How to Experiment for Better API Futures

Net API Notes for 2024/02/09, Issue 232

This past January, I helped launch #APIFutures, a collaborative writing event. I asked creators across the API spectrum what they saw as the most significant opportunity (or challenge) in the coming year. You can read the diverse thoughts and pick up an insight (or ten) for your API practice by going to the APIFutures link rollup. There's a wealth of great stuff there. 

In this issue, I want to dive deep into where the idea for #APIFutures came from, the importance of running experiments in your organization, and how anyone can get started leading "leaderless" change - that, and more, is in this edition of Net API Notes. 

APIFutures Was An Experiment In Leading Without Formal Authority

One of the best ways to learn is to experiment. Experimenting is how we can grow in carefully crafted, controlled simulations; safe situations where making a mistake doesn't risk a poor performance review or harming your team's viability. Sometimes, those learning opportunities come with the job that you do. Other times, it is up to us to create our own experiments.

In my consulting, I repeatedly see a challenge: technical leaders who are stuck. They're intelligent, capable people who deliver software on time and to spec. However, they've been promoted to the point where their jobs aren't just about delivering technical outcomes but social ones. This requires collaborating with, even influencing, people who don't directly report to them. I've seen it so often and for so long that addressing this skills gap is the subject of my on-again, off-again book, Better Bits (I did a high-level presentation on it a few years ago; you can find the slides on my website).  

The lack of formal authority can stymie even adept extroverts. But put an introvert like me whose "soft skills" may have atrophied while being 100% remote since the start of the pandemic, and the chances of leading change drop. I need to regularly exercise the change-making methods I've found effective in the past: 

  • Crafting a Vision
  • Creating a Guiding Coalition
  • Evangelizing to New Folks
  • Refining the Experiment, Empowering Others, and Celebrating

In late 2023, I was looking for a project capable of filling a slot (or two) on my editorial calendar, likely to push me outside my comfort zone, and was a net positive.

APIFutures's Vision Was My Response to Tech Doomerism

Call it middle-age. Or it is merely existing in this liminal space called the 2020s. Either way, I've also been thinking a lot about the future. Writing this newsletter for nearly a decade, I consume a lot of industry sentiment. And, on the whole, we've been on a downward, negative trend for almost the entire time. Much of that is for a good reason: chatbots, voice assistants, algorithmic feeds, the gig economy "platforms", coworking space at technology evaluation, the metaverse, crypto, NFTs - so many of these ballyhooed "next things", instead, turned out to be short-cited, strip-mine approaches to exploit as many users as investor cash allows. 

The subsequent high-profile, repeated failures to generate the next internet-like disruption has led to a new media default framing: 

  • All technology is bad.
  • The people conspiring behind it are worse.
  • Everything will eventually be "enshittified". 

While I've leveled my criticisms of crass or misguided efforts, I also know that persistent doomerism isn't sustainable. The way we frame the world dictates what we see. If we default to a pinhole lens of cynicism and scorn, we can miss opportunities for growth and hope that lies just out of view. 

The future doesn't happen to us. We are active participants in making it, in ways both big and small, every day. Sometimes we need reminders that the frame exists and challenge ourselves to widen our apertures to see new possibilities.

I know several creators in the API space (video, text, podcasts, etc.). Even more are publishing API content regularly. The vision for APIFutures quickly coalesced around the idea of a one-time, "stone soup" style event. In January, we'd individually publish what we saw as our biggest opportunity or challenge in 2024 (and beyond). In doing so, we'd help expand our audience's frame of reference. 

A Guiding Coalition Makes the Vision Better

A vision, no matter how earnestly conceived, needs refinement. There's no better place to start than my immediate network - the industry that I email, Slack, and socialize with online on a regular basis. The mix here is delicate; on the one hand, you want people who like you enough to lend their time, talent, and energy to entertain what you're saying. On the other hand, you also want them to provide honest, critical feedback on what parts of the initial concept work and where additional work needs to be done. 

At this critical phase, it is also important for me to not be precious about the initial vision. There is a wealth of experience and insight in others' heads; it would be silly not to entertain those ideas. Does their idea improve on the initial concept? Bring it on board, it's now our vision. Does it not align or introduce a complexity or barrier? We could table that, or agree to revisit it if we see that becoming an issue after we're already underway. 

For example, an early suggestion was that #APIFutures authors should be assigned topics to write about, as there was a fear that every contribution would be about generative AI. However, telling people what to write about risked introducing a lot of logistics (and possibly turning off contributors) for an outcome that, while possible, wasn't necessarily probable. That could be deferred.

The decision of when to publish did come from the guiding coalition. The core group I talked to agreed they wanted to avoid getting lost or finding time to write in the commotion before the December holidays. Likewise, publishing immediately after people return to work was also deemed risky, as people are digging out from their work inboxes and shaking off their vacation stupor. Together, we settled on a date of January 11th.

