APIs: An architecture for speed at AT&T

John Donovan, Sanjay Macwan, and Jacob Feinstein of AT&T detail how the API program is a driver of speed in their innovation efforts.

Navigating the far-flung functional, organizational, and technical structure to bring new ideas to any large company can be slow and confounding. For a company the size of AT&T, this had the potential to create lengthy delays for developers seeking to test innovations against the network. Today, external innovators and developers access much of AT&T’s network and other capabilities in a self-service manner, allowing them to bring new offerings to market three times faster than before.

This new speed is central to AT&T’s innovation strategy. Whether ideas are generated internally or co-created with outside innovators, AT&T wants to match the pace at which the market is changing and innovating—particularly around mobile and cloud technologies.

“If you have infrastructure assets and are going to operate at a pace at which the external market is moving, you have to take capabilities—industry-specific or not—and make platforms from them. And then make them easy to address,” says John Donovan, senior executive vice president of technology and network operations at AT&T.

The emphasis on speed extends beyond technology. Startups participate in “speed dating” sessions with AT&T executives, a fast-paced 20 minutes in which they have a deal or an understanding of why not. “We always have some of our top decision makers in the room—not just the technology leadership, but our business unit leaders, chief marketing officers for enterprise and consumer, and others. Because the key decision makers are listening to the pitch at the same time, we can decide whether to move forward immediately after the speed dating session,” says Sanjay Macwan, assistant vice president in the AT&T chief technology office.

In 2011, AT&T met with more than 500 startups, and in early 2012, the company already has met with more than 150 startups. As a result of this outreach, 40 projects are in the works and 11 are deployed commercially, generating revenue for AT&T and its collaborators or delivering new efficiencies that benefit customers.

APIs are the key

“[The API program] is an architectural choice one makes for speed.”
—John Donovan, AT&T

The underlying enabler to increase the pace of innovation is the company’s application programming interface (API) program. By opening up core horizontal and vertical capabilities through RESTful public APIs, AT&T has established a digital platform that drives an ecosystem of network-centric services. “It is an architectural choice one makes for speed,” Donovan says.

When a company has the size and scale of AT&T, speed is not easy or a given. The API program removes organizational, functional, and technical barriers to accessing AT&T’s network and information assets. Extensive documentation, sample code, immediate access to RESTful APIs, and sandboxes for testing are some of the features that reduce the friction for a thriving ecosystem of developers and innovators.

Consider the case of SundaySky, a company AT&T chose to work with after a speed dating session. Telecom bills can be difficult to understand for some customers, particularly when they start or change services. AT&T’s billing system has more than 1,000 elements. Confusion stemming from a bill leads to high call volume to customer care. Using AT&T’s billing API, SundaySky created a service that dynamically builds a custom video to address customers by name and walk them through their bills. In a trial of new subscribers for the IPTV service (U-verse), the call volume to customer care dropped by 20 percent among customers who had access to the video review service developed at the AT&T innovation center with SundaySky.

The result is a three-way win: cost savings from fewer or shorter calls into customer care for AT&T, new revenue opportunity for SundaySky, and increased satisfaction for the customer. AT&T and SundaySky co-created a solution facilitated by the transparency and ease of programming to the billing API. Without that, such an endeavor might have taken too long.

Making AT&T addressable: Network as a platform

AT&T has opened up several categories of RESTful APIs so far and processes about 4.5 billion API calls every month. AT&T has an aggressive road map to open new APIs across several service categories. This plan makes the network an intrinsic part of an innovation ecosystem and gives AT&T an opportunity for new monetization by serving consumers and business customers.

Ultimately, the goal of an API program is to make internal capabilities addressable by others. “Many people think API equals open and open equals free; that’s not the case at all. What is needed is a thoughtful architecture that allows you to take layers above and below your platform, and make them modular and addressable,” Donovan says. AT&T’s goal is to make its network the most addressable network globally.

With APIs making capabilities addressable, the network becomes a platform that accrues many advantages. Developers save time and resources and build on top of AT&T’s assets instead of investing in network and telecom equipment themselves. A platform approach positions legacy assets for the future by abstracting and combining them to increase their relevance to emerging trends in cloud, mobile, and social technologies. “APIs give you the ability to better manage the legacy environment and future-proof them,” Donovan says.

A well-executed API program reorganizes capabilities to establish consistency and ease of use. It makes an organization’s internal knowledge accessible in a semantically consistent manner. “APIs simplify things architecturally and create a better story and capabilities for the developers by having a common taxonomy,” says Jacob Feinstein, executive director of new technology. “If you have a more educated community, they’ll think of new things that they might do with the network that they wouldn’t have thought of doing.”

The platform strategy extends beyond the network assets. “Our APIs cut across capabilities such as payment, device characteristics, location, messaging, speech recognition, and others,” Macwan says. “Any developers who want to embed speech recognition in their services can just call a speech API to access our speech engine.”

“Most of the things we do are candidates for the new architecture,” Donovan says.

External outreach changes internal operating model

Donovan cautions against the common notion that APIs are for giving away data free just to be nice. That thinking limits the internal potential of APIs. “The use of APIs and their impact is not just for outreach to the external developer community. It changes how you operate,” he explains. “You literally put APIs everywhere. That’s how you do internal development, that’s how the IT shop works, that’s how your provider should do development for you, that’s how your offshore stuff lands into your environment, and that’s how you build services.”

AT&T is changing on the inside, too, as a result of the API program. The thinking and architecture the program represents are seeping deeper into company operations. Many teams now understand the change in thinking the API architecture requires. “People are applying an API lens whether they’re in the labs, the network teams, or what traditionally have been finished product groups. They offer an API-centric view of their work,” Feinstein says. As these diverse groups think about ways to support the API program, they reconstitute their work in a more modular, fungible, and co-creation–centric manner.

As a result, APIs are increasingly coming from all parts of the organization and not just from the API program group. The consumer marketing organization, the enterprise marketing organization, the product organization, and the emerging devices organization feed the API pipeline. Teams are also proposing APIs out of the gate with new solutions, including teams from AT&T’s network equipment providers. “APIs are being thought of at the outset, and they influence the early ideation around network release and road map planning. Now we actively look at what the API opportunities are as we roll out each next generation of network technology,” Feinstein says.

Speed is also a function of an organization’s operating model. “We’re pivoting toward thinking about architecting everything we do in a more API-centric way,” Feinstein adds. APIs impose modular thinking on the enterprise. They have allowed AT&T to reconstitute its capabilities and assets in modular chunks with stable interfaces. They have digitized the operations that take place around the company’s network and the value-added services it delivers. Being digital, these capabilities are easier to engage with and now operate at a faster pace with a large number of partners.

The single principle: Speed

Despite the size and scale of its infrastructure and operations, the architecture changes enabled by API thinking, API technology, and an API platform strategy can have a real impact on innovation, growth, and the AT&T bottom line. “We’re getting faster, and one result is that the architecture is shifting to one that allows more partnerships. You’ll see us do more technology partnerships and move faster, both at the pace of the market and in terms of innovating on our own. There will be efficiency benefits as well,” Donovan says.

His advice on how to think about APIs: “Operate under one principle and then architect around it; ours was speed.”