How Do We Get API Developers To Follow The Minimum Viable API Documentation Guidance?

After providing some guidance the other day on how teams should be documenting their APIs, one of the follow up comments was: “Now we just have to figure out how to get the developers to follow the guidance!” Something that any API leadership and governance team is going to face as they work to implement new policies across their organization. You can craft the best possible guidance for API design, deployment, management, and documentation, but it doesn’t mean anyone is actually going to follow your guidance.

Moving forward API governance within any organization represents the cultural frontline of API operations. Getting teams to learn about, understand, and implement sensible API practices is always easier said than done. You may think your vision of the organizations API future is the right one, but getting other internal groups to buy into that vision will take a significant amount of work. It is something that will take time, resources, and be something that will always be shifting and evolving over time.

Lead By Example
The best way to get developers to follow the minimum viable API documentation guidance being set forth is to do the work for them. Provide templates and blueprints of what you want them to do. Develop, provide, and evolve forkable and downloadable API documentation examples, with simple README checklists of what is expected of them. I’ve published a simple example using the VA Facilities API definition published as OpenAPI 3.0 and Swagger UI to Github Pages, with the entire thing forkable via the Github repository. It is very bare bones example of providing API documentation guidance is a package that can be reused, providing API developers with a working example of what is expected of them.

Make It A Group Effort
To help get API developers on board with the minimum viable API documentation guidance being set forth, I recommend making it a group effort. Recruit help from developers to improve upon API documentation templates provided, and encourage them to extend, evolve, and push forward their individual API documentation implementations. Give API developers a stake in how you define governance for API documentation–not everyone will be up for the task, but you’d be surprised who will raise their hand to contribute if they are asked.

Provide Incentive Model
This is something that will vary in effectiveness from organization to organization, but consider offering a reward, benefit, perk, or some other incentive to any group who adopts the API documentation guidance. Provide them with praise, and showcase their work. Bring exposure to their work with leadership, and across other groups. Brainstorm creatives ways of incentivizing development groups to get more involved. Establish a list of all development groups, track on ideas for incentivizing their participation and adoption, and work regularly to close them on playing an active role in moving forward your organization’s API documentation strategy.

Punish And Shame Others
As a last resort, for the more badly behaved groups within our organizations, consider punishing and shaming them for not following API documentation guidance, and contributing to overall API governance efforts. This is definitely not something you should not consider doing lightly, and should only be used in special cases, but sometimes teams will need smaller or larger punitive responses to their inaction. Ideally, teams are influenced by praise, and positive examples of why API documentation standards matter, but there will always be situations where teams won’t get on board with the wider organizational API governance efforts, and need their knuckles rapped.

Making Meaningful Change Is Hard
It will not be easy to implement consistent API documentation across any large organization. However, API documentation is often one of the most important stops along the API lifecycle, and should receive significant investment when it comes to API governance efforts. In most situations doing the work for developers, and providing them with blueprints to be successful will accomplish the goal of getting API developers all using a common approach to API documentation. Like any other stop along the API lifecycle, delivering consistent API documentation across distributed teams will take having a coherent strategy, with regular tactical investment to move everything forward in a meaningful way. However, once you get your API documentation house in order, many other stops along the API lifecycle will also begin to fall inline.