Application programming interfaces are a tool to aid software development. But according to Deloitte, they're also increasingly a business model driver and boardroom consideration for enterprises.
APIs are enabling enterprises to more easily open up their capabilities — to internal customers, partners and third-party developers.
Increasingly, enterprises are exploring ways of expanding their partner networks or even directly driving revenue using APIs.
MYOB is one of Australia's software success stories. Its long-running developer program has helped it build an ecosystem of third party add-ons that deliver new capabilities to its applications or even use MYOB's software as a building block for offerings that can serve entirely new market segments, according to Keran McKenzie.
McKenzie acts as an API evangelist for the accounting software vendor, helping to promote the use by third party developers of MYOB's APIs.
MYOB has four public APIs that are focussed around the software company's key products — the SME-targeted MYOB AccountRight and MYOB Essentials, and the company's ERP platforms, MYOB EXO and MYOB Advanced.
"We've got nearly 3000-odd developers in our developer programs now who are building against these APIs and we've got about 200 add-on solutions in the market that we actually market through our directory site," McKenzie said.
They range from line-of-business-focussed add-ons, where MYOB's software can end up just providing the general ledger behind a larger application designed for a particular vertical, through to ones that provide additional features, such as expense management employing a smartphone's camera and OCR technology, through to reporting and analytics add-ons.Although the focus has been on using APIs to streamline the efforts of add-on developers, MYOB also consumes its APIs internally.
MYOB's mobile app uses the company's API and a number of MYOB software packages employ the APIs as a connectivity layer.
"We have MYOB Accountants Enterprise and Accountants Office and those consume our AccountRight API; when an accountant using Accountants Office wants to get data from their client who's using AccountRight, it's done using that API," McKenzie said.
"So they're very much dogfooded — we use our own APIs."
MYOB has had a developer program since 2002. Originally third-party integration relied on "old-school, ODBC-type integrations," McKenzie said.
In 2013 the company launched its first modern, REST-based API.
"It was February 2013 when we launched the first API, which was the AccountRight one," McKenzie said.
"It's really been coming up to three years of the beautiful REST and JSON-based API with a nice OAuth layer around the side of it that makes it really easy for people to integrate."
McKenzie joined MYOB in late 2012.
"When I first joined, my role was very much that of tech evangelist," McKenzie said.
"Nobody knew we had an API. And while we had 35 or 40 add-on partners, there wasn't the wealth and range of add-ons there is now.
"My role was to come on board and build all the resources around what is a great developer community — so work with the teams to build our documentation, code samples, SDKs, that sort of stuff and also get along to startup and hack events to spread the word."
"I'd go to developers and say, 'Hey, you've got this great reporting solution — here are our end points' and spend a day whiteboarding with them," McKenzie said.
Know your audience
McKenzie said people outside MYOB are often interested in the company's experience of bringing APIs to market. For him, the key piece of advice to others developing an API strategy is to understand their market.
"The first thing I'm always going to say to someone is: Know your audience," McKenzie said.
"When we started in this space, we looked at what we considered the industry best APIs out there. And the reality is a lot of those APIs were relatively simple to understand APIs; I'm thinking of things like the Twitter API, Facebook and those sort of ones. They are something you connect to and you pull some data from.
"Accounting by default — and this is just an example of an industry — accounting by default is much more complex. And so for us, we really had to know our audience and what it was that they wanted."
MYOB was aided in this by already having a developer community.
"We already had a large number of people that were desktop-type developers, and all of a sudden we're launching a web-centric API," McKenzie said.
"That really drove what the developer portal looked like and what the documentation looked like."
"So one of the first things we say to anybody is — know your audience," McKenzie said.
"There are some beautiful tools out there like Swagger, API Blueprint and a number of other ones that can help build some of the documentation, but it ends up being very developer-centric.
"If your audience isn't that development-savvy , then you need toback off go, 'Well actually maybe we need set context better and understand the product better before we launch the API side of things.'
Making it easy
The second lesson MYOB has learned is to make it easy, McKenzie said.
"What tools have you got that make it as simple as possible?" he said.
"User authentication is a great example: If you're making every single developer who touches your API build their own OAuth layer or their own user authentication layer, you are putting all the work on them.
"If you do a little bit of work yourself and provide an SDK or a wrapper or a library, it means, yes, you've got a little bit more upfront effort but you're saving all that developer community real work."
Tools for developers
Part of building an API program is delivering resources to help developers quickly be productive, he added.
"How can you help your developers save time and get up and running faster?" McKenzie said. Code samples that illustrate the deeper, richer features of an API are an important example.
"For us, for example, the most common request we get is, 'How do I insert an invoice?' So having a sample that actually just does that."
Finally, McKenzie advises companies to give an API a human face — having someone whose job it is to let the world know the API exists and help people understand how to get the most out of it.
From MYOB's perspective, part of the value of its APIs is their ability to boost the 'stickiness' of its products, McKenzie said.
"We know that people who are using our products, love our products," he said. "But these add-ons can touch other areas of their business life."
"MYOB has a vision of making business life easier," McKenzie said.
"We can do that in a very financial — your GST, your BAS reporting — kind of mindset. Our add-ons allow us to make business life easier in other areas and make a really tangible impact in people's business lives.
"From that point of view, it flows that business brand beyond what we can do ourselves, and also it exposes data and drives opportunity for business growth too. So it's a really good story for us and the Australian economy to expose our APIs and actually have a set of businesses around the outside that are going up beside us."
Keran McKenzie is a speaker at BuzzConf in November