Building A Developer Centric Platform Is Critical for Application Industry Providers
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
We reached out to David Lee, VP of Platform Products at RingCentral, to talk about the why it is important for companies that offer products in the application development industry to host a robust developer platform. RingCentral launched a new developer platform last spring and Lee discusses what the company has learned in offering a “best practices” philosophy for developer centric technology platforms.
ADM: Plenty of companies that offer specific technology solutions - like Salesforce or RingCentral - have launched developer platforms. What is the value behind companies launching their own platforms?
Lee: Developer platforms generally serve two purposes: they enable software companies to better meet customer needs by opening up products for customization, and they allow third party services to build integrations with software to deliver a more intimate and uninterrupted product workflow.
At the end of the day though, those are two sides of the same coin. Developer platforms ensure an elevation of product value to customers. Results of this approach are validating with customers and partners. For RingCentral we have seen more than 10x increase in API traffic from third party apps since launching a developer platform last spring.
ADM: In the current tech landscape, how valuable are developers to tech companies?
Lee: The old saying is that “nothing happens until someone sells something.” But in our tech-dependent world, nothing happens until someone builds something. Developers are the foundations of not only tech companies who build software, but also the enabler behind every business function in ANY modern company.
The wonderful efficiency that business software has given us is just the starting point; most business software requires customization and integrations to deliver peak value to a company. Developers are crucial at two steps in that lifecycle: originating the software, and then tailoring that software for the end-user.
ADM: What does a company risk by ignoring developer outreach and failing to engage developers on their platform?
Lee: Ignoring or failing to engage developers is like building a product and not promoting it to the key stakeholder. The expectation that “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t always work in platform; developers have too many choices to contend with. Every problem they need to solve may have two or three platform solutions.
In situations where the buyer and developer are different, focusing marketing efforts on the buyer alone also won’t work because those buyers often rely on developers to guide them along a purchasing decision.
Finally, given that developers are capable of performing deep evaluation of a technology many business stakeholders cannot, and are wary of standard marketing activities, new paths of engagement must be established that are very different from standard ones. Even if you have the best possible technical platform, if that platform has no credibility among the developer community, it will not find adoption amongst the purchasing decision makers.
ADM: Beyond a developer platform, what are the tools that a company should provide developers in order to best engage them?
Lee: Beyond providing good API documentation, developers appreciate anything that will help them get their job done faster. To start off, modern developers expect free and unfettered access to try out the platform. Any setups where API access hides behind a sales lead form will immediately turn off developer interest.
After that, software development kits (SDKs) in all relevant programming languages, documentation and tutorials with side-by-side sample codes in different programming languages, sandbox environments, and analytic tools that help developers monitor and measure how their custom apps or integrations are faring - these are things that are all tremendously helpful to and expected by developers.
Companies must also provide direct and indirect support. As useful as indirect support mechanisms like open or managed development communities and code repositories like GitHub are, developers under strict budget and timelines always appreciate platforms with dedicated support teams that have measurable SLAs.
Finally, it’s very important to keep all materials updated AND open them up for contribution from the development community. RingCentral certainly follows the above strategy as much as possible, and our developers often express appreciation for our investments in making them successful.
ADM: What goes through a developer’s mind when evaluating a developer platform; what do companies need to consider before launching one?
Lee: Developers often need to solve both the technical and the business problem when evaluating technologies. They will consider some of the same things as any IT buyer choosing solutions - cost, scale, scope, configurability, alignment with business, international availability, security and privacy, regulatory compliance, etc.
But since they also need to execute the solution, they will look for availability of information that will ensure execution speed, success and longevity. How broadly is the solution adopted? Is the solution open source? Can I easily find sample codes and SDKs in open communities? How active are those communities? Even for paid solutions, is the license I purchase flexible enough for me to customize the solution for my own needs?
Does the platform show a good track record of frequent updates? Does the platform demonstrate responsiveness to changing technological standards and practices? If it leverages certain standards and protocols, are they commonly accepted ones that are also relatively future-proof?
Essentially, developers want to ensure that they can quickly and successfully execute the work, and ensure that the investment they put in will last.
ADM: Talk about the value of integration in the modern tech landscape; how important is it to keep a platform open?
Lee: As software’s migration to cloud increasingly becomes the norm, having an open platform often means the difference between broad adoption and niche use. Without an open platform to encourage developer adoption, a piece of technology is limited by the scope of the application.
With developers customizing, embedding and optimizing applications through open platforms, that same technology can break down barriers between departments and positively affect both top and bottom lines of customers. A CRM can transform from a sales-centric tool into a company-wide solution for all customer-related transactions, and a cloud phone system can evolve from a simple voice solution into a massively pervasive and embedded communication solution.
ADM: Are there any disadvantages or risks to an open platform?
Lee: If an open platform contradicts a company’s business model, it may be a disadvantage. For example, a company whose tight platform control is a core part of its value prop to end customers (like Apple), or a monopolistic company whose business model requires that market position to be highly protected (as in many traditional software and hardware companies), or a company that thrives in a highly controlled or regulated space where business depends on closed ecosystem (like Palantir).
Fortunately, a vast majority of tech companies out there today do not fall into these categories, which breeds innovation and opportunities for tech companies, developers and their customers.
ADM: What is the best policy for a company when it comes to approving and activating third party developer integrations on their platform?
Lee: There isn’t one best policy as every industry’s and every company’s context is different. Considerations such as abuse/fraud prevention, regulatory considerations and business model fit all come into play. Ideally, companies should keep the developer ecosystem as open as possible, and rely on user feedback and adoption to act as the ranking and filtering mechanism.
A vibrant ecosystem (even highly controlled ones) thrives on the credibility of peer opinions. But, unfettered approval can only work if the company’s platform is hardened enough to prevent intentional or unintentional abuse. The tech companies should also provide as much guidance and support as possible to ensure developers are successful.
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