An API platform team isn’t just about the code. They are tasked with connecting application programming interfaces—and literally the whole IT infrastructure—to business value. After all, 90 percent of new digital services are built as composite applications via public or private APIs. All developers need an API-first mindset because pretty much all developers need to at least consume APIs, but there are some roles in particular that are important stewards of our API economy.
Besides managerial roles, an API platform team is dominated by API developers and API architects. Documentation writers and developer advocate roles are also vitally important. API roles are technical, but they come with important qualitative aspects to bridge the gap between business and tech. Today we highlight the in-demand skills needed to land and succeed at an API developer job, and then to progress onto becoming an API architect.
Wanted: Better API Developers
The role of an API developer is ever-expanding, as they have to be open to constantly learning from the engineering and business stakeholders across teams, companies and ecosystems.
As ProgrammableWeb’s Chris Wood put it, “An API developer acts as a conduit, taking an organization’s aspirations for the API economy and turning them into something practical. API developers’ primary focus, therefore, is to interpret the vision for the API that has been set by the organization’s stakeholders.”
Making this vision into a reality is what we like to call API-first thinking. As Richard Grant defined the role on the Recruitee Blog: “An API developer takes an organization's aspirations in the API economy and converts them into a practical solution.”
There are many definitions of what API developers do, but it’s clear they act as important collaborators across all stakeholders, as well as have necessary technical expertise.
Before you test their technical chops, a candidate should be able to demonstrate how they are a strong collaborator and a supportive teammate. But again, the smaller the organization, the more important it is to hire for culture even before technology.
VP of research and product innovation at SlashData, Christina Voskoglou, told me they don’t necessarily have enumerated top API developer skills, but they want to hear how the candidates have used third-party versus private, internal APIs and in which categories.
To get to know how API developers make decisions and build and use APIs, the SlashData team asks:
- What are the most important features for deciding to use a third-party API? Voskoglou gave the example of pricing, community support, architectural style and performance.
- What are the top challenges you’ve faced as an API developer or consumer? This is often insufficient API documentation, a lack of tutorials, or an unsuitable communication protocol.
On top of the above, Voskoglou said, “We could ‘filter’ for devs using specific API categories, or say devs with specific challenges or needs, and look into things like their experience, where they learned to code, what they’re building, or which industries they’re in.” This helps them construct a broader picture of the candidate and take a more holistic approach to getting to know them.
Sure, your candidate may receive a technical interview, but this more low-key social interview technique shows how equally important qualitative information can be to finding the right API developer.
An API Developer Must Always Be Learning
One of the best API developer job descriptions I’ve seen in a while is from the always admirable team at LEGO. This brief Associate API Engineer job description spends more time on the API management team’s goals rather than individual responsibilities, and places more onus on the DevOps and employee-focused company culture than ticking a laundry list of API developer skills.
A good thing to note in this API developer job description is that they are looking for experience “in a tool like...”:
- Experience in creating and hosting an API…
- Proficient with one or more general purpose programming language like TypeScript, C#, Java…
- Experience with CI/CD in a tool like GitHub Actions, Jenkins, TeamCity…
- Experience with Infrastructure as Code, could be CDK, Pulumi, Terraform...
The LEGO team, of course, wants someone with experience in creating and hosting APIs, but from there they aren’t fussed about which tools. Because, as Google Cloud’s Kelsey Hightower put it, “A career in tech is less about learning a specific tool as it is the willingness to learn a different tool when the time comes.”
API developer skills are less what tools you’ve used and more about your ability to adapt and learn. As long as your company is API-first, you don’t have to worry about vendor lock-in, making you more reliant on processes and less on specific open source and proprietary software.
The LEGO team goes on to list nice-to-haves that tend to be more emerging technology over the last five years or so that maybe on elite DevOps teams have adopted so far. By labeling as such, they aren’t aiming to deter applicants without experience in these technologies, but rather giving a glimpse into the API developer skills they will hone on the API platform team.
Specifically, the addition of OAuth and identification providers, shows they are looking for API developer skills around security and authorization. Since the connectivity of APIs inherently broaden the attack surface of any organization—with a 681 percent increase in API attacks last year alone—all API developers should show concern with API security and privacy. Any company worth its salt should be asking this in API developer interviews—if not, it’s a red flag. Again, it would be impossible to plan for the increasingly sophisticated attack vectors, but you should show you’re curious no matter what.
As Arnaud Lauret, author of The Design of Web APIs, wrote, “Building an efficient API platform requires knowing what tools people building APIs are using, why they use them, and how.” While he spends significant time advocating API developers know certain specifications and API design patterns, he concluded that “Having built or consumed APIs is usually a good way to acquire this knowledge.”
As Axway said, you need to be fluent in multiple coding languages and cloud platforms, but, in the end, API development and maintenance also demands certain qualities, too. This includes curiosity and an eagerness to always learn. The rest of API developer skills can be honed by the right team and an effective API management platform.
There are, of course, certain technical trends that familiarity or experience with which help you succeed as an API developer:
- GraphQL query language
- WebSocket protocol
- gRPC open source RPC framework
- Event-driven architecture
- OpenAPI specification or OAS
Making the Move from API Developer to API Architect
As you continue in your API developer career, you may want to move even closer to delivering business value by becoming an API architect. As Keith Casey put it in A Practical Approach to API Design: “Being an architect takes social skills built on the foundation of the technical.”
The API architect takes empathy and business savvy and applies it on top of the technical experience of an API developer, usually having built and connected systems. Casey argues you have to have tried and both failed and succeeded before you can have the knowledge and authority to move across departments.
“The credibility of I’ve been there, done that, here’s what I faced before, here’s what I understood. And being able to design, build and describe everything from beginning to end,” Casey said.
Yes, an API architect has to have technical prowess, but most importantly needs the ability to build empathy for the API consumer. An API architect builds API first, of course, and also dogfoods their own APIs — especially before exposing them externally. Testing out an API internally first ensures you have a product you’re truly proud to stand behind and helps create a more authentic, empathetic connection with early adopters and other important API consumers.
Executive API consultant James Higginbotham has spotted a pattern he calls the six different hats of the API architect:
- API planner: Has an eye on the bigger picture, API strategy and improving an organization’s API portfolio.
- API trend-spotter: Heavy API gateways user, and loves metrics and dashboards to make informed decisions on where APIs are most and least used, in order to drive API strategy.
- API reviewer: Is an empath who yearns to understand what people do or do not, which in turn influences the API design process.
- API risk assessor: Has years of experience and wants to understand why something might not work, looking for API design antipatterns.
- API advocate: Focuses on the business benefit of the API and looks to improve API developer experience and usability.
- API creator: Looks to improve existing APIs, which involves a close relationship and feedback loop with existing users.
It is necessary for developers to wear each of these hats in order to provide full API lifecycle maintenance and best participate in the API economy.
If you’ve had significant experience as an API developer and think you have the necessary empathy and strategic mindset, you may have the right API architect skillset to increase your team’s success.
Rakshith Rao is CEO and Co-founder of APIwiz.