What Is an API-First Company?


The concept of API-first has been picking up momentum over the last five years, but it is something that often means different things depending on who you talk to. So, we wanted to take a moment and try to define what an API-first company is. The API-first companies we know all understand that learning to deliver applications using a mix of internal and external services via APIs is an essential part of their digital transformation. Having a solid API platform for connecting many internal, partner, and public APIs while also leveraging a well-known API lifecycle sets API-first companies apart from those that are API-last.

After studying API-first companies we work with, we noticed some distinct characteristics that make them stand out from those who are earlier in their API journey. It’s much more than just technical details that define what makes a company API-first. Rather than just being concerned with the specifics of each API, an API-first approach is actually more about looking at the teams and operations around those APIs.

Here are the 13 specific areas that we see as defining what an API-first company is. We hope this checklist will help you understand what sets API-first organizations apart from those who haven’t quite woken up to the role APIs are playing in the global digital economy.

13 traits of an API-first company

1. There is a living API strategy

API-first companies have a well-planned, documented, and shared API strategy defining their operations. They prioritize APIs with a central definition of why they are doing APIs and have a shared understanding of what the API lifecycle is across teams. This means that companies are getting more organized about how they think about APIs in order to understand the sprawling API and microservices landscape: they establish centralized groups to define the API lifecycle and governance while leveraging federated approaches to keep teams in alignment with central enterprise API strategies.

2. APIs are prioritized over applications

API-first companies are prioritizing the development and management of APIs over the development and operation of any single web, mobile, or device application. They make sure that every API is designed, developed, and supported as part of a larger enterprise API ecosystem beyond any application that uses it, ensuring that APIs always have documentation and are tested and secured according to organizational-wide API governance guidelines. This approach provides much higher quality, reliable, and secure infrastructure behind the applications and integrations in use across the enterprise.

3. API discovery is the default

API-first companies are able to quickly find APIs and microservices via private, partner, and public API catalogs, searching and browsing across the digital resources and capabilities in use across the enterprise. Teams know they can find not just the APIs, but also all of the supporting artifacts and resources around APIs across team workspaces and repositories. They are mapping out the entire API landscape that exists across API-first organizations, and doing the manual and automated work to keep API catalogs always up to date. This lays a more solid foundation when it comes to API discovery across an organization, ensuring that APIs can be found before new APIs are to be developed and that APIs are easily found for use in an application or integration.

4. Visibility is clear inside and outside

API-first companies confidently operate APIs internally within the enterprise and externally with trusted partners, or even publicly via third-party developers. API-first companies are not concerned about the boundaries between private and public APIs because they have a handle on their identity and access management layer, the security across APIs, and the observability needed to understand how APIs are being put to use. With visibility across APIs, who has access to them, and what they are doing with the digital resources and capabilities, teams confidently deliver and operate APIs privately or publicly. They operate APIs within clearly defined business domains where the balance between security, privacy, and accessibility is always at optimal levels.

5. Quality is consistent across teams

API-first companies experience higher levels of quality across the APIs behind their web, mobile, and device applications. 100% of the APIs in production have contract and API performance tests available, ensuring that APIs are always doing what they are designed to do and meet the SLA on their API contract. API testing is centrally defined but then locally implemented as individual executable collections that developers can manually run during development, but then integrated into the CI/CD pipeline and scheduled via monitors. This standardizes testing across the organization while ensuring quality is part of each team’s toolbox for designing, developing, deploying, and managing APIs.

6. Security is shifting to the left

Following up after quality, API-first companies also require that every API being put in production has a security collection present, allowing the surface area of each API to be scanned and evaluated for common vulnerabilities. This requires APIs to be in alignment with central security practices and also an executable security collection that developers can use during development, bake into the CI/CD pipeline, and schedule as a monitor. Companies are shifting API security left in the API lifecycle while keeping it working in concert across an organization so that all APIs are consistently secured against the most common vulnerabilities and the latest threats.

7. Productivity is optimized across teams

Within API-first companies, teams are always working across well-defined workspaces using common standards, artifacts, and patterns while following an agreed-upon API lifecycle that is well-defined and automated whenever possible. Teams have the training they need to design, develop, deploy, manage, and iterate upon APIs in a collaborative and discoverable way, allowing teams to work in concert across multiple workspaces that are kept in sync with repositories and CI/CD workflows. How API-first organizations do APIs is much more proven, shared, and observable; the approach gives teams a better understanding of what success looks like, and new stakeholders are able to get up to speed and find what they need faster. This results in much more productivity across teams and domains, with higher quality and more reliability existing with consumers.

