APIs and Integrations Explained for Non-Technical Roles

Peyton O'Conner

In collaboration with the SaaS Ecosystem Alliance we hosted a discussion on Auth, APIs, and integrations looking to clarify what these terms mean out in the field and how they apply to non-technical roles working in SaaS and involved in technology partnerships. 

Pandium CEO and Founder, Cristina Flashcen spoke with Alex Savage, Head of Integrations at Advanced and Frank Kilcommins, API Technical Evangelist at SmartBear.

They discussed the role of APIs in today’s tech ecosystems and their ubiquitous nature in today’s SaaS environment. The panel also examined strategies to capitalize on the potential value that APIs have for customer retention and enabling value for the customers in terms of flexibility and customization. Read about some of the conversation below, or watch the full recording here.

Why should non-technical roles involved in SaaS understand Auth, APIs, and integrations? 

Whether you’re a tech partnerships manager, salesperson, CX professional, or partner marketer APIs and integrations have become a central part of today’s tech landscape. 

“Every industry is trending in this direction, no one will be safe from product integrations and APIs in the future.” - Cristina Flaschen, CEO & Co-Founder of Pandium

Frank summarized that API's are powering the world around us.

“Anyone who's using any form of device in their home, in their professional lives are using API's in some shape, or form,” Frank stated. “That's why everyone needs to have a basic understanding as to what API's are.” 

Alex honed in on the potential for APIs and integrations to unlock new value for customers and how they allow SaaS products to serve as a jumping-off point in unlocking value and possibilities to create amazing innovative products.

“The way many people or companies would have traditionally brought value to market is that they would have been in control of the end to end ecosystem and the end-to-end user experience,” Alex shared. “That doesn't really happen anymore. So the concept of embedding your value into other experiences, other ecosystems, other platforms is par for the course now, and it's API's that enable that to happen.” 

The panel noted that APIs and integration have gone from a luxury within the SaaS ecosystem to a standard expectation. Through a variety of transitions within the marketplace, APIs are becoming a means of assessing SaaS companies prior to the first interaction with the organization. 

Frank highlighted, “I often think of API as being the first UI. It's the first representation of your value that someone in that customer organization might want to consume. And so, if they're going to be critiquing you, they want to see your API catalog and your integration capabilities that are available. That's what they will do to assess you before they strike up a conversation with someone from your company.”

As APIs have become more mainstream, the panel noted the need for individuals throughout the org chart to have a base-level of knowledge that would allow them to converse about APIs and integrations with customers and colleagues. 

Alex pointed to a type of democratization that is happening in the industry around the concept of APIs and integrations. 

“Even if you don't understand all of it, you can still get that little next hit of knowledge. And then as you build up more and more, this is where we started. It's a very welcoming, great community of people. Including the SaaS Ecosystem Alliance, there are so many communities of people that are just doing this because they think it's the right thing to do to enable people with knowledge, give them capabilities," Alex shared. "APIs and integrations are all about team sports. Let's help each other be successful, because that's what we want to do, make valuable things and go home on time if we can.”

 What is an API? What is it for?

Alex summarized the concept of an API as “an intermediary that allows two software components or two software applications that are not connected to each other to be able to converse and understand the syntax and the semantics of messages that are exchanged between the two.” He also went on to further condense his explanation of APIs as a means to  “move data and value from one place to another.”

Frank offered his own insights regarding the purpose or use case for APIs. 

“It's about enabling transactions to happen by machines, rather than a human being, meaning they're typing all of the things in using a user interface, keyboard, and mouse,” Frank stated. “A machine can do things a lot quicker and a lot more accurately than I can. So it's about unlocking those capabilities. It's the sum of those component parts that are stronger together. So if you can take some API's, build an integration, and connect them together, amazing things happen and you unlock many possibilities.”

Cristina brought home the importance of APIs in today’s tech ecosystem stating that API's are not just for integration, but likely everything that one does on the internet. 

Who uses APIs? 

“Everyone is using APIs all the time, which is why there's so many of them now and why it's so important to get them, get them right, and make sure they are secure.” - Cristina Flaschen, CEO and Co-founder of Pandium. 

What is Auth? 

In the spirit of APIs and security, Alex pivoted the conversation to Auth. He defined “auth” as “The short word of two different words: authentication and authorization.” He went on to explain that both authentication and authorization are necessary components in creating access to data that is moved between systems and APIs while also building security and protecting against breaches.

