What Makes Charismatic APIs?

I recently finished reading “How Infrastructure Works”, by Deb Chandra. It is a must read if you are doing APIs at scale today. She opens the book by talking about charismatic infrastructure like the Brooklyn Bridge or the St Louis Arch. These are grand collective public infrastructure projects that rise above, stand out, and have a personality all of their own. This look at physical infrastructure got me thinking about APIs (duh), and how Stripe, Twilio, and a handful of other APIs enjoy a status as charismatic APIs. Her story is pushing me to think about why they enjoy this position and why can’t other APIs achieve the same status. Like physical infrastructure, I think there are certain characteristics that render virtual infrastructure more tangible, meaningful, and useful, which will help them not just succeed, but achieve a charismatic status in our stories.

I am working my way through profiling the Twilio and Stripe APIs. They are good APIs, but they aren’t as amazing as everyone holds them up to be. Their designs are fairly clean, but they still make common mistakes like using POST to update resources, and the majority of operations are pretty straightforward CRUD. When you spend time with a lot of APIs, you realize just how unremarkable Stripe and Twilio really are. They aren’t bad, but they aren’t that great in a classic API definition sense. In the space we like to paint in broad strokes when we cite Stripe and Twilio as being the ideal API, but I think there is more to the reasons why these API pioneers have been elevated to charismatic levels. I think it has to do with the simplicity of their APIs, the operation and presence around them, but also, and more importantly the API enabling capabilities these API producers brought to us at the right moment in time.

A big reason we hold up Stripe and Twilio as examples of doing APIs right is their presence. APIs weren’t just a link in the footer developers followed, it was their primary offering. These companies spoke exclusively to developers, providing all the essential building blocks including documentation, SDKs, and the other resources we needed to be successful. Sure, the simplistic design of the APIs played a role, but it was the whole package that helped ensure developers onboarding and integrating with the Stripe and Twilio APIs. When you used these APIs as a developer, you felt like a first class citizen in a world where APIs are often published to the support section. The documentation was useful and up to date. The SDKs spoke your programming language. You could play around with the API without putting your credit card in. These APIs were easy to understand, onboard with, and began playing around, but most importantly they were useful in a moment where they are building the next generation of mobile applications that were being powered by the fast growing API economy.

Eiffel Tower

I think the primary reason these APIs have risen to the level of charismatic APIs is because of the role they play in the API economy over the last decade. In my opinion, API providers like Twilio and Stripe are not the API economy, it is what their API ecosystems enable that represents what we like to call the API economy. You needed messaging and payments to do just about any mobile application today. Ride-sharing, food delivery, and every mobile powered transformation over the last decade depends on essential API resources like the messaging and payment APIs that Twilio and Stripe offer. The simple design, developer presence, and usefulness of Stripe and Twilio are what elevated them to charismatic levels. I have often asked why we haven’t seen more Twilios and Stripes—I am not sure why I do this—we have. Plaid, Slack, Spotify, Slack, Cloudflare, and many other developer favorites boast simple APIs, a developer presence, and a usefulness that expands the API economy.

I have gone through Twilio’s and Stripe’s operations, producing APIs.json and working with their OpenAPIs. I’ve spent time pondering the design of each of their operations, exploring the technical details of their APIs, while thinking deeply about how they fit into the wider API economy and conversation. I’d say their overall operations, presence, and portal are what stands out more than the actual design of their API, but I am confident it is the success of actual integrations and business getting done is what elevated them to the charismatic status they enjoy today. It all worked in concert. I am going to work through AWS, Azure, Cloudflare, and others with the same eye for what elevates them when it comes to mind-share. Is it the design of the API? Is it their overall presence? Or is it the actual number of integrations and applications, and those API consumers talking about that elevate them within the API economy. I am looking for evidence of what makes APIs charismatic, but I am also looking for things I can measure to help rate, rank, and identify who is making an impact in the growing API economy.