8. Velocity is maximized across teams

Teams within an API-first company work across a well-known API lifecycle that is defined and enabled by an API platform that empowers them to move faster and deliver higher quality APIs across operations. APIs in an API-first company are right-sized to focus on a specific problem within a domain while being developed by a known team that is working in a well-defined workspace where you have all the artifacts, mock servers, documentation, testing, history, and other details available at your fingertips. APIs are much more precise in their implementation and are much easier and lightweight to move along a well-defined API lifecycle that possesses a feedback loop across the team but also with consumers. A cycle is set in motion that can effectively deliver and then iterate upon APIs faster while ensuring they are also better meeting the needs of consumers.

9. There is observability across all operations

API-first companies enjoy more observability into the health and activity across 100% of APIs. They pipe the outputs from across all APIs into existing reporting and APM solutions to establish awareness regarding each API instance and the governance that exists across APIs. They also leverage collections that are defined for testing, security, governance, and other areas of the lifecycle and monitors that are scheduled across different regions to provide the outputs needed to achieve observability at scale. With 100% of the APIs having testing, security, and governance applied through modular executable collections, teams can better make sense of the state of the complex enterprise system and make more informed decisions.

10. Governance becomes much easier

API governance becomes much more doable in an API-first company. With APIs possessing discoverable and machine-readable artifacts, you are able to better govern the design of each API being delivered. With well-defined workspaces containing artifacts, documentation, testing, and monitoring, critical aspects of operating our APIs are always in place. With executable collections present for testing and governance, teams can realize the observability needed across all APIs—which allows better understanding of the state of enterprise operations at scale. The core elements of API-first, like discoverability, quality, security, and observability, all contribute to making API governance possible across teams.

11. Standards are always baked in

Common web, industry, and organizational standards are much more ubiquitous across API-first companies than those who are earlier on in their API journey. API-first companies understand how API standards help reduce the cognitive load necessary to make sense of what APIs do while also reducing friction when it comes to documenting, testing, and integrating with APIs. They leverage standards to make APIs more intuitive, consistent, and speak to specific domains using a common vocabulary that makes sense to the widest possible audience. API-first companies understand how API standards and common patterns help contribute to almost every aspect of operations, helping them produce APIs in a way that makes them more reliable for consumers and lightening their load.

12. Regulations are just part of doing business

API-first companies see regulations as a normal constraint to doing business in any sector. With discoverability the default in an API-first company, and all data defined as simple, reliable, and observable APIs, planning for regulation and responding to any inquiries from regulators becomes much easier. Regulation compliance is then a less daunting task for teams, and acknowledging regulatory constraints is just a natural part of doing business in a digital world. This even allows API-first companies to reduce the overhead of regulatory reporting by utilizing the APIs provided by regulatory agencies as part of their own API journeys. API-first companies understand the important role APIs are playing in transforming the relationship between the public and private sector.

13. Innovation is a priority for teams

Teams within API-first companies have more time for innovation. With a more streamlined lifecycle around APIs driving productivity and quality, teams have much more breathing room when it comes to thinking about what really mattersand what the next killer products and features might be. If teams aren’t just responding to problems with existing operations and are able to more confidently move forward with new products and features, they will have an increased likelihood of investing in the innovation that matters to consumers. We all want to think of our organizations as being more innovative, and API-first allows us to handle the current state of our API operations so that we can push for new work that has a much greater impact on the future of organizations and the industries we operate in.

The shift to API-first is leading us into the future

These are just a few of the key characteristics of companies who have realized that APIs are behind every major technological shift behind our online world, from mobile to the cloud. API-first companies understand that APIs are not just isolated technical concepts; they define how your business operates online today and are what will define your digital transformation for many years to come. API-first is much more than just the technical details of APIs defined by developers; it is about establishing a collective mindset across the enterprise to have a strategy for how APIs will be done, and leveraging APIs to realize more productivity, velocity, and quality across teams.

Companies who have moved their operations into an API-first world see APIs as key to not just doing business, but defining how business is done within their industries. Every enterprise organization across any business sector is doing APIs in 2021. This isn’t about whether to do APIs or not. This is about prioritizing what you are already doing behind every aspect of your operations in a more organized and deliberate way. Companies are increasingly learning to strategize how to design, develop, deploy, and manage APIs, and they’re prioritizing API infrastructure over any application or integration that depends on it. This is a major shift that will have a significant downstream impact across all of your applications, systems, and teams, and will change the way you look at your business and the industries you operate within for the foreseeable future.

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