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API Community Debates Governance versus Innovation

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The need for "API Governance" was a hot topic at the recent API Strategy and Practice conference, which brought together API practitioners and experts from a broad spectrum of startups, vendors and enterprises.

Lorinda Brandon, director of solutions strategy at Smartbear Software reported on the debate asking whether governance and innovation "had to be enemies." Lorinda notes that among the diversity of attendees at the conference there is still the same old gap between the enterprise and the start-up that we have come to expect. "For as long as I've been in the industry, the difference has always been around governance and process vs rapid innovation."

Lorinda observes that most of the technologists at the conference were there to drive innovation at the forefront of the new API ecosystem, but the big companies have pressures from customers who insist on reliability and quality. Lorinda wants a foot in each camp—how to innovate and "have fun" without the industry crashing on its head for want of process and quality controls. Lorinda concludes that "governance and innovation together could make perfect partners if we could figure out how to combine them."

API Evangelist Kin Lane and one of the conference organizers continued Lorinda's thoughts asking if there is a better word than "governance." Governance comes with both positive and negative connotations. Negative synonyms include: power, bureaucracy, authority, control. Conversely positive synonyms include: guidance, influence, coordination and standardization. Kin laments many executives don't understand that too much power and control can stifle innovation, that APIs need "oxygen" to grow and evolve before achieving a level of innovation.

This is reminiscent of a similar debate within the SOA community in early 2008 which was covered by analyst and author ZDNet's Joe McKendrick. Perhaps the problem is not inherent in the technology. Another ZDNet technology analyst and author, Dion Hinchcliffe says that innovation is not what you do, but the way you do it in his article Running Your SOA like a Web Startup.

One of the innovations APIs have over SOA is a stronger appreciation for collaboration, developer engagement and self-service—what Paul Fremantle, CTO of middleware vendor WSO2 refers to as the "no meetings" approach. It will be interesting to watch this debate and see if APIs fare better in the tradeoff between governance and innovation. What do you think?

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