Why APIs Should Matter to You

09-20-2020

This is a talk I gave Saturday this last morning to almost 100 students in India, helping demonstrate the potential of APIs when it comes to their career. It is easy for me to stay entrenched in a world where everyone knows what an API is, but these types of conversations help me break out of the API echo chamber and reach out to developers, would-be developers, and those are curious enough to pull back the curtains on how the web works a little bit. With this talk I am looking to convert a few more folks to my API religion. Not because APIs are always good, but because being aware of the API layer that exists beneath our digital, and increasingly physical world is important. You will be more successful in both your personal and professional lives if you are API aware, and with this talk I am looking to help lay the foundation for anyone, developer or non-developer to understand the importance of API in our digital world.

What is an API? 

An API, or application programming interface is the current evolution of the web when it comes to making data, content, media, and algorithms available to different types of applications. Websites are written in HTML, and designed to be displayed to humans in our browsers. All you have to do is right click on any web page you visit and select view source to see the HTML behind any web page you are visiting. APIs provide access to the same data, content, and images used in websites, but instead of returning HTML, it returns XML or JSON which developers can render exactly as they wish in the application they are delivering. APIs are not some new software from one of the technology giants, it is just the next evolution in the web, making sure we can use deliver the same data, content, and algorithms across the applications we run on our laptops, our mobile phones, in our automobiles, and any other place currently being connected to the web. Expanding the reach of the web beyond just the desktop computers in our homes and businesses, to almost every other physical object that exists across our physical world.

How are APIs Used?

APIs are used for many different purposes. They are used to power most websites you visit online today, with a single web page potentially making 10 different API calls to get the data, content, media, and advertising needed. However, in 2008 with the introduction of the iPhone, and the Android mobile operating systems, APIs became the primary way for delivering these resources to mobile applications. Developers didn’t stop there, and began using APIs to power buttons, widgets, and phsyical devices, pushing the web beyond the confines of our desktops, laptops, and mobile phones, wiring up common objects like thermostats, refrigerators, signs, and our cars to the Internet—pushing the Internet into every potential corner of our physical worlds by reinventing existing products to be “smart”. Expanding the reach of government, businesses, and institutions using low cost web infrastructure to deliver digital assets around the world, by redefining existing software to use APIs, and leveraging more agile API software development lifecycles to rapidly redefine the future of how applications are adopted and put to use in our lives. 

What was before APIs?

APIs come in many shapes and sizes, and have been around since the early days of compute in some form or another. The first formal set of APIs appeared to arise with the introduction of the Internet in 1969 with ARPANET, by defining common network interfaces, and resources for transmitting data across these networks. By the 1970s the electronic data exchanged (EDI) emerged to allow businesses to effectively communicate via digital channels, transmitting invoices and purchase orders within the transportation and shipping industries, but was something that would quickly spread to other commercial, healthcare, government, and NGO areas of the economy. As these types of programmatic interfaces were evolving other more generalized forms of APIs emerged with the file transfer protocol (FTP) for moving files around, and simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP) for passing messages back and forth. To this day business still regularly move data around using FTP and Email, using these protocols in system to system communication, and as a way to make digital resources available in applications. However, once the World Wide Web (WWW) emerged in the early 1990s, new types of APIs began to emerge, resulting in a mix of approaches to providing programmatic interfaces for use in applications, which leverage HTTP 1.1, as well as TCP to move data, content, and media around, while also providing access to emerging algorithms. Approaches to delivering APIs which are still being improved upon today, and leveraging HTTP/2 and now HTTP/3 to keep up with the demand of modern applications. 

What are some types of APIs?

By 2000, several competing approaches to doing APIs emerged, resulting in very different views on how you should be delivering applications. In 2000, while a more philosophical type of APIs called representational state transfer or REST was evolving, a more structured business heavy approach to doing APIs called simple object access protocol or SOAP was picking up momentum. SOAP quickly became the standard enterprise organizations used to connect systems, and deliver resources to applications, while REST grew slowly as the favorite of startups and independent developers. By 2008 REST was picking up speed, which accelerated with the introduction of the mobile phone and resulting application ecosystems. Skyrocketing REST to be the favorite for startups and a new breed of application developers when it came to delivering web, mobile, and device applications. While all this was happening another format was growing within Google called gRPC, which emerged as a contender for how APIs are delivered when it comes to a B2B application ecosystem. Within this diverse API ecosystem you will find other promising approaches to delivering APIs like GraphQL which is very data centric approach to APIs, or Websockets which leverages the older transmission control protocol (TCP) to deliver real-time, synchronous APIs that are a favorite of API-driven financial markets and blockchain providers.Making for a pretty rich playing field of different APIs to put to work, with the most common approach being REST due to its simplicity and low cost approach to using existing web infrastructure.

