[Q&A] The Importance of Internal API Developer Portals

  June 26, 2018

The Swagger team recently traveled to Austin, Texas for the Nordic APIs Austin Summit. The Austin API Summit was a three-day event, jam-packed with workshops and critical insights on building success in the API ecosystem. At the event, I was fortunate to have the chance to catch up with a few of the presenters to learn more about the work that they’re involved in, and the opportunities and challenges they see in the API space.

In this interview, I caught up with Kristof Van Tomme, CEO and co-founder of Pronovix. Kristof is an open source strategist and architect. Pronovix is a consultancy that specializes in developer portals for API programs.

In his talk at Austin API Summit, Internal Developer Portals: Developer Engagement Behind the Firewall, Kristof spoke about the need for more content for internal APIs, and shared insights on the importance of internal API developer portals.

In our discussion, we talked about Kristof’s passion for internal API developer portals, and the lessons he’s learned from his experience working with large organizations on developer portals.

You can watch and read our full conversations below.

Hi Kristof, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Could you tell me a little bit more about what brings you to the Austin API Summit?

When I heard that Nordic APIs was going to do an event in Austin, I wanted to be part of it because I really loved their event in Stockholm! I thought it was a great thing to participate in, and thought it’d be a good opportunity to and help grow here in US.

I'm trying to promote the need for more content for internal APIs, which is for the developers working with APIs behind an internal firewall. In our work with customers and their developer portals, that was a really big surprise for us. We thought it was going to be mostly about marketing to external consumers. And most developer portals are still about marketing externally, and so for most of the API portals we do are about getting to an MVP for a public API.

That's something that I got really passionate and excited about. I like finding people that have big needs, and then trying to help them and to look for new problems that nobody is talking about yet. And I think this is a big problem.

At the end of the day, we're building APIs for developers, be it internal engineers or external partners. What do you think would be the biggest challenge right now in the developer portal space?

I think the biggest challenge is that so far there's no general understanding of what partners really need. We started as a Drupal Agency. We've been almost 12 years in a Drupal market. It feels like on one hand, you have the web agencies, and they just treat this as a website project. And then on the other hand, you have the API companies that have built their business around an API, and they have their own internal team doing their dev portal. But it's only about their site, and there's no general patterns that you can extract from that.

One of the things we've been doing is looking at the space, trying to figure out what are the different types of content you need; creating common language for that so that we can increase the understanding and come to a shared understanding in the space about the different types of documentation you need.

The different types of users that you need to cater to, and that it's not just purely about developers. It's also about business users. Marketing is important, and you should be generous and not manipulative. There's a lot of understanding that needs to be built.

Besides that, I think most of the time what you see that the people that are building developer portals are on API teams, so they're developers, and they just want to build their own thing. As a result, you often see these “franken-sites,” where you have a bunch of different tools that are cobbled together.

There is no information architecture. You end up clicking on something in some different space, and you don't know anywhere how you got there or where you are exactly. And I think there's just a lack of maturity in the space.

It's good that this conference allows us get together as a community, and help each other solve these problems. You're absolutely right, there is a lack of maturity in some of the spaces, but hopefully as we move forward in the future, this will get solved.

I think there's already a lot happening. We're launching the “Dev Portal Awards,” which we hope is going to help with getting everybody on the same page about what matters, about what's important for dev portals.

Right now, when you ask people: “What's a good developer portal?” they'll say the same three names. They may have good experiences, but it feels a little bit like people are stuck on this, and people are just repeating the names that they've heard other people say. I really wonder if these are still the most innovative companies in this space.

And there's also a lot of different aspects to developer experience, and I don’t think just having three examples works. In the banking industry, sandboxes are really, really important. For some other industries, it's not that important. So having these different aspects, and giving proper attention to it, and also recognizing and celebrating innovation I think is important the help the ecosystem move forward.

I could not agree more with that more! The Dev Portal Awards sounds super exciting, when is that happening?

We’re about to launch the site. We've announced it on the API the Docs Conference we organized in Paris. The next one is going be in November. There we're going to announce the winners. We're going to start doing nominations in the next few weeks, with popular votes, and a jury vote. I'm really excited to see what's going to come out of it.

I'm excited to see that as well. Final question is any particular insights that you learned in this conference?

I've been doing a lot of thinking about pattern languages. Somehow it feels like this conference was the first time I got really resonance on this topic of internal developer importance. At this point, that’s my biggest takeaway. There was a lot of talks about treating APIs as products, but that is not new, and is something we've seen before. Somewhere between those two at this point.

That's awesome. Thank you so much Kristoff, I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to just talk to me.

Thank you!

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