The Decline of Closed-Source APIs - Apistrat 2017

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What I Learned at APISTRAT 2017

This last week from October 31st to November 2nd, I had the amazing opportunity to brush up against some great innovators at some of the leading-edge companies. This event was the Open API Strategy conference, or “apistrat.” (pronounced as “app-pee-strat” to frequenters).

This is a big deal. Unless you’ve lived under a rock since 2000 (and sorry if you have; I can help you reintegrate into society) then you’ll have noticed a shift away from desktop-centric apps and a move toward a cloud architecture. People now expect most of their data to not be on their own system. How does one transport information from the client to the server? API’s of course!

Unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons, many groups are still stuck in the stone age, chiseling out their own APIs from old 90’s tech in order to forge a resemblance of a wheel.

On a personal note, this is where Netflix went horribly wrong. They only released an API (for a short time) to allow access to their list of content. But that wasn’t the worst part. They also buckled down their content and only allowed streaming to be done on Windows, using Silverlight, which was already on the decline. If Netflix had simply provided an API for streaming, Linux users wouldn’t have had to wait until 2016 to get some semblance of a streaming service.

But I digress.

This was my first year at an apistrat conference–and my first year at any open source conference–so I didn’t quite know what to expect.

I was expecting mainly a geek-fest. However, I was surprised to find people from various industries and departments attended: some who have not touched code in their life, and some who knew how to code from birth.

The first day was composed of workshops, of which we had a choice of two. I decided on a workshop put on by Sean Matthews (LinkedIn), co-founder of Left Digital Hook, a company that helps others incorporate APIs into their products. During the workshop we were introduced to a technology called Zapier, a platform that, essentially, makes connecting to points with an API easy.

Sean walked through an example of using Zapier to connect Slack to the company’s database. When a Slack user types “New Task”, Zapier is triggered to get the text of the slack message, parse it, create a new task, and return in to the user.

Left Digital Hook was developed because of market pressure, Sean says. Open Source APIs were beginning to catch on, and so he felt advising companies on the merits of open source technologies was the way to go. He’s advised at least 30 companies, including Citrix.

Currently Sean has huge plans involving the API tester app Postman. His vision for the app is to make it more collaborative, in much the way programmableweb is, by allowing developers to post public APIs to the site.

The second workshop I attended was titled “API-first Redesign of a Legacy Application,” led by Chris Busse of APIVista. This workshop dealt with APIs in a friendlier way than a full-on “How to API” course, but was not any less relevant. Chris did an excellent job encouraging the class participants to reconstruct old ideas into new API framework.

Chris Busse

The example he used was the old “lemonade stand” game, a meme that, unfortunately, predated me. He led us through individual and group activities to rethink how to program the lemonade stand game in terms of REST calls. The result was a collaborative and fun activity to help people become better rest programmers.

The second and last days were whirlwinds of talks.

The morning was opened by keynote talks–fueled by coffee, of course. The talks were given by people from some of the biggest names in tech: Yina Arena, from Microsoft, and Sarah Novotny, from Google.

Sarah Novotny

Personally, I find myself surprised these days by how–er, open–Microsoft is to adopt open source technologies. As a primarily open source developer, Microsoft has always been a thorn: unwilling to work with open source. In recent years, however, the tide began to turn, and I was surprised by the humility and honesty that Yina conveyed from a stained software company. Leaders like Yina, who take the initiative to change their company dynamics, are hard to come by, so the talk was rather refreshing.

After a morning break (and filling up my IV drip with more coffee) the morning talks resumed. I did not have any specific track in mind, so I ended up picking whatever talk suited my fancy. I also wanted to stretch myself, by attending talks by technologies that I didn’t use and had no interest in. No matter what talk, I attended, however, I began to see how people were adopting this development strategy.

The most interesting talks were ones given by the smaller companies, who have yet to have a name for themselves. I’d never heard of BioBright before APIStrat, but found Ryan Harrison’s desire to change the field of science and research infectious.

Ryan Harrison

Documentation for APIs (and documentation in general) is something I find is looked over, both for me and for other developers, so I attended talks that spoke on these subjects. One of the most interesting was by Ash Hathaway, a proud Texan, who brought to light why words matter in documentation.

During the second day I did have an opportunity to talk to a self-proclaimed “API Evangelist” (if not the API Evangelist), Kin Lane. I was not fortunate enough to attend any of his talks, but I did get to talk with him in person during a break.

Kin Lane

Kin gets most of his income from hustling, doing anything from writing, consulting, and photography. He started getting interested in APIs after seeing fighting from companies like Twitter, and worked with the Department of Veteran Affairs to get APIs introduced. What he finds awesome about APIStrat is the variety of people that attend, both developers and non-developers.

The final day was similar to the first, with short talks given by various people in all sectors of jobs.

Two talks stood out to me: one done by Shelby Switzer of Healthify. Shelby is one of those developers who hasn’t waited around for the market to change, but has forged ahead with changing the market. Her talk (on convincing companies to adopt open APIs) balanced “why don’t they get it?” with a helpful approach to encouraging clients to adopt open APIs.

The other was by Randall Hunt on building AI-Powered APIs. Long-gone are the days when people thought of Amazon as just an Online retailer. Now they harness the power of open APIs and big data to make smart technology. The talk delved into how Amazon incorporates massive amounts of big data to automate tasks such as drone delivery and robot packaging.


Overall, the APIStrat conference was very encouraging. The entire technology world is catching on to the fact that open source is not only beneficial financially, but it’s also a way to encourage user trust and trust among developers.

The conference also converted me: no more am I an API fanboy…now I’m an API evangelist.

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