Making People Feel Dumb Before Convincing Them To Do Your API Thing

A common narrative that plays out in my household is my wife asking me if I know some authors name, me saying no I do not, and her spending about 3-5 minutes letting me know how I should know this person because they are well-known essential academic storytelling that anyone who is smart should know about. She doesn’t intend to be mean with her response, it is just her approach to knowledge sharing, and something I have gotten used to over the years. However, most of the time, I can tell you that by the time you get to know whatever it is she wants me to learn, I could really care less about who this person is, let alone do the work to learn more about them. A lot of this is about me, as I didn’t go to University I tend to have a thin skin for what I “didn’t learn”, but I’d say this is a narrative approach I see play out daily in the API world, and it is something I try to keep out of my approach to sharing knowledge.

I have watched API experts shame the API inexperienced for well over a decade now. While I did start API Evangelist to try and make APIs more accessible, this type of shaming is still something I am guilty of from time to time. It is common to come across people who are unfamiliar with APIs, even developers and people who build and work with APIs. I’ve long stopped being surprised when I encounter senior developers who don’t know what an HTTP header is, or aware of how to put them to work. So when I encounter people throughout my day, or try to craft blog posts targeting these folks, I try not to assume too much, and make sure I take on an inviting tone. I am looking to put the spotlight on me and what I am doing and not talk about people doing something wrong, or being “less than” because they do not possess some sort of knowledge. I just think most people are out there trying to just live their life, get through the day, and don’t always have the mental bandwidth, energy, or awareness to tune into and give a shit about the big picture.

Like my wife, I think most of the API pundits are well intentioned with their knowledge sharing. I just think they don’t see how they are turning people off to APIs before they ever get a chance to turn them on. Making people feel inadequate because their first API isn’t Level 4 REST, and possesses the latest documentation, code libraries in every language, and has a frictionless onboarding process just isn’t the way to make a first impression and inspire people. While I think people could probably be more curious and have thicker skin when it comes to learning new things about APIs, I feel like the burden is on us, the API leadership to build in-roads—-not put up new walls. Most people really don’t have the time or energy to learn new things, but would also benefit from this new knowledge. So, making API knowledge incremental, accessible, and not overwhelming and shaming folks is pretty critical. Making people feel like shit for what they don’t know while they are just trying to satisfy that Jira ticket before they go home for the week just isn’t conducive to all of us moving forward collectively as an industry, as an enterprise, or simply as a team.

This post is part of a larger body of work I am doing trying to help tune folks into the bigger picture around them. I’ve produced a lot of visuals lately that help show the big picture of what I see across enterprise conversations, with a significant amount of positive feedback, but also a healthy amount of people saying it is too much, too prescriptive, and is just about pointing out what they do not know. As always, I am looking to make my work more approachable and applicable in our daily lives. I don’t want to shame people and make them feel dumb. I want to educate and empower myself with my API knowledge. But, oftentimes breaking through the existing internal narrative folks have on repeat in the background is a pretty difficult thing to do. This is a reality where making them feel dumb is definitely not the first impression I want to be making. So I will be spending more time thinking about how I can make my narratives more uplifting as well as informative. I am looking to keep them more stackable and relevant. Focusing on what people do know, and less about what they do not know. We’ll see how well I can do this in 2023.