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  • John Chambers, PhD

API Stewards -- Software Guardians of What's to Come

Libraries connect people.

With knowledge.

Through the pages of books.

You integrate knowledge.

With software.

Through the gates of APIs.

When you walk into a library for the first time, you are intimidated. However beautiful, the atmosphere is daunting, everything from imposing architectures to crowded old shelves. Conversations are whispers. Or ought to be.

I've walked into small-town libraries whose unassuming, on-hand collection is less than 500 contemporary books. And then I've walked into the Boston Athenaeum with its rare collections of 150,000. I studied inside a single branch of the NY Metropolitan Library, which housed several million!

But in any library, modest or majestic, my first foray is trepidation.

Where do I start?

For leader of software teams and product architecture, it's a similar question.

The Librarian

Google can bring you back 100,000 answers.

A librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Neil Gaiman, author

You can poke around awhile, get the lay of the land, rely on the semi-obsolete Dewey Decimal catalog, or touch a display for the digitized search.

But the value of the town librarian is the value of experience.

To consider them "search clerks" would be offensive.

The best librarians are those who understand your search, understand your topic, and without being too nosy, understand your purpose. They advise; they oversee; they know the building like you know your house.

They recognize the researchers and their research purpose. They know the trends, the latest wants, and they morph. In a moment, they are as versatile and slangy as a pop culture talk show host, and in the next they are as thorough as a Dark Ages monk scribing in dusty, subterranean vaults of stone.

API librarians (human or machine) are even more versatile.

The "librarian role" is, above all, an advisory -- a teacher and guide. And even when robots do much of this, you'll up the ante again, by becoming a visionary for API-as-a-Product, a sorcerer who can conjure roadmaps that pave the next connection revolution.

API management demands tools, strategists and visionaries.

What is the history of your API use cases?

If they were public, what technologies in what verticals depended on them?

What is the feedback analysis and customer satisfaction record for them?

What KPIs are required for you to advise your teams?

Advising doesn't mean you're available to simply point to a directory or software library. Advising is about envisaging and embracing your software developer's needs at a micro level and balancing that with the macro business cases.

Human or machine, the API librarian is the system orchestrator. And she/he/it is successful and helpful thanks to those that ensure the library is sustainable and living.

Your APIs (both private and public) are a firm asset, amortized by accountants and following a pattern of birth, existence, and death, the necessity for API life cycle management.

The Curator

The 21st-century curator works in a supremely globalised reality.

Hans Ulbricht Obrist, Swiss curator and art historian

Looking for the appropriate API is a feat. Luckily the globalized reality is a click away. but APIs are multiplying faster than hyacinth.

They cross public space, private software; they represent varying design patterns and protocols; there are composite APIs, APIs structured by webservice, Data APIs... And we've not even discussed a layman's perspective and business case! Estimates on extant APIs and their purposes (taxonomy, qualification, granularity, usage) are harder to get than an estimate on numbers of life supporting planets in our galaxy.

Enter the curator of the API landscape -- at heart a researcher.

But the research goes beyond, "What companies are doing what stuff these days?" Similar to finding the right API Lifecycle Management system (and there are magnificent platforms available), you're doing much more than understanding who dominates the market, who has the most scalable volumes, who is the most solvent.

I did not say those are not critical components in the analysis.

But I am saying that you are marrying your business model and your own business strategy to your API Roadmap, which lives through cultivation of your API collections (those acquired, or referenced, or developed).

Merriam Webster tells us that a curator acquires new artworks, analyzes for frauds and counterfeits, lends artwork to other museums, and mounts exhibitions for sharing.

Managing your APIs is similar, but much more difficult, not to even mention the overarching security construct.

Introducing next gen APIs into your library demands diligence and detail, and a sweeping ability to compartmentalize every API that will be used.

The Conservator

Conservation is the act of repairing an item, so that its lifespan is increased,

while also not trying to hide that it has lived a life.

Noah Smutz, book conservator;

The work of a conservator is delicate and painstaking. That same delicate concentration applies to your API maintenance. In his blog on REST API management, Ben Morris reminded us of fundamentals, "Change in an API is inevitable as your knowledge and experience of a system improves. Managing the impact of this change can be quite a challenge when it threatens to break existing client integrations."