Frank further explained that making sure that there is control around what authorization someone has with proofs of authentication is critically important, especially as there are more and more connected experiences across professional and personal lives.

Cristina touched on the importance of correctly utilizing auth to allow integrations to be more readily deployed without creating CX snags when authenticating through an API. She went on to ask the panel for their favorite auth scheme.

Alex chimed in, instead, with his least favorite: basic auth. He explained it as “a human being’s username and password. It's not encrypted.” Given the need for security in today’s API environment, he dismissed the scheme as antiquated.

Frank discussed the use of an API key, a semi-secret means of auth, as a step above basic auth, but still vulnerable as it discloses the key to intermediaries. Cristina went on to talk about OAuth 2.0 which has become somewhat of an industry standard in an industry that eschews standards.

Integrations vs. APIs

The panel then turned to the topic of integrations, and Alex was quick to point out that an API is not an integration in and of itself. Instead, APIs can be considered one of the building blocks of an integration. As mentioned before, APIs serve as the “language” or means of communication between different software and apps. 

They provide the tools needed for software to request data and other digital assets from each other. Alex  defined integrations as the automation of the flow of information to create a connected experience.

“It's about solving problems and automating things so that people can focus on the stuff that really matters. That to me is integration.” - Alex Savage, Head of Integrations at Advanced

Frank went on to describe integrations as an outcome that somebody wants to see achieved. For example, an outcome in this situation could mean creating ways for two systems or two ecosystems to play together in a way that doesn't force the consumer of that integration to do the heavy lifting. 

Cristina then defined a “technically elegant” integration as one that does complex, technical things to solve business problems, while at the same time providing a simple experience for the end consumer of that integration when it comes to set up, configuration, and maintenance. 

“When you're not asking your customers to think of set up, configurations, and maintenance of integrations, and instead doing this on their behalf, that's where you get the really beautiful, seamless sort of interoperability.” - Cristina Flaschen, CEO & Co-Founder of Pandium 

Overall the panel presented integrations as a means of simplifying the customer experience by creating interoperability that enhances the use case for existing products. At their core, this interoperability allows organizations to capture synergies between technologies in order to improve the quality of information available to users while reducing churn. 

Cristina stressed the importance of integrations revolving around the question, “What are you trying to do?” She pointed out that being conversant in the use case will not only make communication easier with the product or integration team, but will also boost the confidence of the prospect or customer.

Achieving confidence and buy-in around integrations 

In moving the conversation forward, Frank offered his perspective on how to achieve more confidence and buy-in around integrations. He suggested having discussions with product and engineering teams within your organizations to become well versed in the type of integrations or APIs you have available.

“An API is like a promise and an integration is also a promise that two things will work better together. Think about them like a product and potentially one you could also sell and speak about as a product or sub-capability within your ecosystem.” - Frank Kilcommins, API Technical Evangelist at SmartBear.

Wrap Up/Key Takeaways

  1. If you're playing in the API space, provide documentation that is accurate. Accurate documentation allows other people to get on and build with low friction. 
  1. API's are no longer just technical artifacts. Even non-technical roles like CX, technology partnership managers, and salespeople working in SaaS should have an understanding because your API can be fundamentally what differentiates you from your competitors.  They are ttable stakes with regards to how people look at the capabilities that you offer. 
  1. Having good APIs is what can make you stand out from your competition. So, empathize with and understand who is going to consume your API. It's likely going to be a developer who is going to be the first consumer of that API. 
  2. Make sure that there's continuity across all of the APIs that you offer, and bake your brand into your API. That's really what can differentiate you from the plethora of offerings that are out there in the marketplace. 

If you're interested in more resources to learn about integrations and APIs, check out this list of resources our panelists put together for the event attendees. 

If you're interested in hearing the full discussion, watch the full recording here, and apply to become a member of the SaaS Ecosystem Alliance to network with 1100+ product, partnerships, and engineering leaders working on building SaaS ecosystems. 

Keep up with Pandium

We regularly create quality content on how to leverage tech partnerships and integrations to grow. Subscribe to our bi-monthly newsletter so you don’t miss any of it.
Keep up with Pandium by subscribing to our newsletter