August, 2012

Aug 12

What is good API design?

Some say that API design is one of the hardest things in programming. A few even go as far as to say you should have at least 10 years of experience to even attempt it. While I think this process can be sped up almost an order of magnitude by good mentorship, at one time or another we’ve all suffered under the API of an inexperienced programmer. Though, this does raise the question: what exactly is it about building libraries that can take up to 10 years to learn?

I was lucky in that I got a strict API education early on. Right out of college I joined Atalasoft, a company for which the API was the product and so was under the strictest of scrutiny. My mentor was Steve Hawley, a man who has spent much of his life solving difficult problems and wrapping them up in nice little packages. Steve had little patience for babysitting as he always had a lot on his plate and so under him I was forced to learn very quickly.

His philosophy, which was never explicitly stated, I call 90-9-.9. For 90% of the users you want the problem solved out of the box with just a couple of lines of code that can be cut and pasted. Here defaults matter the most. For the next 9% you’re aiming for simple configuration; something that can be easily figured out from the documentation or resolved in just a few minutes by the support team. Then there’s the .9% who will want to bend your libraries in all kinds of twisted ways, sometimes for performance or and other times some wacky (but workable) use case you never thought of. It’s completely fine to sacrifice the experience of the .9% for the sake of everyone else, just make sure it’s possible to get what they want done and that your documentation will show them the way.

Finally, there’s the unmentioned .1% who you’ll never make happy because they’re mistaken about the capabilities of your product. Better to either ignore them, or do market research to see if they’re worth the cost of extending your library to pull them in.

A great example of this is Atalasoft’s barcode product. A lot of effort went into carefully tuning it to preprocess most scanned documents without issue. After preprocessing it will by default go whole hog and try every kind of possible barcode type that you have a license for. This is still quite fast, fast enough for anyone with a small time scanning operation. Sometimes for folks doing large scale batch scanning on expensive equipment it’s just not fast enough though, so they can configure which barcode scanners are used by changing a simple enumeration property. Once in a while they get folks doing things that are a bit more difficult, like for example maybe trying to scan a barcode wrapped around a banana. For this there are events that let you interrupt, tweak and replace whole chunks of the barcode engine. But the guy who wants to read the barcodes he hand shaved into the side of the dogs in his pet store? Sorry pal, you’re better off finding another product.

When I first saw this it seemed like bad design. The whole component is like a frickin’ monolithic program with an event based do-it-yourself plugin system! You see though, aesthetic beauty as judged by an architecture astronaut isn’t what Atalasoft is optimizing for. They’re optimizing for reduction of the customer support burden. As much as I dislike object oriented programming for writing the internals of libraries like these, I think there’s no better paradigm for exposing a single simple interface that allows for manipulation at all of these levels.

Now, for the past two years I’ve been in charge of the APIs at Bayard Rock, a completely different kind of company. We do research and development primarily for anti-money laundering. This means lots of little experiments and the occasional medium-scale project which will later be integrated into our sister company’s larger infrastructure. In the vast majority of cases Atalasoft-style monolithic black-boxing wouldn’t be helpful at all. We only have one customer and we work with them to tailor our external APIs directly to their needs.

However, code reuse at a fine grained level is much more important at Bayard Rock than it was at Atalasoft. In this context what matters most is the construction of large libraries full of many small categorized functions which we can first use to put together experiments quickly (that is, through simple composition and without comprehensive unit tests) but later still feel confident about shipping in our product. We’re optimizing for experimentation and the rapid development of components that we trust enough to ship. It should come as no surprise that here typed functional programming wins hands down.

So, what is good API design? It depends, and that’s why it’s so hard.