What is an API? Here’s everything you need to know

It’s not a huge stretch to say that modern workplaces function like a beehive. Both rely on an integrated team dependent on multiple systems with productivity as a bottom line. 

The honeybee behaves according to a pre-programmed and unseen genetic code. Similarly, employees can perform tasks in one app that impacts multiple systems by relying on invisible digital elements that are programmed to do specific work. What connects and enables these many tasks are APIs. 

Let’s take this out of the hive and unpack how organizations use APIs to simplify the multi-task, multi-app reality of the modern workplace. We’ll define what APIs are, describe the three types of APIs, provide API use cases, and reveal the benefits of using APIs.  

After reading this guide, you’ll not only have a solid understanding of APIs, but you’ll also get a sense of all the ways you can leverage them at your organization. 

Related: A guide to API integration

What is an API?

An API, or an application programming interface, is the conduit through which two systems can communicate. 

Here’s a simple analogy that can help you unpack this definition:

An API is the wire that connects two tin cans and allows Billy and Susie to tell secrets from their bedroom windows. 

Billy sends a message through the wire and Susie receives it. Susie can then send a message back for Billy to hear. Often, these messages will result in actions. Maybe Susie asks Billy to tell her a joke. Billy complies, and the API-facilitated loop has just been closed. 

We use APIs as part of our everyday lives. 

For example, when you find a new app that you’re excited to explore but not ready to commit yet another username and password to, it’s an API that’s responsible for the joy you feel when a “sign in through Service You Already Use” screen pops up. This alternative sign-in option is a software intermediary, or API, that allows you to perform your task. 

In addition, when you use a hotel booking website that populates available rooms from all the hotels within your location, date, and price search parameters, you’re benefiting from the APIs that carry your search data to individual hotel sites and then return results into an aggregated and easy-to-use list. Thanks, in part, to APIs, you’ll be living your best resort life in no time.

Related: Everything you need to know about API management

Types of APIs

APIs do more than just enable data transmission; an API also contains the terms for the data exchange. These terms are generally established according to the intended user of and use for the API. 

For a better understanding of how APIs are developed and used, let’s look at the three most common types: 

1. Private APIs are used internally by an organization to integrate its systems and applications. They are most often developed in-house and can be accessed only through the organization’s interface. These APIs often produce reusable services and streamline processes across the organization. 

Example: When you record your overtime hours at the end of a pay period through your company’s dedicated human resources app, you are utilizing a Private API. 

2. Partner APIs are used to connect two companies in a strategic integration of software that requires APIs to interface. These APIs are neither totally private nor public, typically requiring some credentials to access. The purpose of partner APIs is to generate additional revenue streams while maintaining a company’s identity and quality standards.  

Example: When you make a purchase on an eCommerce site, you’ll likely be prompted to pay through an interface such as PayPal or Apple Pay. The transmission of data from the eCommerce site to the payment app, then from the payment app back to the eCommerce site, is the API at work.

3. Public APIs are used by companies to provide integration with their applications and systems to third parties with whom there is no existing relationship. These APIs are open to developers and users with very few restrictions. The purpose of public APIs is to increase the company’s reach and invite innovative collaborations with third-party developers.

Example: When you perform a search on your browser for the weather in your zip code, it will likely respond to that query by asking a third party for the current temperature and forecast. The weather service sends the information back through the API where it will display in a reformatted version designed by the browser. 

API use cases

Now that you know what an application programming interface is, let’s take a closer look at some of its business applications. 

1. Streamline hiring tasks so that you can focus on recruiting more thoughtfully

It requires a team working through multiple steps to hire your company’s next great employee. If the process isn’t done properly, the best-case scenario is that you get lucky and still gain a valuable colleague, while the worst-case scenario might have you wasting valuable time by performing the process all over again. 

Using APIs to connect the apps that facilitate the hiring process allows your team to streamline tedious, manual tasks and focus more on the human element-side of recruiting. 

For example, using an integration-led automation platform, you can connect an app like Workday (which houses your position description and company’s information) with an app like eQuest (which posts your jobs publicly) via an API from the former app. You can then build a workflow where any time a position gets added, updated, or removed in Workday, the changes are automatically made in the job board.

2. Resolve help desk tickets faster and more easily 

Given your employees’ and clients’ reliance on tech devices and systems, when they need IT support, they usually need it now. Their high expectations and your need to keep these stakeholders happy mean that resolving IT requests should be a priority.

When you use APIs to receive requests and then immediately analyze and funnel them to the appropriate channels, you’re creating efficiencies that’ll both address your end-users’ needs and alleviate the workload for your IT employees. 

For example, when a customer is experiencing a glitch with your service and visits your site to seek assistance, an API-powered chatbot can offer predetermined content categories that might direct them to an appropriate next step. When the customer inputs their issue, an API can facilitate an automated analysis of the request and either trigger an answer in real-time or generate a support ticket in your ITSM tool. The IT professional on the other end of the API can then work quickly in resolving the issue on behalf of the client.

3. Fulfill purchase orders efficiently and accurately to keep vendors coming back

As your company grows, it must adapt to handle increased purchase order volume, but without the right systems in place, it can be difficult to keep up and keep track. When this happens, purchase orders often sit, unsigned, in a manager’s inbox. But you can’t keep your customer waiting. The solution is to integrate and automate the purchase order workflow through APIs so that orders are delivered immediately and with priority. 

For example, you can use an integration-led automation platform to connect NetSuite with Slack—via an API from the former app—and build a workflow that works as follows: once the order arrives in NetSuite, the manager receives a message in Slack, prompting them to sign the document. 

Related: An example of a REST API

Benefits of using APIs

Given their ubiquity, and the solutions APIs provide, you can imagine how your workplace can leverage APIs to its advantage. In doing so, you can expect to gain in the following ways: 

Using APIs, employees can avoid this level of app-hopping, and perform more of their work in a single app. This allows employees to be more productive and to focus more of their time on thoughtful, business-critical tasks—which, over time, can improve your organization’s performance as well.

  • Adaptability and innovation: New technologies keep us constantly moving toward the workplace of tomorrow. As change occurs and processes evolve, APIs allow for companies to remain relevant and competitive without being burdened by constant development operations. Since APIs are cloud-native, the speed of adaptation meets the demand. 

Related: The benefits that come with testing your APIs

  • Improved customer experience: APIs can increase the versatility of your product, which allows your organization to deliver clients more value. In turn, your organization can expect higher customer retention and more upsell/cross-sell opportunities.
  • Additional security: APIs keep data protected, as only the data necessary to request a specific task is sent to an app, and only the data that’s necessary to perform that task is sent back. Moreover, APIs offer a way to keep transactions secure, because a user’s tablet or mobile device, for example, is never fully exposed to a server in the transaction. 

Use Workato to manage APIs effectively at scale

Workato, the leader in integration-led automation, offers an enterprise-grade API Platform that allows you to publish APIs, organize them in folders, and decide who can use them and to what extent.

To learn more about Workato’s API Platform, you can schedule a demo with one of our automation experts!