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Alexa Voice Skills Are The Poster Child For Your Enterprise API Efforts

I was sitting in an IT architectural planning meeting for a large enterprise organization the other day, and one of the presentation from one of the executives contained a complex diagram of their IT infrastructure, with a column to the right showing a simple five step Alexa conversation, asking a specific question from customer. Each question posed as part of the Alexa conversation theoretically accessed a different system, weaving a pretty complex web of IT connections, to enable this simple conversation.

This presentation reflects why I feel that Alexa Skills development poses some interesting questions in the API world, and why the platform becomes interesting to so many business users. It reflects the end goal of why we are doing all of this (in theory), but then quickly illustrates how complicated we’ve actually made all of this, demonstrating how challenging delivering conversational interfaces will be in reality. There are many conversational challenges in enabling our system to be able to talk with humans, but I think many of the most daunting challenges companies will face in coming years will be to actually get at the right data to provide a relevant answer to questions poised in voice, bot, and other conversationally-enabled solutions.

Being able to quickly respond to information requests is why many companies, organizations, institutions, and government agencies are doing APIs. Being able to respond to them in real time conversations is definitely a question of doing APIs, but I’m finding in most organizations it is more about solving human and political questions, than it is just a technical one. Sure, you can envision the most beautiful stack of microservices reaching into every aspect of your organization(s), and even develop a robust conversational layer for answering questions posed across that stack, but delivering it all consistently, at scale, across multiple teams of human beings will never be easy, or quick.

I think that conversational interfaces provide an excellent exercise for companies, to help them map out the complexities of their backend systems, and try to understand how to deliver more real time solutions. Personally, I’m not a big fan of bot or voice-enablement, but I know others are. I’m more interested in them because of the technical challenges in delivering, and the business and cultural hurdles they put in front of development teams. It isn’t easy to deliver meaningful, relevant, and intelligent conversations via these new mediums, and I think the Alexa Skills framework provides a useful way for us to hang these conversations regarding our IT resources on.

While the majority of APIs are still about delivering data and content to the web and mobile applications, I think conversational interfaces are showing the future of where things are headed. I don’t think we’ll get there as fast as we would like, or as quickly as the vendors are promising us, but I do think we will make movements towards delivering more meaningful conversational interfaces in coming years. Mostly it will be due to the availability of API resources. If we can get at the data and content, we can usually answer questions regarding that data content. The problem will be that not everything is digitized, and easily accessible. Despite the promises of artificial intelligence, and voice-enabled platforms like Alexa, humans will prove to be the biggest obstacle to realizing the visions of business leaders to answer even the most basic questions we are looking to answer.