On the one hand, this seems ripe for just good old change control. But that dismisses the strategic requirement of API managers and developers. Back to our alignment to brick and mortar libraries, a conservator does not tear out decaying pages of ancient volumes, then shove a few ink-jetted sheets off the Canon as replacement.

And maintenance is not hacking together carburetor pieces at a 1960's desert road gas station.

Your role is to sustain an API's existence, but knowing when it's on life support. Your skills in science and management are paramount.

Considering Smutz' quote, and the best API Lifecycle Management, an API's value fades with time, for many reasons. Nothing is permanent in technological and software implementations.

But your aptitude for recognizing this dynamic is a core and required competency.

Those aging APIs already lived a life.

They became obsolete, or replaced.

Knowing when and which APIs are on life support calls for your knowledge of the API, of Technology trends, and of Business landscape -- your own in-house software strategy, and your business roadmap.

Do we adapt the API for new calls and integrations, or do we put the API out to pasture, as we train a younger race horse?

Stakeholders, partners, public, private… have depended on your APIs. Or you have depended on theirs.

How quickly can you do an impact analysis on your API's usage and usefulness?

Like the conservator of books, assessing the condition of flaky, decayed binders, understanding a volume's history, peeling away at mold and mites to salvage the words, you decide whether to retire the API, or whether to store....

The Archivist

“ ‘The archive is only a repository’ – said no archivist ever.

Chew Tee Pao, archivist; Asian Film Archives

In some regulatory environments, the precise infrastructure, design, data and procedures must be maintained for future testing under an investigation, for as long as the enterprise exists. That's only one astonishingly strict requirement that drives API archiving.

But retention is not just a regulatory purpose. It is a business purpose.

Some of our APIs may lie dormant, and no longer useful. Forgetting why undermines the ability to use the firm's history as a guide for future competitiveness.

When the ancient library of Alexandria burned to rubble two millennia ago, the fire destroyed hundreds of thousands of papyrus scrolls. Humanity's loss. Now, as steward and leader of your software assets, you probably didn't realize the weight of responsibility on your shoulders! Okay, it's not the library of Alexandria...

But understanding your API life cycle, and your retired APIs is understanding your own firm's history, and the dynamics that instigated change.

Will those dynamics influence your choice in future APIs and an analysis of their potential, future limitations?

The team has curated, or referenced, thousands of lines of code. Many of your applications are intangible assets that constituted the cash flow, which constituted your company's valuation.

More importantly, they made life better for the API consumers, throughout our connected existence. The APIs you leveraged (by subscribed access or organic growth) were building blocks in the history of your firm, like old analog clocks whose usage wanes but whose purpose never will.

Conservation efforts may have worked for a while, but the reality of the digital environment does not tolerate stasis.

In many ways, software languages and methods never died; they just evolved.

You archive not by a foolhardy click of the delete key, but through app retirement processes.

The history of your code, and included APIs, still hold secrets and advice -- understanding the changes that impacted your business and tech stack, give readiness to the changes ahead.

Archive the ancient; learn why those APIs were employed.

Capture the history of the API, so that the intent, however obsolete, might teach for the future.


The staffs of libraries taught us the lessons.

Preparing for the future is being a student of the past. Yes, our eyes have tired of the cliché but the adage is nevertheless an eternal truism.

Your accountability in the evolution of software design and creation is expertise in the management of APIs and their lifecycle. That is a responsibility for the company's future, and to all the consumers, partners and suppliers that depended on those application connectors.

The API marketplace and the software universe grow exponentially.

The weight of technical debt can stall digitalization, like an anchor on corporate nimbleness, like an albatross on the reputation. Manage wisely.

Everything in our journeys is connected, in the physical space, and cyberspace. And our early 21st century APIs are like neurological connectors of intelligence. Guard them, remember them.

Your API library and your strategy are priceless artifacts; in some companies a few APIs generate cash flow that rival a first edition of Shakespeare's First Folio.

Our API universe is evidence of an integrated world, technologically, commercially, societally.

Optimally executed API lifecycle management will distinguish the leading firms, and the IT teams, among a culture whose acceleration will not diminish.

API business management excellence depends on the stewards of knowledge --

the hands of the librarian,

the curator,

the conservator,

the archivist.... even if those hands are machine AI.

Assimilate, organize, monitor the priceless connectors that sustain your business -- the gateways that navigate tomorrow.

Stewards of our libraries embrace the past to forge the future.


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