Opinion: APIs can solve digital transformation headaches
The COVID-19 pandemic led to a massive deceleration in the global economy, as organisations and even societies have been forced to wind down their activities in line with lockdown restrictions. The UN estimates that worldwide economic losses from the pandemic will surpass $1 trillion.
Yet, despite these immediate and painful costs, a notable side-effect of the pandemic is that it seems to have pushed digital initiatives even further up the agenda for many organisations. The ability to launch new digital initiatives quickly has become even more crucial, so many organisations are now reassessing their capability to accelerate digital transformation and innovate faster than ever.
The dramatic increase in digital demand
Much of this pressure is due to changing habits brought about by national lockdowns. Ofcom’s annual Online Nation report recently revealed that the UK’s internet use surged to record levels in April 2020, as adults spent more than a quarter of their waking day online. Increased use of video calling apps, and the move away from traditional television to video streaming platforms caused the demand for digital services to soar.
As the demand for these services has risen, so too has the expectation for those services to offer a sophisticated, connected experience. In other words, digital products and services have never been so highly valued.
Even as lockdown restrictions begin to ease, these patterns in consumer behaviour and their rising expectations for digital services look set to remain. This puts many organisations in a tricky situation.
Inevitably, budgets have been hit hard by the lockdowns: Gartner estimates that IT spending will fall by 8% in comparison to 2019. With ‘business as usual’ remaining a distant prospect, there’s greater pressure on organisations to find a solution that maximises the value of their existing resources and digital capabilities if they’re to thrive in the ‘new normal’.
Even in normal times, IT departments struggled to meet their digital transformation goals as quickly as required. According to research, 59% of IT directors reported that they were unable to deliver all of their projects last year. Much of this is due to IT complexity and the challenges inherent in trying to integrate various data sources, applications and systems in an agile way that supports the goals of transformation.
All too often, organisations rely on linking capabilities together with point-to-point integrations, which are inflexible and unsuited to the dynamism of modern IT environments. As a result, they find it hard to quickly launch innovative, customer-centric products and services, as they can’t bring together the capabilities that drive them in a cost and time-effective manner.
At the same time, it’s often the case that digital transformation is left largely to the IT department. IT teams – already stretched by their day-to-day maintenance responsibilities – are increasingly tasked with driving the entire organisation forward, with limited support from other teams in the business.
Understandably, this has led to a widening ‘delivery gap’ between what the business expects, and what IT is able to achieve. When we factor in that IT directors will now potentially have fewer resources at their disposal, it’s clear that a solution urgently needs to be found.
APIs and the composable enterprise
To overcome their digital transformation headaches, many organisations have looked to APIs as the solution. With an API strategy in place, IT directors can re-imagine data and capabilities as a series of re-usable ‘building blocks’ that can be plugged in and out to build new products and services quickly.
By exposing these APIs via an integration platform, organisations can foster a culture of reuse, so IT teams don’t need to start every digital project from scratch if part of the capability they need has already been created elsewhere. This is what’s known as a composable enterprise strategy, and it makes for a much more agile operation. At a time when organisations need to maximise the value of their resources, those that foster a composable enterprise will be the examples to follow.
One organisation discovering the value of APIs to navigate the pressures of the new normal is the Rail Delivery Group, the UK’s rail industry membership body. Facing a situation where passenger numbers reduced by as much as 95%, the Rail Delivery Group was able to adapt by prioritising digital innovation and equipping itself to quickly launch new customer-facing services to support the key workers still relying on the rail network.
By embracing an API strategy, rather than putting the brakes on innovation, the Rail Delivery Group has been able to connect various sources of data, to present customers with a joined-up picture of everything that might affect their journey, such as live updates on the facilities available at stations, or seat availability on trains, to help maintain social distancing. As the rail industry ramps up capacity once more, having the agility to quickly roll out new customer-facing innovations such as these will help manage the transition with greater ease.
The new normal
It’s fair to assume that ‘normality’ as we knew it won’t return for some time, and the pandemic will leave a permanent mark on businesses and societies alike. Yet the role the pandemic has played in accelerating digital transformation is one clear effect that organisations cannot ignore. Many were already putting digital initiatives in place long before the crisis, and are now looking at accelerating those projects to deal with the impact of the lockdown on business continuity. All this has effectively underlined the value of digital transformation, and encouraged businesses of all types to get their digital houses in order.
