Claire Barrett is the Director at APIsFirst and the co-founder of The API Collective. She has more than 50,000 hours of consulting and being consulted to under her belt. In this article, she discusses the importance of the API product manager role and why you need to to grow your own API product management capability.
The role is still emerging in many mature organizations. However, it’s increasingly in demand for realizing an organization’s API strategies and ambitions. While its origins are in the technology sector, we’re seeing it as a capability sought after in all industry sectors, regardless of organization size. Many emerging startups and scale-ups are looking for this type of capability.
If you don’t already have API product manager role(s) in your company, there’s a strong likelihood you will have in the future.
Hiring managers, people in the role, people aspiring to be in the role, or those managing teams in and around the space, all need to understand the expectations of the role, how it’s being positioned in the marketplace, what others are seeking, and how it can be set up for success.
At APIsFirst, we believe in the innate potential and capability of people. An employee-centric view suggests that you’re likely to already have the latent potential, the seedlings of future API product managers within your organization.
An API product manager’s role is arguably still a niche role. It makes it hard for people to be interested in applying for it or wanting to consider it. It’s difficult to describe to friends and family, as it often requires going back to basics and explaining what API stands for.
Leaning on on Martin Eriksson’s history and evolution of Product Management from 2015, it’s worth going back over the genealogy of how we can think of the API product manager role
In 1931, Proctor and Gamble decided to build a team with cross-functional expertise. At the end of the Second World War, Hewlett Packard focused on a product being the voice of a customer. This led to product design and thinking. Organizations like Toyota started leading the way with lean manufacturing practices to eliminate waste and reduce work-in-progress and inventory. There was a strong focus on quality.
This merged with the rise of technology industries at the start of this century. The focus on customer-centricity into software thinking led an explosion in expertise around user experience, customer-managed platforms, and technology spaces. This was supported by findings wrapped up in the agile manifesto.
The technology industry has evolved a fairly clear understanding of what a product means to them. Now, most industries and governments are looking at APIs and their role in product management to unlock value from their existing data and collaborate with organizations in other sectors and industries in new and creative ways.
In 2019, Gartner suggested a definition for a product manager, “Governs the evolution of connections in the ecosystem and determines how they are designed and monetized.”
If your organization doesn’t yet have one or more API product managers, you may likely get asked or involved in creating a role or finding the right people to fulfill this capability.
The API product manager is at the epicenter of wider change such as:
- New business models
- Shift from projects to products
- Technology simplification
API Product Management enables organizations to partner and expand. Whether through open banking, embedded insurance, or embedded healthcare business models, it enables them to deliver it faster.
The API-enabled architecture simplifies complex tech landscapes, making it simpler and quicker to change and renovate. APIs are helping break up monoliths into simpler, smaller Lego blocks. And they’re strengthening their existing APIs.
For an API Manager handling a financial data product, it’s reasonable to expect key role requirements to include:
- Understanding of finance, systems, people, and ways of working in those industries.
- Business knowledge and terminology to understand how those systems could leverage API opportunities.
- Appreciation of processes and ways of working that might differ from the teams they’re used to working with.
While finding an API product manager, you might be able to find a wise owl who: has t all the EQ necessary to manage a myriad of stakeholders, with a great vision for commercial revenue opportunities around API monetisation; but who is challenged by getting IT-related change executed or is at risk of being perceived as out of touch with reality. You might find someone who’s great at delivery, execution, and getting tech solutions in place; but they may not be as comfortable with brainstorming around a fresh API opportunity that calls for innovation and outside-the-box thinking. You could have someone great at crafting a roadmap, getting people, and influencing buy-in to support it.
What is most likely, is that you’ll be unable to find a single person ready-to-go and with all the capabilities you looking for.
It’s best to accept that there will be gaps in the people you find for the role and what you’re looking for. If you’ve got gaps, the key is to look at the gaps that are easier to fill and those that are harder.
Easier to fill gaps include:
- API technical knowhow
- Collaboration practices
Harder skills to source and/or train for include:
- Commerciality and creativity
- Data and systems knowhow
- Relationships and connections
So how do organizations go about filling the gaps?
It’s about providing scaffolding to support the organization’s API priorities at a given point in time. . There are three ways to do this.
Firstly, you can cast a wider net and look for adjacent pools of potential talent to perhaps the traditional ways in which some of these might be deemed technology or product roles could come from. Are there digitally savvy colleagues in business teams? Are there technical writers, business analysts, UX designers, sales, and commercial products people who could be supported with some of those easier-to-fill-a-gap skills?
Secondly, you can invest in the right training and education. It needs to be practical and in the moment. The teams who are getting really good at this are giving people time to self-train, contribute to communities, and find peers in other industries doing similar roles. We often find people too busy to take two or three days off to do intensive training or even logistically, maybe difficult for remote or hybrid teams. So, we’re finding that people get value from workshop boot-camp-type training that can be blended in with their role and give them plenty of opportunities to think and apply what they’re doing. Training needs to replicate the environment.
Lastly, you need to ensure that the expectations for success in the API product manager role meet the organization’s wider objectives, needs, and expectations. While it sounds obvious, it can be harder than it looks. The organizational leadership and funding models may lack easy alignment to getting value from API products—particularly where they cut across traditionally different organizational silos and/or call for high degrees of collaboration between business and IT/tech, and to get real customer feedback.
To conclude, an API product manager role is important for organizations to realize their business and technology strategies. We see the role as only getting bigger from here. As the role becomes increasingly relevant, we predict it will be increasingly competitive to try and fill API product managers from the open market. We believe that finding potential and growing them from within the organization could be the differentiator.