How API Aggregators Help Business Units Build Automated Workflows, Bypass IT
API integration provider Zapier has launched a service that aims to help businesses and enterprise create workflow automation tooling by daisy-chaining SaaS APIs into a complete business process.
“This is something we started about two and a half years ago, and we have tried to make it as simple as possible,” said Bryan Helmig, co-founder of Zapier. “We had to back up and rethink how we are going to build workflows. And that is how we got to knowing we have to architect this and present it to users. That was the big push at the outset.”
The new feature suggests that after several years of promise, APIs may finally be driving a new wave of workflow automation tools which up until now have only been taken up by a small handful of the potential customer market. The new features also show a greater need for businesses to be able to move beyond CRUD-type data manipulation via API (where single integrations might allow an end user to create, read, update or delete a dataset), and into a more complex business logic where data from one SaaS tool may need to be validated, cleaned, filtered or re-calculated, and then injected into the next stage of a business process.
Zapier is not alone in upping the game for workflow automation. Cloud Elements, WaveMaker and others are all offering services for building workflows that are both more sophisticated and yet aim to be easier to deploy, minimizing the role of IT in the deployment process.
“ What is interesting now is that we are seeing that nearly 70 percent of integration tasks will take place outside of an IT department,” said Mark Geene, CEO of the API integration platform Cloud Elements. “So you are seeing this extend out the responsibility that this works together, the sharp IT organizations are providing tooling for business units. So the resource can be governed by IT. Obviously, you don’t want to open up the entire finance system to everyone in the HR department, but where IT departments are moving is to be the tail wagging the dog: ITs role will really be around what resources are made available.”
To date, Zapier, and other API aggregation and integration services like IFTTT, has provided single SaaS to SaaS integrations, with APIs behind the integrator’s GUI doing the heavy lifting of moving data from one SaaS tool to another. Zapier could do point-to-point-type integrations (which they call “zaps”) like add a new Salesforce customer to a MailChimp subscriber list, or update a Toggl time entry when a task is completed on a Trello project management board.
Now with the new Multi-Step Zaps feature, end users can create whole workflows that may start with adding a new Salesforce customer to a subscriber list, but then also pulls out their phone number for a daily Google Sheets list of new contacts to reach out to, and then share that daily contacts list via a Slack notification.
Helmig said that in order to offer the new feature, Zapier had to rebuild their core code base, an emerging pattern in the monolith-to-microservices trend. Now it is not just traditional enterprises that have technical debt built into their legacy systems. For startups on a track to growth, at some point in their scaling, they find they cannot add a new feature without rebuilding their core architecture on a microservices foundation.
“We leveraged a lot of the stuff that we already had and had to break that out apart. We use stuff like Docker, and AWS Lambda to power a lot of the code steps. Previously, we had built our own internal version of AWS Lambda on Docker but thank goodness, Amazon is doing what we tried to do.”
“Kind of Like an ETL Thing”
Helmig said one of the ways he is already using the Multi-steps zaps is to replace crontabs for regularly scheduled administrative tasks:
“At Zapier, we are trying to create an engineering culture where everyone is commenting on the code base,” he said. “We had a schedule that takes a bunch of pull requests, collates all the comments, and calculates scores for the commenters. Now we can user multi-zaps to do that, post it to Slack and get it into our brain that we need to keep doing that. Every morning at 8 a.m. it is like a league table updating our collaborative engineering culture.”
Helmig said the multi-steps zaps starts with API calls and adds “kind-of like an ETL thing.” API integration tooling that initially started with business process tools has finally started becoming more widespread with workplace collaboration tools like Slack and HipChat.
In the past, extracting data from one dataset, perhaps attached to a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) product like a Customer Relationship Management tool needed to then have some small code snippet applied to transform the data and load it into the next process.
For example, a sales agent might enter a new customer’s details into the database, but a workflow process needs to pull out the email address to add it to a mailing subscriber tool and pull out the phone number separately to add to a follow-up calls spreadsheet. Whereas there have been some tools around with varying degrees of simplicity available that can do that, it has only been with the emergence of Slack and the growth of its’ competitors like HipChat that there is a platform used across a business team where those integrations can be presented in their transformed, reported state ready for workers to use.
