Five years and five days ago, Kin Lane decided to quit his job as vice president of technology for WebEvents Global, which handled events for SAP, and take a leap into the unknown. He had one goal: to become an API evangelist.
To be clear, Lane wasn’t leaving one corporate job to start another. His rogue development of RESTful APIs had made him the victim of his own success, which included regular conference calls with India at 10 p.m. and Germany at 2 a.m. "It wasn’t sustainable as a career even though I was making good money," he says.
So Lane began his odyssey. A self-taught software engineer, he understood not only the technical details of APIs, but also the dynamics of the emerging API economy led by such pioneers as Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, Salesforce, and Twitter, all of which were using APIs to extend their businesses.
"When cloud, social, and mobile started converging in mid-2010, that was the tipping point for me," he says. "I started compiling research across the API providers and started telling stories about it. Five years later, I’m still doing that."
This quest did not begin with gainful employment. "I had nothing but a little bit of savings," he says. "The first two and a half years it was definitely couch surfing, sleeping in airports, and really bad hotels." Sometimes, his evangelism would take him to a city and he'd lack the airfare to return home.
A set of deeply held convictions sustained him. "I truly believe in the transformative power of APIs when they’re done right," he says. "The bedrocks of industry -- insurance and government and healthcare -- are being broken down. There’s a chance there for the democratization of those resources and assets. There’s a digital transformation going on. Whether it’s mobile or social or cloud or the Internet of things, APIs are the pipes for that."
Agitating for open data
Lane's journey took a new turn in 2012 when President Obama mandated that all federal agencies were required to make their data machine-readable by default. On the surface this seemed like a triumph for open data, which Lane calls "the gateway drug" for APIs, because the job of most APIs is to deliver useful data on command.
But Lane was not content to take the government's word for it. He began pestering various agencies, asking what they were doing to meet the mandate and offering help.
Through this persistence Lane made contacts at the White House, which resulted in him receiving a Presidential Innovation Fellowship in 2013. He was assigned to the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he worked toward meeting the mandate's November 2013 deadline. His job was to find key assets -- databases of VA hospitals, substance abuse programs, national cemeteries, and so on -- clean them up, get them certified, and make them accessible via RESTful APIs.
Unfortunately, 90 days into that endeavor, Congressional deadlock over the Affordable Care Act led to the Oct. 1, 2013, government shutdown. Lane had already tidied up data sets and published them on GitHub and was organizing a 600-attendee hackathon in New York where participants would develop apps on top of those APIs to benefit veterans. He was told to go home.
Lane replied that he would go home -- and continue work on the VA project. He was informed that he most certainly could not, nor could he even check email without risking being brought up on charges. He responded by quitting the Fellowship and continuing to do the work without pay. To this day, various government agencies contact him and ask for assistance. "When I have time and the bandwidth I’ll jump on those things and make them happen," he says.
The evangelist ascends
Around the same time as his brush with the Fed, Lane's career as an independent API evangelist began getting traction. He now enjoys the support of three API technology companies -- 3scale, Restlet, and WS02 -- that sponsor his API Evangelist website, which he describes as "a network of research projects" that reside in over 100 GitHub repositories containing details on everything from API deployment to API management to directories of public APIs. His evangelist role also extends to organizing industry events, including API Strategy & Practice, APIdays, and Summer of APIs.
Lane has also worked with the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) on API copyright issues stemming from Oracle's legal challenge to Google over the latter's appropriation of Java APIs (punctuated last week by the Supreme Court's refusal to hear Google's appeal). Copyright has a chilling effect on the API economy, because developers need to avoid duplicating existing APIs unless they are explicitly licensed as open.
In response, Lane created API Commons, where any API developer can declare their API open for others to "reuse and remix" under a Creative Commons license. Though Lane says API Commons has enjoyed lots of attention, most of the APIs listed there have been contributed by nonprofits, government agencies, and universities. So far commercial interests are "holding their cards close to their vests," he says.
Meanwhile, rather than worrying about who will litigate next, Lane continues his mission to cultivate the API ecosystem. With the help of 3scale he has established APIs.json, a new format for documenting APIs with the "licensing, pricing, technical, political, and business specs" people need. This summer Lane says he is profiling approximately a thousand companies as a part of that endeavor, while concurrently working on an API search portal, APIs.io, to enable discovery of APIs across the Internet.
Lane also has advice for enterprise technologists looking to develop and manage APIs:
Stop, step back, and look at the essence of why you’re working. If you let your IT or development teams own your API programs, that can work against you. It’s about more transparency, cultural shifts, and access to resources, but in a secure way. There’s a simplicity to it, there’s a distributed, lightweight, transparent aspect to it that I think a lot of enterprises are struggling with, because it’s not in their DNA. They deal with large software and large datasets.
We’re learning to decouple these large things and break them down into more manageable units. How do you decouple an enterprise without it being dismantled? I think that’s what a lot of people fear. But if you’re going to put an Internet of things online, you’re going to have to start thinking about things in different ways. So approach your API program not like it’s just a technical endeavor. It’s also a business and political endeavor.
Those are words worth heeding. After all, at this point, it's safe to say that no other person has done more research or spent more time dealing with the politics and technical details of APIs than Kin Lane. The API Evangelist has spoken.