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Balancing Domain Expertise With The Disruptive Power Of Upstarts Who Do APIs

APIs aren’t good, or bad, nor are they neutral. APIs do the bidding of their providers, and sometimes their consumers. In my experience APIs are more often used for bad than they are ever used for good, something I try to be as vocal as I can about, while working hard to shine a light on the good that is possible. After many years of trying to help folks understand APIs, one of the biggest challenges I face involves the unrealistic rhetoric of startups. The overoptimistic vision and promises of what APIs will do, coupled with an an often limiting awareness of the challenges and complexity of industries where APIs are targeting, making for a pretty toxic, non-cooperative environment for actually getting anything done.

I work hard to keep APIs alive in a variety of industries that have seen multiple waves of startups trumpeting their disruption and change horns, while also often belittling and underestimating the people within the industry. I recently came across a post recently that captures the challenge we all face when we are looking to make change within established, and often entrenched industries using APIs. I feel this paragraph captures it well:

The new players, and the venture capital/private equity money backing them, think they are entering a world full of Luddites. Yet the brokers we’ve talked to—and we know it’s not everybody—are quite IT-oriented. In a world where visibility is paramount, they are keenly aware of technology’s role in keeping them competitive. They are investing in IT and will continue to do so as prices drop. Meanwhile, many bring vast experience in mastering the physical part of the solution that the startups can’t touch.

It is interesting to come across this friction in the freight brokerage industry. It is something I’ve seen in industry after industry, and with each wave of startups doing APIs. In some spaces startups will find success, but in others they will find themselves stopped cold by the entrenched positions some technical groups possess. I have experience developing trucking and shipping web applications, and predict there will be endless waves of automation that impact the freight brokerage space in coming years. However, I think startups will do much better if they focus on partnering with folks already in the space, investing in the existing expertise, rather than just going with the classic disruption rhetoric we’ve seen.

I am fascinated by how APIs can lay the groundwork for collaboration and better access to resources, or they can also lead to the introduction of significant friction and disruption within a sector. I’m just glad there is discussion about the role funding plays when it comes to each players motivation within a particular industry, acknowledging the legacy debt owned by the entire sector, as well as the disruptive nature of upstarts when they don’t partner with, or leverage the existing domain expertise within a space. I’ll keep an eye on what is going on in the freight brokerage sector, and see if I can better understand how APIs are becoming the solution, or contributing to friction going down the road.