“I think what will be big for us is specialized bots in Slack and HipChat,” said Helmig. “They will be modeled as workflows.”
It is also not by chance that one of the first multistep zaps partners Zapier has been promoting is Slack.
Slack has seen rapid adoption in the enterprise in a time in the market when cloud services have become more acceptable. Individual business units are adopting Slack for their own project work, without getting IT approval for use, and this is then spreading through the business. Now, as SaaS tools have become more commonplace and are increasingly under each business unit’s own discretion to use, the need for workflow tools that connect and move the data between the SaaS products is growing.
Vijay Pullur is CEO of WaveMaker, another type of API integration tool that lets users create their own APIs from systems of record databases, as well as create a uniform API layer for bringing in third party data sources from SaaS and other cloud services. He said that individual business units circumventing IT and choosing their own SaaS is happening “quite a lot.”
For example, on a weekly basis, WaveMaker is seeing about 35 new signups from enterprise businesses who were wanting to try their API integration tools. “These are not our customers,” said Pullur. “These are people within large companies who are coming and trying us out. So it is very clear that this is a bottom-up process.”
Pullur said the idea, in an enterprise, that “I can try out something without permission” began with the uptake of open source. “A decade or so ago, when open source gained momentum, it was more of a try it out and I will recommend it to IT, that was the approach. The time when it shifted to OK, I will buy it and use it started more on the marketing side. When you look at the increase of SaaS, for example, it was marketing departments using SaaS software, so the marketing department started relying less on their IT. Now that has started spreading out from core IT. It is like the acceptance of a public cloud like AWS, which was a complete no-no only a couple of years back, and now it is almost like every company has it!” said Pullur.
He suggests that marketing departments have been driven by a customer demand to act more agilely to meet potential customer’s expectations and meet them where they are, thanks to their changing digital media consumption patterns. As enterprise has then been able to build these relationships, other parts of the enterprise must work just as agilely to then provide services and new products that meet these digital customer’s wants.
Provident Security: Leveraging Technology to Build Customer Trust
Mike Jagger, CEO, and Founder of Provident Security based in Canada, originally contacted Zapier’s tech support to request help with automating a workflow using zaps and were invited into the Multi-Step Zaps beta pilot.
“We have ended up using the service in a few areas, in HR and in clients onboarding, and in random tasks that were slowing people down,” said Jagger.
He gives the example of using the SaaS project collaboration tool, Basecamp. As a home security company, Provident Security has a lot of unique cases where the goal is to integrate existing and new home automation and security technologies into a complete system. Part of the company’s unique value proposition is that they can respond to alarm calls within five minutes. So whenever a new home installation project is added, they found that they would have to customize the new project template manually.
“So we built a logical form in Formstack that at the end of that form would produce a bunch of variables that could automatically create the appropriate template and specific TODOs that collected the information we need when out in the field, and it all cut down on duplicated data entry,” Jagger said.
Jagger said one of the company’s aspirations is that customers should only ever have to mention something once, that there is no stage of their processes where clients are needing to re-explain what their current system is, or why they want their home automation system designed in a particular way.
“We can have all those data collection points coming into one place so we are slowly building one story and are triggering some automation. One of our core values is to build trust with every conversation with the client, and now we are having a lot of success in bringing data into real-time, and the clients are only getting asked appropriate questions based on what we already know to date. We are already saving additional hours with every new project. We want clients to perceive what we do as smooth and easy, but to make anything seem easy is a lot more difficult behind the scenes.”
Jagger believes the emergence of tools like Multi-Steps Zaps is changing the roles of non-technical staff as well as completely altering the responsibilities of the traditional IT department.
“We are in a business that deals with technology, but we have a traditional setup for home security. So we have people looking after our network and the basic plumbing of our IT, and we have smart people looking after our data, we have people looking after our SQL databases.” Jagger said tools like Zapier are letting non-It, non-coders start to manipulate and experiment with the data in new ways.
