Today we dive a little behind the scenes of technology to cover a topic that is a must know for executives – Advanced Programmers Interfaces, more commonly referred to as API’s. Did I lose you already? Trust me I have had my share of eye rolls when discussing this topic; the name alone screams WAY TOO TECHY! But trust me, they concept is pretty straight forward, and it is extremely important. So hold on to your seats, today we discuss a specific API called the REST API!

A Little Background – Life is Good

Before we dig in too deep, a little background may be in order. When you look at the evolution of technology over the past few years, you can’t help but notice the fact that everything is “cloud based”. And although we’ve had to tolerate hearing cloud-this and cloud-that for the a while now, there is a pretty big upside. For me one of the best parts of this movement are cloud based SaaS (software as a service application).  Think Salesforce, Mailchimp, Constant Contact, MS CRM, Google Apps, etc. Renting software online for a monthly fee makes sense for businesses. There are no servers to purchase or manage at your location, no upgrades to perform, or software to install. Most vendors provide per user pricing models that can be started and stopped, and the software is becoming more and more usable. So a great victory, right?

The Downside to Living in the Clouds

Well, yes and no.. of course.. There is actually a pretty large downside to some these online tools – Data silos. If you are unfamiliar with the term, here’s a quick explanation. Basically the each online applications you use can store a little bit of your data; contact records, A/R and A/P information, sales leads, marketing lists, product information, inter-office documents, etc. The more online applications you use, the more your data is split apart and stored in different locations. If the online applications can’t talk to each other your data can become disconnected. The disconnected data are referred to as data silos. And unfortunately when your data gets split updating information becomes a pain, and building useful reports is much more complicated. So what’s a company to do? Well let’s circle back to why we are here in the first place, API’s.

Our Hero – The REST API

Well wouldn’t you know, there is a technology out there that helps applications talk to and share data stored within them. The technology, you guessed it, is called API’s (I told you it was important). These API’s enable programmers to connect different applications together to share information. Specifically the REST API is the type of API commonly built for web based, or cloud-based, applications. It should be clear now why over the past few years there has been a tremendous push for online software vendors to develop these REST API’s. The best part is, this has resulted in thousands of developers building some amazing integration tools (and we didn’t have to pay them to do it!). These integration tools allow online applications to communicate, share information, and eliminate data silos!

This is great news for businesses. Historically getting systems to talk to each other has been very expensive, and has required custom software to be written. These new integration tools are making it easier and easier for business to share information, and that means more data, better reporting, and less manual effort to sync the data from disparate  systems. So let’s get to the point, how can businesses use this information to make strategic software purchasing decisions? Here are a couple of bullets to help.

Tips for Building a Strategy around REST API’s:

  • When looking at online tools, make sure the application you are analyzing offers a REST API. You can usually find this information on their website, or just ask their sales team. The more you look around, the easier it will be to find the information going forward.
  • Before selecting a new online tool, take a look at the applications it already integrates with. If you are currently using a tool on their supported integration list, awesome. If not, maybe the list will provide potential replacement tools you can evaluate.
  • Make sure you test the integration with the apps you intend to use. Some integration tools are still pretty limited in the amount of information they can share. If you are having trouble deciding between a few tools, error on the side of the more complete integration. Sharing data between systems is usually much more important than the “extra” feature you think at some point, some day, you “might” use.
  • Don’t be afraid of trying new tools. If you find something new that has a REST API, has a good list of integration tools, and looks like it will work for your business, give it a try. Most online companies offer trial periods, or month-to-month contracts. Spending a couple bucks for a one month demo is well worth it in my opinion.

Finally, remember online applications are a fantastic way to quickly roll-out new software, but connecting your data is just as important. REST API’s are helping to create these connections, but they are not everywhere yet. Keep your eyes open for them, and try to avoid moving to an online apps solely because it’s all the rage! If it doesn’t have a REST API, it might be more trouble than it’s worth. How well you use the technology you have is much more important than “what” technology you have.