Chief Innovation Officer, Pitney Bowes

Dr. James Fairweather is the Chief Innovation Officer for Pitney Bowes.  In this role he is chartered to maintain the vitality of Pitney Bowes Innovation. 

Prior to this role, he led the development, technology and cloud strategy for the Commerce Services business unit as the CTO of Commerce Services, where he oversaw the technology and product development as the unit grew from a $12M business in 2012 to over a billion dollars in 2018. He and his team have been responsible for the software development of Pitney Bowes Commerce Services including their industry leading cross-border and domestic technology solutions, and the integration of key acquisitions including Borderfree and Newgistics. 

James is a Senior Fellow on the Technical Ladder at Pitney Bowes, has been with the firm for 22 years, and has lived and worked in both the US and UK during that time. 

James is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he earned his PhD.  His thesis presented a design methodology for piezoceramic driven active structures using a combination of impedance-based modeling techniques and finite element methods.  He holds twenty-one United States Patents and is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Connecticut Science Center. 

He is a member of the Board of Directors of ALULA, a management consultancy focused on changing human behavior to improve business performance.



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