“You lose a lot of the context around the data, the more people are involved,” he said. “In the past, the people writing the code have had to really understand the business case of why something matters. The spirit behind a whole idea can move a lot quicker if we use a tool like Zapier and connect the APIs. We have smart people, we don’t want to waste time, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel each time, we are really good at a few things and we want to focus on our core business. So if there are other businesses that have services that are best in class for what they do, we want some simple hooks to connect between them rather than our traditional IT having to code and build something.”
A Changing Role for IT
Geene of Cloud Elements said his company’s product takes a different tack to Multi-Step Zaps. While Zapier can add business logic to data stored in an enterprise’s core datasets (where they are stored in a SaaS tool like Salesforce), Cloud Elements builds a hub model where data can be drawn in from more traditional legacy database systems alongside SaaS tools. At the center of the hub, a single API is created that can then be used to pull out data and add the business logic needed along the workflow path.
“You have at one end the application user, and products like the Zapiers and IFTTTs provide services that an application end user can implement,” said Geene. “But you also have a whole heap of business units that have a system of record with serious data objects that have custom data. 99 percent of systems in CRM have custom fields and the ability to map and transform data in those fields is the next level of sophistication that it is required. Traditionally in the enterprise, that was being done by an IT-managed Integration Platform as a Service, but is now happening at the business unit level,” Geene said.
“An enterprise may 31 SaaS applications in the marketing and 18 in HR. IT should be embracing those and saying, ‘well, I have all of these objects and resources available. I do not need to be controlling them but how can I enable business operators to consume those and how can I provide tooling and templates that help them with that?” Geene said.
My future vision for IT is that they are managers for opening up resources,” Geene continued. “That they are letting business units use Zapier and SaaS tools and opening up more and more of the core—not just to enable apps on the edge so departments can combine them together—but asking ‘what data in those endpoints am I making available?’
He gives an example of working with a client where a business unit had independently developed a tool but had accidentally created a decimal system so that all of this misinformation was coming into their expenses system. “IT should be providing good tooling so that won’t happen so that the data object would transform it so it can be consumed.”
Jagger agrees with this new vision for IT. “The integrity of our data is crucial, so the role of the IT team is to make sure we have the right data and is secure and organized appropriately, but we want to make full use of these applications. So they need to help us make sure we are not creating security holes, the purpose of this technology is that we want our people to be doing things they are uniquely capable of, and the tech needs to get out of the way of that and let our people who are talking to customers move a lot quicker.”
He also said the emerging Internet of Things will help drive this repositioning of IT even faster: “There is no shortage of data coming in from all of these separate systems. [The Internet of Things ] is creating more security headaches than it is solving for end users, and what we do is help end users to close those gaps and give them the convenience of the system without the security risks.” He said a newly envision IT role will be central to helping others across the business be able to use data objects from integrated systems and sensors securely.
Launching Multi-Step Zaps as Part of an Ecosystem
While the new service creates a whole new set of use cases and expands Zapier’s potential to extend its reach into the enterprise market, there is still a lot the startup can learn from other SaaS who well understand the platform play they are making.
Zapier has co-launched the service with several of its well-known API integration partners including Slack, Trello, and MailChimp. All went live today with new blog posts announcing Zapier’s feature, a strong move to broadcast the new service as widely as possible. Still, other services like Segment.io which funnels existing APIs into a single API for the analytics market and then makes that available (in a more vertically-oriented example of what Cloud Elements does), has a strong understanding of their platform positioning, which perhaps Zapier could learn from.
The ability to create Slackbots and leverage a stateless architecture has only just been touched on and seems to be at the corner of Helmig’s future thinking. To date, there is only one public study from Zapier with an existing integration partners that demonstrates that when SaaS tools are integrated with other SaaS tools, it results in customer stickiness and reduced churn, although Helmig is open to working with any other partners on analyzing whether enabling end users to more easily sync data between cloud products increases their subscription loyalty.
“The fundamentals of the platform are still shaping,” confirms Helmig.
Feature image: “Machine Park” by Ryan Somma. Licensed under (CC BY-SA 2.0).