In the ‘new normal’, APIs have emerged as effective catalysts for digital transformation. By unlocking the value of their existing resources, organisations can enable the agility needed to meet new digital demands, and put themselves in a better position to succeed.
Why Your Team Should Contribute to Open Source Projects
Much of the world’s software infrastructure, including that which underpins multibillion-dollar corporations, has been created and maintained by developers, often anonymous, who do it for free in their spare time.
This is the open-source software movement: software whose source code anyone can use and edit. It has united developers from all around the world to create, improve and iterate on flagship software: from well-known consumer products like Firefox and Android, through to key tech infrastructure like Kubernetes.
Open source has served as the training ground for a generation of programmers, developers, and software engineers. It has given them the opportunity to improve their skills and to self-direct, and get involved in projects that they find interesting and meaningful. In fact, according to a new survey, open-source skills are more valued than proprietary ones.
Around 30 years ago, open source-driven innovations were often academic endeavours, sponsored by university IT departments, where students were encouraged to contribute and learn software engineering skills while simultaneously benefiting the university and the wider world.
However, over the last ten years, the world of open source has changed. Today, open-source is seen as the innovation engine across large, forward-thinking enterprises. Organisations are increasingly eager to adopt open-source projects like Linux or Jenkins, whereby they not only leverage technologies but also provide resources to create and contribute to projects. For example, Facebook, Google or LinkedIn embrace open source by creating and building innovative software as communal projects. In fact, open-source technologies and influencers are seen as rock stars in industries from global banking to retailers.
We can see open source everywhere. Projects like Linux, Kubernetes, React.js, or Tensorflow are becoming ubiquitous in IT departments, while open source technologists are quickly becoming the most highly sought-after talent. Innovative organisations are clamouring to build open-source credentials to draw in the best talent to cope with the increasing digital demand on businesses.
Why we all benefit from open source
The ubiquity of open source software means that your organisation is probably already using some of these technologies, many in business-critical applications. By encouraging community participation, organisations have the opportunity to drive change that matters to their business today as well as drive technology innovation forward. Participating in open source helps in-house teams stay motivated and at the cutting edge. Developers want to work on projects they are passionate about. Letting them do this can improve morale, and allowing them to take on challenges they may not face when working on in-house software can help nurture creativity and new approaches.
What’s more, companies that are seen as supporters and leaders in open source are seen as innovators in their industry, increasing motivation internally and visibility externally. In addition, these organisations find it much easier to attract the best IT talent to their businesses in a virtuous cycle of innovation driving innovators.
In the end, there is a clear economic reason to get involved with open source - in 2018, open-source software added between €65 billion and €95 billion to the European economy. It is in everyone’s long-term interest to cultivate and nurture open source projects that can do far more commercial and social good than siloed in-house teams could alone.
Today’s challenge to the open-source movement
While the benefits are clear, some companies don’t see the immediate benefit in letting their teams contribute to open source projects and believe all of an employee’s productive energy should go into work that directly generates revenue. Some organisations have discouraged the use of and contribution to open-source projects in-house or even prevented employees from contributing outside of work.
However, even if companies don’t restrict their out-of-work activity, many developers with full-time jobs simply don’t have the time. Getting seriously into the weeds of an open-source project means a lot of time and energy on coding and fielding bug reports and support requests - often in numbers that an overwhelmed developer minority couldn’t possibly manage completely.
In her book, Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software, Nadia Eghbal notes that almost half of contributors across 275 popular GitHub projects only contributed once - accounting for under 2% of overall ‘commits’.
Helping open source communities helps us all
We all benefit from ensuring that open source projects retain their guiding hands and most experienced talent from a mixture of employed and volunteer contributors. While there will always be a new generation of younger programmers willing to build up their skills and take the reins of open source projects, full-time developers who are motivated and supported by their employers can leverage their experience to take these projects to the next level.
Open source communities should be considered as shared assets. Their engagement provides short- and long-term benefits for companies, contributors, and society as a whole. When it comes to open source communities, we should always keep in mind the classic problem of the tragedy of the commons - it is a shared space that benefits everyone, and we have to actively work to ensure that both developers creating and companies using open source software put in and take away a balanced contribution. The very companies that put the most energy into helping the open-source movement stand to gain the most from it flourishing.