The Discussion We Need to Have at #APIStrat

While APIstrat is an interesting conference (I’m always up for learning about amazing technical advances) I feel like a tsunami is approaching. I can sense it and I’m just waiting to hear the sirens go off.

But most of the other folks at APIStrat seem to feel like they’ve caught the edge of the big wave and they can just ride it down. There’s this sense that the entire concept of APIs are well established in the world; that the developers we work with are coming up with ever-increasingly brilliant ways to use our APIs and that all that is left do is create a few more APIs for a few more developers.

And, yet, most of the APIs we’re talking about touch surprisingly few lives. It’s rare to even hear about an API used to streamline the process of applying for veterans’ benefits or to improve the cash flow of the bodega on the corner.

APIs don’t have a trickle-down effect that we can rely on to help reach those people being left out of this new evolution of work. Without concerted effort to bring more people to the table, we can’t assume that we’ve done everything possible to truly disrupt the organizations that came before.

Part of this problem is a question of diversity — when most developers have shared worldview, seeing the missing pieces of the API puzzle is difficult. When you’ve never gone through the process of applying for food stamps, you can’t really come up with a way to make that experience work better.

Waiting for someone to fix the diversity numbers in the tech industry isn’t going to move us any closer to that tsunami. The underlying issue there is not that women and other marginalized groups don’t have access to STEM education (at least in the US), it’s that we keep entering the industry and keep facing uncomfortable situations where the only healthy option is to drop out of tech and do something where we won’t face as many micro aggressions, unequal hiring efforts, or doxxing attacks.

Before you ever start working on an API, you truly need to ‘get out of the building,’ to steal a phrase from Steve Blank. There are a wealth of opportunities out there for developers who step outside of their own worldview and examine what people who are far different from you need in their day-to-day lives. The business case should be obvious (if your API is a utility, selling access to it is a piece of cake), but you should also think about the opportunity to leave the world a little better than you found it.

Furthermore, think about how absolutely simple you can make using your API. Frankly, building on top of a good API shouldn’t require programming skills. IFTTT is a good example of what can be done in that direction, but there are also plenty of ways to create sample apps that just require someone to figure out a little copying and pasting in order to adapt to their own lives.

We have a chance to get this right. We have a chance to build a fundamentally better world — a place I’d love to live in — but we have to actively pursue doing the right thing. We cannot wait for every single person on the planet to learn to code. We cannot hope that they’ll scratch their own itches, because there’s no chance in hell of that happening.

So here’s your call to action:

  • Start reading and learning. Don’t assume you know about anything except how to build a great API. Start with “The Unexotic Underclass” (http://miter.mit.edu/the-unexotic-underclass/) — it’s a short essay that you’ll read through quickly. Subscribe to Model View Culture (modelviewculture.com) and The Recompiler (recompilermag.com). Work your way through the 101-Level Reading List (http://www.ashedryden.com/blog/the-101level-reader-books-to-help-you-better-understand-your-biases-and-the-lived-experiences).
  • Spend time around people who are very different than you. Volunteer for organizations that bring you into contact with people who don’t own computers. Work with homeless shelters, the Boys and Girls Club, and anyone else who needs a little help.
  • Build a network outside of tech. Find people who you can run ideas by, as well as get ideas from, when you’re deciding what to build next. Look as far afield as you possibly can. Make sure that those people can use your API on some level, even if it’s just through a little web app you throw together for that purpose.