An Interview With Jason Harmon, API Architect @uShip

July 16, 2013

[Reposted from conquer.tech]

One of the neat things about living in Austin is the tech people you get to meet. Some of the ones I have met along the way have been gracious enough to let me interview them.

Today’s post is an interview I recently conducted with my friend Jason Harmon. He has always seemed to me to be one of the brightest guys I know when it comes to technologies. I think you’ll enjoy his responses.

What’s the path you took to get to this point in your career?

— My career started in desktop support and network administration while majoring in computer science at UTSA. That said, I never had a chance to take any CS courses before I stopped attending and dedicated myself to full-time work. I had constantly learned on my own and passed from desktop and network administration into a few years into a new career in web development. In an era when knowing how to code web applications (no matter how rough and ugly) was so highly vaunted, opportunity was not in short supply.

Moving to Austin in the late 90s opened up even more opportunity. I ended up working for a tiny startup, CoreMetrics (now a division of IBM) in it’s earliest days and got a lot of exposure to the Austin software startup scene. From that point, I went through many Austin companies; big companies like Dell, small startups, consulting, an ad agency, and more. The last five years or so I helped grow the startup, Wayport, into it’s new form as a part of AT&T.

The tail end of my career has been focused on backend and integration oriented-efforts, as opposed to traditional front-end oriented web development. In the past few years I’ve found a passion with HTTP-based APIs (namely in REST semantics). My imagination has been captured by the transformation brought on by this movement. My current role is API Architect for uShip, helping design their next generation of APIs to power an industry-disrupting shipping marketplace. I’m having more fun than ever.

What do you find interesting about technology in 2013, as compared to, say, 2003?

I think that the future of “the Internet of Things” aka IoT, is a fascinating area of progress. The simplicity of tiny, yet highly capable software structures is extremely alluring. As we wrangle these micro-integrations with HTTP-based APIs, MQTT, and other emerging tools, we’re going to see a future of powerfully connected devices in our everyday life that’s really hard to imagine. I’m excited at the simplicity, speed and elegance of how software is being built. Lightweight frameworks are finally taking hold across most programming languages. On-demand, cheap availability of virtualized processing capacity allows us effortless scaling. Collaborating in code empowers us as communities with platforms like Github. We’re more connected than ever by software, both as users and builders, which is really the most interesting aspect.

For the less technical minded, explain what an API is and how it impacts what they do daily.

Think of all of the amazingly connected mobile apps on your smartphone. The majority of them are powered by one or more web APIs. Web APIs use the internet to bidirectionally exchange data between mobile/web applications and more powerful, often cloud-driven backends.

In addition, APIs and the culture of business data transparency they have helped promote are helping connect businesses in a rapid and powerful way never seen in traditional integrations. For today’s tech entrepreneurs, this rapid integration capability has bolstered fledging ideas. Most of the emerging platforms people are learning to rely on in every day life are being built from the ground up on API-oriented strategies.

The cultural aspect that is really important to understand about APIs is that we have finally started learning to treat developers who have perform integrations as humans. Modern APIs excel at being understandable for developers and business stakeholders alike. The process of being an advocate for this type of usability is what makes this discipline of software so challenging.

(Recently Jason and few others launched a blog called APIUX.com) What is the story behind the blog? Where did the idea come from?

I started blogging on my own site, http://pragmaticapi.com, last year. After I returned from the API Strategy & Practices conference in NYC, Feb 2013, I was contacted by Bruno Pedro, the CTO of Cloudwork, as well as an O’Reilly author. I presume this was due to his respect for the content of my existing work. He asked me to help start APIUX.com, a blog site dedicated to the the user experience of developers trying to use the web APIs that we build every day. He also convinced John Sheehan, co-founder of Runscope (and formerly of IFTTT and Twilio), to help us get started. After each of us prepped some posts, we kicked things off.

What is the intended audience for the blog?

Developers who are building and consuming web APIs. The builders who are making tomorrow’s great APIs. Anyone involved with the user experience around API usage. There is an increasingly big audience, for a developer-oriented blog: frontend developers are eager to learn how to effectively use APIs, and backend developers are equally eager to learn how to build useable APIs.

Has the launching of the blog been what you thought it would be? Any surprises?

When Bruno first contacted me, I could tell he had a real passion for this topic. Once we got John Sheehan on-board, I knew folks would take notice. I wasn’t exactly sure what I had to bring to the party, but it certainly appeared we had a solid start. After my first experiences with blogging, and not really having a great background in spreading the word, it was great to have Bruno’s guidance.

The most surprising thing for me was the impact that the blog has had already. We’ve had notable voices from around the tech industry with valuable things to say about API user experience. In less than 6 months, we’ve already brought in a pretty impressive collection of writers.

I was personally taken by surprise when my third post caught some pretty heavy traction, and actually made the front page of hackernews.com for a few hours. For me, this sort of distribution was novel, and definitely a real shot of confidence that what we’re talking about has broader value.

Where do you hope the blog will be in terms of reach and impact in 12 months?

We’ve watched the API space explode in the news over the last few months, with acquisitions of big API management providers by Intel and CA Associates, for instance. This has sparked a broader industry discussion about the future of API, and what this space needs to look like. With all of this going on, it’s sometimes hard to stay focused on the material realities of building these technologies in a way that is accessible and sustainable. I think if we continue to attract writers with valuable messages about this topic, and the broader industry increases it’s understanding, we could be surprised by the reach of this content.

A year from now, I think we’ll continue to bring more content from industry leaders in the API space. I hope that “API UX” will start to become an idea that is being talked about more broadly, and that our blog can help provide a repository of knowledge sharing to support these discussions. For the sake of developers who are using the APIs we are building, it’s all a win if API user experience is improving.

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