The Human API ManifestoSeptember 18th, 2018 · 28 comments
The Bezos Mandate
In 2002, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos sent a mandate to his employees that has since become legendary in IT circles. It reads as follows:
- All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.
- Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.
- There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team’s data store, no shared-memory model, no back-doors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network.
- It doesn’t matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pubsub, custom protocols — doesn’t matter.
- All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.
- Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired.
- Thank you; have a nice day!
This directive, which some informally call Bezos’s “API Manifesto,” transformed Amazon.
To be sure, transitioning to these formal APIs made life harder in the short term for its engineers. It was also expensive, both in terms of the money spent to develop the new interfaces, and the time lost that could have been dedicated to projects producing immediate revenue.
But once the company embraced Bezos’s mandate, it was able to operate its systems much more efficiently. It also enabled the launch of the public-facing Amazon Web Services, which now produces a much needed influx of profit, and allowed Amazon’s web store to easily expand to encompass outside merchants, a key piece in their retail strategy.
The impact of the API Manifesto has since expanded to the IT industry as a whole. From start-ups to massive organizations, the idea that information systems are more valuable when interacting through clearly specified and well supported API’s has become common.
Last week, for example, the cofounder of an IT firm told me the story of how he helped a large financial services firm implement an API for a set of services that were previously accessed in an ad hoc manner (think: batched FTP).
It cost the firm a little over a million dollars to make this transition. He estimates it now helps them earn an additional $100 million in revenue each year through a combination of cost savings and the new customer acquisition applications enabled by providing a clearly specified and accessible interface for these services.
On Attention Capital
When I heard about the API manifesto, a provocative thought popped into my head: could these same underlying ideas apply to communication between people?
To provide some background to this question, let me first remind readers that my attention capital theory argues that the most valuable capital resource in a knowledge work organization is the brains of its employees. Or, to be more specific, the capacity of these brains to focus on information, process it through neurons, and then output more valuable information.
Success in knowledge work is about getting the best possible return on this attention capital, much as success in the industrial sector is about getting the best possible return from physical capital (factory equipment, trucks, shipping containers, etc.).
I believe that many knowledge work organizations currently get sub-standard returns on their attention capital because the workflows they deploy — which are often unspecified and emerged haphazardly — depend too heavily on constant, unstructured communication, which conflicts with the way the human brain operates, reducing these brains’ capacity to think deeply and produce valuable output.
The natural follow up question to this observation is to ask what work would look like without constant unstructured messaging. It’s this follow-up question that brings me back to APIs…
The Human API Manifesto
Imagine if a Jeff Bezos figure at a major knowledge work firm sent a mandate to his or her employees that read something like this:
- Our work will be seen as a collection of processes that take in specific inputs and produce specific outputs. Individuals are associated with the processes that they support.
- Each process has well-defined and well-documentated communication protocols specifying how information comes into the process and how it leaves. It also has protocols specifying how the individuals associated with the process internally coordinate, including when and how this coordination occurs. We call these protocols human APIs (hAPIs).
- There will be no other form of inter-personal communication allowed: no generic email inbox or instant messenger channel that can be used for any purpose, and no casually dropping by someone’s office to make a request. The only communication is through hAPIs.
- Different hAPI specifications will include different technologies. Some will include no technologies at all. The details of the tools used to implement these protocols are less important than the protocols themselves.
- If a particular request or notification seems too minor to justify its own process, or hAPI within an existing process, consider eliminating it. The need to specify hAPIs will help our organization focus more relentlessly on activities that create real value, and help eliminate minor asks that are convenient in the moment, but end up reducing the return on our attention capital in the long term.
- Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired.
- Thank you; have a nice day!
Brilliant or Blunder?
A mandate like this would either turn out brilliant or a colossal blunder, which is exactly why it intrigues me.
The arguments in favor of this being brilliant include the observation that well-crafted protocols can minimize the cognitive overhead required to keep track of the different projects and tasks on your plate. Instead of drowning in an ever-filling pool of messages, you can instead work to satisfy a clear set of expectations and optimized action.
The structured nature of this communication also eliminates the requirement to constantly monitor general-purpose communication channels, which helps minimize attention residue — generating a non-trivial boost in your cognitive capacity. As I argued in Deep Work, if you can avoid constant “quick checks” of inboxes and channels, you can learn hard things faster, and produce higher quality output in less time.
In addition, well-documented hAPIs make it easier to integrate new hires or seamlessly hand off responsibilities when someone is sick or away on vacation, enabling a much more flexible deployment of an organization’s attention capital.
And as hinted above, the specificity required to implement hAPIs forces an organization to be transparent about all the ways their attention capital is being tapped, supporting a move toward long term value production and away from short term convenience.
On the other hand, there are many reasons to suspect this human API approach could prove disastrous if embraced.
For one thing, it would be a massive pain to have to reduce the messy ambiguity of the typical knowledge work organization to a set of clearly specified processes and hAPIs.
Even once completed, this approach might not be nearly agile enough to keep up with unexpected needs or demands, creating lots of hard edges at which projects are stalled or opportunities missed.
It’s also possible that my attention capital theory is wrong. The current trend in workflows within the knowledge sector is to prioritize flexible coordination over maximizing cognitive output. Maybe this is actually the best thing to do.
Finally, it’s worth acknowledging the practical difficulty of getting an entire organization to actually buy in to such a radical transformation (for more on this, see Sam Carpenter’s Work the System).
An Ambiguous Conclusion
Something like the human API approach might be the key to evolving the knowledge sector to a new level of effectiveness. Or it’s stupid.
I can’t quite tell.
If you’ve had any experience with this type of approach (for better or for worse) in your own organization, I’d love to hear about it (firstname.lastname@example.org). If the idea sparks a strong reaction in you (for better or for worse), I’d love for you to elaborate in the comments.