Using a Unique Human-centric Approach to Build APIs for Our Customer Needs
When it comes to providing seamless, flexible procurement processes for enterprise customers, Application Program Interfaces (APIs) are the way of the future. The Dell Digital Buyer Experience organization has begun addressing that new reality using a unique, human-centric approach to building APIs to meet our customers’ needs.
The Future of Doing Business with Enterprise Customers
It started with a challenge from a large customer that had shifted its procurement management from a traditional platform to a more modern, web-based, mobile-friendly IT Service Management system (ITSM). Why, the customer asked, didn’t Dell have APIs linking to the new platform to provide seamless interface for its team members to easily buy laptops, desktops and office supplies.
Six months and many customer conversations later, Dell Digital (our IT organization) made the first strides in stepping up our API game by launching two APIs for fast, efficient purchase orders and order status documents. It is only the beginning of our plan to introduce a catalogue of APIs to allow enterprise customers to do business with us in a more seamless fashion across their modern ITSM procurement systems.
Accommodating a New Trend
The aforementioned customer’s shift to a more modern ITSM and API-enabled procurement reflects a trend among medium-to-larger enterprises. More modern procurement systems, based on Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings, are cropping up which are designed for API integration rather than the more cumbersome Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) used in traditional procurement capabilities that are part of traditional Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems.
For a long time, EDI files have been the standard way for enterprise customers to communicate with suppliers. Customers send an EDI file for a purchase order or invoice and the supplier sends an EDI back to confirm or track orders. It is a complex way of doing business that does not allow for efficient introduction of new features or functionality.
While EDIs are still used by most enterprise customers and will likely continue to be used for non-procurement functions, API-focused ITSMs are gaining enterprise users seeking a much simpler, faster integration and an agile means of leveraging new capabilities. The new systems are SaaS-based, can be accessed from anywhere and are mobile friendly.
An API is a packaged interface that abstracts the complexity of code and business logic from the end client. So rather than involving many complex EDI file exchanges, Dell can use an API to ask a customer for several pieces of information (name, email, product to buy, negotiated price, etc.); process it without them having to know the details; and send back a confirmation and tracking number. It is like a bridge that links procurement systems to our code base, transcending the spaghetti of business logic of EDI.
We wanted to stay ahead of the curve in accommodating all procurement technologies used by our enterprise customers, which transact several billion dollars in orders a year via our ecommerce platform connecting to their procurement systems.
A New Way of Working with Customers
In tackling the API trend, our Buyer Experience IT team used an agile, customer-centric development approach based on Pivotal Labs methodology that we call the Dell Digital Way. This set of software development practices captures customer requirements, uses test-driven design to create services, and leverages customer feedback to iterate on what we developed.
At the center of our approach is an eight-member ‘balanced’ team of developers, product managers and designers that work closely with our enterprise customers to create a roadmap for our API effort and use Extreme Programming and Lean Principles to deliver on it.
Our APIs are developed on Pivotal Platform, a multi-cloud solution for running all of your enterprise apps and a proven platform for companies seeking a software-led, digital transformation. Pivotal Platform includes an opinionated application runtime that automates and simplifies the development and Day 2 operations process. This means our API team can push changes to production in minutes, allowing them to listen to customer feedback and implement solutions immediately.
This fiscal year we expect to have a full self-service platform of APIs that, when implemented, will solve three problems customers have identified in procuring products/services for their employees/customers.
- Getting a catalog of products at a specific price into their ITSM system (either instantaneously, at a specific date, or after a pricing/product change).
- Sending Dell a purchase order with the products/services they wish to buy.
- Getting a reliable status of where their Purchase Order/Line Item/Fulfillment Unit is prior to being delivered.
Beyond this fiscal year, we are actively researching and listening to customer pain points in order to prioritize our roadmap.
One of the things we learned in this effort is that the data in an API is equally as important as the business context in which it should be implemented. We had to make a lot of changes to improve the discoverability of our APIs, specifically why it should be used, how it can be implemented and when can customers start seeing results.
We also had to overcome technology challenges to safely exposing API data beyond Dell’s firewall, implementing security to guard against external threats and authentication lapses in the process.
If you are embracing APIs for future enterprise interactions, start small, get it right, and scale fast. In order to start small, we had to observe end users’ problems which allowed us to build the right solution. Our early engaged customers were more than happy to collaborate with us to help solve their business need. By developing a collaborative atmosphere both within teams at Dell as well as external teams, both sides win.
Where is your company in the process of improving the discoverability of its APIs and determining why it should be used and how it can be implemented?