June 17, 2021

Understanding the API Product Manager Role

Gartner’s 2019 API Usage and Strategy Survey found more than half (54%) of organizations rank “Missing key roles, such as API product manager” as one of their top three API strategy challenges. This rose from a figure of 42% in 2018, indicating the role’s rising importance.1

In many ways, the role of an API product manager is just like running a business. Product managers need to direct the production (development) of APIs and cultivate a market of users—which may or may not involve selling (monetizing) the APIs to generate revenue. API product managers are also responsible for customer service, making sure developers and end-users that access the APIs get what they need.

Start With a Vision

As the leader of an API “business,” the product manager helps the overall organization develop a vision for its API products. This includes identifying which APIs are required, based on the needs of the business as well as the needs of internal and external developers, and consumers—which may be customers or internal end-users.

Another key factor is the cost to develop APIs and the value they will produce. Like any business, an API must generate a significant ROI.

Once the vision is developed for an API, the product manager should then clearly communicate the benefits to developers, consumers, and business stakeholders. As the API is put into production, the manager needs to promote and launch the API for use in appropriate ecosystems and manage the integration pipeline.

Managers also seek feedback and optimize the experience of everyone in the ecosystem. By applying all of these practices, the manager can ensure the API is used by a sufficient audience and sustains long-term business value.

API product managers also look to the future, studying market trends to determine the strategy and roadmap for the API. As is the case with all technologies, APIs should constantly evolve to meet emerging developer and consumer needs and to take advantage of new technologies.

Juggling the Interests of Multiple Stakeholders

One of the biggest challenges API product managers face is that they need to make sure APIs deliver the value that’s expected from a wide range of stakeholder groups:

  • Developers who create and maintain APIs, whose roles include adding new features and fixing issues.
  • Internal developers who consume private APIs to integrate business systems.
  • Partner developers who consume APIs restricted to use within strategic business relationships.
  • Third-party developers with access to public APIs.
  • Internal end-users who rely on APIs to enable business processes spanning multiple applications to run smoothly.
  • Customers who rely on APIs to conduct online business efficiently.
  • The business unit leaders that own the APIs.

Each audience has its own set of requirements and demands. For example, the developers that consume APIs want to be able to easily find APIs and determine if they deliver the required functionality they seek for their applications. The APIs must also integrate easily.

For internal end-users and customers, APIs should always operate seamlessly in the background. In other words, they should never know the APIs are even there. If someone from one of these groups reports a problem that points to an API as the culprit, the product manager isn’t doing their job!

And finally, there are the leaders of the business unit that API product managers ultimately answer to. They “own” the APIs and expect them to enable business processes to work more efficiently and/or produce sufficient revenue. Given all these audiences, API product managers have a lot of juggling to do!

Key API Product Manager Responsibilities

The best way to keep all stakeholder audiences happy is to pay close attention to the day-to-day details of API product management. The manager monitors each stage of the API product lifecycle from development to testing (functional, security and performance), deployment, iterations/release management, and retirement.


A Business Leader’s Guide to APIs

At the beginning of the API lifecycle, this includes creating the business and product requirements based on all stakeholder needs and understanding the API technical specifications that developers will need to adhere to. While working with the developers who create APIs, ensure they follow standards, naming conventions, design principles, and consistent development methods. This will give the developers and end-users that consume the APIs more uniform experiences.

After determining who can access an API and preparing for monetization, if applicable, the product manager determines how to expose the API and make access easy for consuming developers. This includes creating mockups or prototypes for testing, which lets developers build integrations faster. It also helps to post sample use cases, documentation, and release notes.

Also provide consuming developers with a sandbox environment where they can invoke APIs to see what form requests and responses take. Other key support tools include online forums and support portals where developers can ask questions and get help. These tools also create a community around your APIs, which will increase usage.

After an API is launched, the product manager analyzes consumption data and gets feedback from developers and end-users to identify necessary improvements and fixes and to see how well the API integrations are generally working. Any required changes should be prioritized to make sure the biggest pain points and opportunities are addressed first. As changes are implemented, update the API documentation so consuming developers can easily take advantage of the changes.

The Foundation of Your Application Architecture

API product managers face the challenge of delivering positive business outcomes throughout the lifecycle of APIs. This challenge is made more difficult by the various stakeholder groups—ranging from developers to consumers to business unit managers—who each have differing requirements.

Solving the challenge is well worth the effort. As Gartner points out, “APIs are a foundation of modern application architecture, supporting application composition, multi-experience development, integration, and ecosystems.”1

By managing APIs just like a business, managers can ensure APIs deliver value for all stakeholders within the organization and across partner and developer ecosystems—while also improving workflow efficiency and producing revenue when appropriate. In the end, API product managers play a critical role in making sure APIs positively impact the entire API ecosystem and their businesses.

We’d be pleased to work with you on your next API project. Contact 3Pillar Global today to learn how we can help.

APIs are a vital component of the products we build at 3Pillar Global. Whether you are struggling with your current APIs, or planning an API strategy, be sure to download the Business Leader's Guide to APIs. To learn how we can help your product development efforts, contact an expert today.

1. Gartner, “The Evolving Role of the API Product Manager in Digital Product Management,” by analysts Mark O’Neill, Anne Thomas, Arun Batchu, Shameen Pillai, and Abhishek Singh: 25 February 2020.