Are your eyes glazed over yet? Are you thinking, “Here we go, another tech guy making me feel stupid, talking about something waaaay outside my wheelhouse”? Well you’re wrong. Okay, mostly wrong. I’m not here to talk tech; I’m here to talk about simple ideas and concepts that will have a huge net positive impact on your contracting business. Yes, you’ll need tech guys, but they just have to execute your plan and they can geek out all they want.
What’s an API anyway?
API stands for Application Programming Interface. Simply put, APIs allow internal and/or external applications to communicate with one another. So, if the job name and number data stored in your accounting software is sent to your mobile timecard application, it does that using an API.
Why do I care?
While your internal accounting, enterprise resource planning (ERP), and other systems power your office operations, mobile computing powers the rest of the world. Getting important data out of internal systems and into the mobile environment saves businesses untold amounts of time and money. Using APIs to interact with outside services can also help extend the life of existing internal software. If and when you do need to switch or upgrade these systems APIs help to minimize the impact of these changes on your operations by providing a layer of technology between internal and external systems.
When you’re dealing with lots of data and lots of different software and systems APIs make it possible to securely share data from a single source. For contractors, this data can be as simple as job names, numbers, and phases or as complex as material ordering and payroll data. APIs provide an added bonus, since you don’t need to upgrade or change your internal systems, such as accounting or ERP to integrate data to other services or programs.
How does it work?
APIs allow you to safely get data, like job numbers and job statuses, from a trusted central source, like accounting, and populate other programs and online services so everyone is using the same data. This means all job data used by other services will be the exact data used in your accounting or ERP system. So for example, as soon as job ends and is closed off in accounting, all other services using that API, such as timecards and material ordering, will be updated and users will no longer be able to book time or materials to that job.
Connecting to an API requires programming some middleware between the businesses internal systems and the service provider’s public API. Some mechanical contractors will have internal resources to build and maintain their own application; others will contract the work out to a local technology firm. The middleware extracts only the data needed from internal systems, then posts it to the vendor’s API, which then syncs up the two data sets. This process can be automated and executed as frequently as required. Contractors with lots of employees and/or lots of small jobs may do hourly updates and others may do daily updates depending on their circumstances.
Not all APIs are created equal
A strong, well-built API is critical for long-term stability and success. Here are some key elements to consider when evaluating vendor APIs:
- Backwards compatibility – As technology and businesses change, so, too, will data requirements and functionality. A well-built API provides stability and adaptability for implementation requirements.
- Documentation – A good API needs good documentation. OpenAPI (Swagger) provides a strong user-friendly platform and vendors should include detailed documentation to support rapid implementation.
- Communication – API integrations are a partnership between your technology team and your service provider, so having a good relationship and good communication are important for long-term success.
The bottom line
The goal of API integration is to get everyone on your team the information they need whenever and wherever they need it. Properly implemented, it will lower administrative costs, reduce errors, and improve efficiency. Leveraging API integration makes contractors more agile and responsive to future technology without sacrificing the existing software systems they need to complete projects on time and on budget.
By Joe Perraton