Below is this immediate network graphed, with me in the center. Of the 27 people I directly contacted, 13 contributed to the event, as denoted by the light green circles (or just under 50%). Given what came next, the time spent with those other folks was still worthwhile. 

The Act of Evangelizing A Vision Enhances It

To broaden my frame of reference, I needed not to just be talking with "the regulars". I wanted diverse voices across a broad swath of the industry. Moreover, this wasn't about who I thought was an API communicator; I wanted to know who others seek for API insight and advice. 

Something that I started with the guiding coalition and continued to do in every subsequent conversation was to ask, "Who else should be a part of this?" Some people didn't point to anyone, which is fine. Others, without knowing who else was involved, rattled off a list of their favorites. I then jotted these names down. If I could find a direct way of contacting them, I reached out with the latest version of the event vision. If I couldn't find contact info, I resorted to LinkedIn DMs. Whatever the contact method, I'd make my pitch, ask who they respected for this sort of thing, get the names, and iterate again. 

By launch, the network had grown to what you see below:

As before, green nodes contributed to the event by publishing a piece. While several gray nodes may not have published, they still played an important role by acting as a "bridge" into other networks. Likewise, some individuals were mentioned by more than one person, reflecting their larger stature in the community. This is a directed graph, although the arrows are hard to see. In graph theory, the furthest published participant had a distance of three edges (the lines between the dots, or "nodes"). Bridging into some areas, like the very active Spanish API scene as represented by the starburst in the mid-left, was very helpful. Other conversations, like the network within an API tool vendor (the topmost cluster gray branches) was less so.

But here's the thing - it is dangerous to try and predict ahead of time who will be worth speaking to and which people will result in a dead end. Furthermore, sometimes people are busy - just because the timing wasn't right for this event does not mean that these people couldn't participate in another future event. Whether attempting a project like this or shepherding an idea within your own company, you have to carry the water no matter how steep the hill appears.

Experimenting, Empowering, and Celebrating Creates A Virtuous Feedback Loop

This "extended network" was also a tremendous source of additional improvement to the overall result. The "community" in the stone soup story found ways of adding to the experiment, and it was essential to empower them. Emma, from Tyk, generously volunteered her design teams' help to create visual assets contributors could use in their pieces. Erik encouraged a rethink of how I anticipated the call to action and link to other pieces to work, which - with hindsight - was vastly simpler and saved a tremendous amount of updating and rework when mistakes and late submissions (inevitably) happened.   

I'm glossing over numerous other suggestions that helped make the event a success: the feedback to refine the pitches, reminders of details I may have overlooked, or pressure to keep progressing things forward. Sometimes support was as simple as providing persistent positivity - something more clutch than you might expect! Thank you one and all. 

After launch, it was important to empower others outside the network an opportunity to also participate. I'm pleased that there have been an additional half dozen contributions at the time of this writing. Each of them continues to expand the frame in their own way while also encouraging their respective audiences to follow the links to the other authors. 

A week after launch, I returned to the guiding coalition for feedback. I asked how they measured the impact (if at all) - had they seen increased traffic, likes, comments, or even signups by participating? For some, there was the same to slightly higher audience response. For others, just having an imposed deadline and meeting it was a win. For many in the API space, the #APIFutures posts displaced the usual toxic positivity occupying their LinkedIn feed, which made me happy. 

I spent around 40 hours over three and a half months. This time included meeting with multiple people individually, providing direct commentary and critiques on pieces ahead of time, contacting people, following up with questions, and building out the FAQ and GitHub pages site. That did not include the time developing the analysis scripts, visualizing the data, and writing my own piece on the API job market. It also didn't include the time spent researching and learning networking graphing (the graphs above were created using Gephi). 

Anyone can do this in their organizations. You don't have to have formal authority or be a recognized expert to start having conversations. Everyone has a "guiding coalition" - their peers - to spitball ideas. You don't need a budget to start and people want to be a part of something - they just don't know where to start. Working across boundaries is something that we can practice. 

Changing the future for the better is something we all can do. That may sound daunting. So start by running a little experiment. 


Wrapping Up

Another edition, another chance for me to practice with publishing on Ghost Pro, the new newsletter host. Moving platforms meant I ended all previous recurring paying memberships and started fresh - from zero. If you'd like to support Net API Notes - and, in the process - help offset bigger, more audacious API projects, check out the subscription page

Paying subscribers enjoy several benefits, including complete access to ¡APIcryphal!, my case study series. Each issue examines a pivotal moment in the API industry's trajectory and applies it to our present situation. In the most recent version, I access how Caterina Fake's coining of "BizDev 2.0" still echoes in today's platform discussions. New case studies every month. Now that I've done the write-up, I'd love to hear if you agree. Signup to get started

Till next time,

Matthew (@matthew in the fediverse and on the web)

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