Why Should APIs Matter to You?

APIs are behind everything you do. They are at home, at work, in your car, and around you in the public commons. You do not need to be a developer to understand this reality. APIs are in almost every new appliance you will put in your house. They are behind the applications you use in your personal life across your desktop, laptops, and mobile phones. APIs are how companies are moving your bits and bytes around the internet while also making them available to their partners. The more you understand about this world, the more control you will have in your personal life, while also setting you up for more awareness and control in your professional life as well. APIs are behind every business application you depend on, and they are the way you better orchestrate and automate the common business processes you need to execute each day. Knowing that APIs exist behind the surface of each web, mobile, or device application you are already using gives you an edge in your personal and professional activities. APIs should matter to you because you depend on them so much, and they can be your key to seizing more control over your time, career, finances, and other key aspects of how your world works. Just knowing an API exists can help you take even a little control back in this chaotic digital world that has emerged in the last twenty years, if you don’t know they exist, this entire world is off limits to you. It is up to you to decide if you want to step up learn more about this world and begin pulling back the curtain on how it works—Postman is here to help you pull back this curtain.

Business APIs You Should Know

Depending on what you plan to do for a living you will use a mix of applications to get your work done each day. However, there are some common applications that are in use within most workplaces, and you depend on each day. If your organization is a Microsoft shop then you are probably meeting using Microsoft Teams, and emailing, scheduling, and sharing a variety of documents using Microsoft Office. The Microsoft Graph API provides you with your API doorway to this world, giving you the ability o integrate, automate, and orchestrate across the Microsoft platform. If your organization is a Google shop then you are probably meeting using Google Meet,  and email, scheduling, and sharing documents using Google Gmail, Calendar, and Google Docs, all of which posses APIs for you to put to use when it comes to optimizing how you work across the Google Domain. Beyond these two dominant platforms is is likely you are using Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Zoom, WordPress, and other common platforms in a professional capacity—they all have APIs you can integrate, automate, and orchestrate with without writing code. If you want to understand more about this world, go ahead and make a short list of applications you use each day, then append each application name with "API" and then enter into Google, Bing, Duck Duck Go, or however you search on the web. Spend a little time looking through their API developer area, and looking at other articles, blog posts, videos, and other resources to understand what is possible with the API behind each application you use. You will be surprised at what you will learn about the tools you are already using each day.

Postman is an API Browser for the Web

Postman is your doorway to understanding this API universe. The platform allows developers and non-developers to learn about how APIs work using simple API collections like the Public REST APIs one I maintain as a template in the Postman API Network. Pushing you to be more hands-on with a variety of APIs, peaking behind the current to see how each API request and response works, witihout the friction of having to login. Then if that gets your curiosity going you can play around with other APIs in the Postman API Network, running the Twitter V2 API collection, or the imgur API collection, exploring some APIs that require authentication, and you to setup your own account and application to get the keys before you make your API calls. Then if you are feeling really adventurous you can download Postman Interceptor for Chrome and learn to reverse engineer some of the applications you use, piping each API call made in your browser to a Postman collection, so thjat you can study, play with, and learn more about what is happening behind the scenes of each of your applications. We haven’t even touched on what you can do if you are looking to develop an API. I am just looking to get you interested in APIs, not because I anticipate you building APIs, but because I want you to have more awareness of how the applications you depend on actually work (or don’t work). I want you to be more successful in your professional career, and have more control over your personal data. I want the digital landscape around you to be not just more visible, but also something feel comfortable with reverse engineering, integrating, automating, and orchestrating with.

APIs should matter to you because you are using them every day. You are already making hundreds or thousands of API calls a day, they just occur slightly out of your line of sight. You shouldn’t just care about APIs if you are going to be building them (maybe you are). You should care about APIs because you are actively consuming them, and they are actively consuming you, gobbling up your messages, images, videos, and other digital bits throughout the day. I am interested in just in helping you pull back the curtain on this digital production a little bit and show you how Postman can help you poke around back stage, and begin taking a more lead role in how things work. APIs are nothing new, and they aren’t going anywhere soon. If you want to better understand how platforms like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Zoom, and others are doing what they do, while also learning how to better migrate data between each of these platforms, then APIs are for you. Think of Postman as your Swiss Army Knife for your journey into this API back country, providing you with what you need to make sense of each API, and the request and responses you make to each platform using their APIs. Allowing you to understand how platforms oeprate, then better integrate, automate, and orchestrate with the data, content, media, and algorithms that reside across the domains you operate within each day. All you need to get started is to download Postman, possess some curiosity, and be fearless when it comes to playing around with the APIs behind the digital landscape that already exists around you.