Enterprise API design practices: Part 4

Photo by Andrés Dallimonti on Unsplash

Welcome to the last part of my series on creating valuable, usable and future-proof Enterprise APIs. I initially covered some background context and the importance of design, then I presented security and backend protection and in the third chapter I explored optimizations and scale; this post is about monitoring and Developer Experience (DX).

5. Monitor your APIs

Don’t fly blind: you must make sure that your APIs are properly instrumented so you can monitor what’s going on. This is important for a lot of good reasons, such as:

  • Security: is your service under attack or being used maliciously? You should always be able to figure out if there are anomalies and react swiftly to prevent incidents.
  • Auditing: depending on the nature of your business, you might be required by compliance or investigative reasons to produce an audit trail of user activity of your product, which requires proper instrumentation of your APIs as well as logging events.
  • Performance and scale: you should be aware of how your API and backend are performing and if the key metrics are within the acceptable ranges, way before your users start complaining and your business is impacted. It’s always better to optimize before performance becomes a real problem.
  • Cost: similarly, with proper instrumentation, you can be aware of your infrastructure costs sustained to serve a certain amount of traffic. That can help you with capacity planning and cost modeling if you’re monetizing your service. And to avoid unexpected bills at the end of the month that might force you to disrupt the service.
  • Feedback: with proper telemetry data to look at when you deploy a change, you can understand how it’s performing and whether it was a good idea to implement it. It also allows you to implement prototyping techniques such as A/B testing.
  • Learn: analyzing how developers use your API can be a great source of learning. It will give you useful insights on how your service is being consumed and is a valuable source of ideas that you can evaluate for new features (i.e. new use-case driven API endpoints).

Proper instrumentation of services is a vast topic and here I just want to summarize a few items that are usually easy to implement:

  • Every API request should have a unique operation identifier that is stored in your logs and can help your ops team figure out what happened. This identifier should also be reported back to clients somewhere (usually in API response the headers) especially, but not exclusively, in case of errors.
  • Keep an eye on API requests that fail with server errors (i.e. the HTTP 5xx ones) and, if the number is non-negligible, try to pinpoint the root cause: is it a bug, or some request that is causing timeouts in the backend? Can you fix it or make it faster?
  • Keep a reasonable log history to allow tracking errors and auditing user activity for at least several days back in time.
  • Create dashboards that help you monitor user activity, API usage, security metrics, etc. And make sure to check them often.

6. Make Developer Experience a priority

Last principle, but definitely not the least important. Even if you are lucky and the developers that use your APIs are required to do so because of an external mandate, you shouldn’t make their experience less positive.

In fact, the Developer Experience of your product should be awesome.

If developers properly understand how to work with your APIs, and enjoy doing so, they will likely run into fewer issues and be more patient when trying to overcome them. They will also provide you with good quality feedback. It will reduce the number of requests they generate on your support teams. They will give you insights and use case ideas for building a better product.

And, more importantly, happy developers will ultimately build better products for their own customers which, in turn, will act as a force multiplier for the value and success of your own product. Everybody wins in the API Economy model: customers, business stakeholders, partners, product teams, engineers, support teams.

I’ve witnessed several situations where developers were so exhausted and frustrated with working against a bad API that, as soon as they saw the light at the end of the tunnel, they stopped thinking creatively and just powered their way through to an MVP that was far from viable and valuable. But it checked the box they needed so they were allowed to move on. I consider this a very specific scenario of developer fatigue: let’s call it “API Fatigue”.

Luckily, I’ve also experienced the other way around, where new, unplanned, great features were added because the DX was good and we had fun integrating things together.

There are many resources out there that describe how to make APIs with great developer experience: the most obvious one is to create APIs that are clear and simple to consume. Apply the Principle of least astonishment.

I recommend considering the following when shipping an API:

  • Document your API properly: it’s almost certain that the time you spend creating proper documentation at the beginning is saved later on when developers start consuming it. Specification files, such as OpenAPI Specification (OAS) tremendously help here. Also, if you follow the design-first approach that we discussed in the first post of this series, you’ll probably already have a specification file ready to use.
  • Support different learning paths: some developers like to read all the documentation from top to bottom before writing a single line of code, others will start with the code editor right away. Instead of forcing a learning path, try to embrace the different mindsets and provide tools for everyone: specification files, Postman collections, examples in different programming languages, an easy-to-access API sandbox (i.e. something that doesn’t require installing an Enterprise product and waiting 2 weeks to get a license to make your first API call), a developer portal, tutorials and, why not, video walkthroughs. This might sound overwhelming but pays off in the end. With the proper design done first a lot of this content can be autogenerated from the specification files.
  • Document the data structure: if you can, don’t just add lists of properties to your specs and docs: strive to provide proper descriptions of the fields that your API uses so that developers that are not fully familiar with your product can understand them. Remove ambiguity from the documentation as much as possible. This can go a long way, as developers can make mental models by understanding the data properly that often leads to better use cases than “just pull some data from this API”.
  • Use verbs, status codes, and error descriptions properly: leverage the power of the protocol you are using (i.e. HTTP when using REST APIs) to define how to do things and what responses mean. Proper usage of status codes and good error messages will dramatically reduce the number of requests to your support team. Developers are smart and want to solve problems quickly so if you provide them with the right information to do so, they won’t bother you. Also, if you are properly logging and monitoring your API behavior, it will be easier for your support team to troubleshoot if your errors are not all “500 Internal Server Error” without any other detail.

Finally, stay close to the developers: especially if your API is being used by people external from your organization, it’s incredibly important to be close to them as much as you can to support them, learn and gather feedback on your API and its documentation. Allow everyone that is responsible for designing and engineering your API to be in that feedback loop, so they can share the learnings. Consider creating a community where people can ask questions and can expect quick answers (Slack, Reddit, Stack Overflow, etc.). I’ve made great friendships this way!

A few examples

There are many great APIs out there. Here is a small, not complete, list of products from other companies that, for one reason or another, are strong examples of what I described in this blog series:

Conclusion

And that’s a wrap, thanks for reading! There are more things that I’ve learned that I might share in future posts, but in my opinion, these are the most relevant ones. I hope you found this series useful: looking forward to hearing your feedback and comments!

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