How thinking of myself as a ‘Human API’ helped me get over my ego

Five years ago, at the Mozilla Festival, I walked around in a pimped white lab coat with the bedazzling words WEB LITERACY stuck onto it.

Human API

Beautiful, I’m sure you’ll agree. The point of the exercise was to be a point of contact for people who wanted to know more about the area of Mozilla’s work you were representing.

I’d pretty much forgotten about the idea of ‘Human APIs’ until recently, when a couple of things happen. First, I started to do some work around an introduction to coding for a new client, which had me thinking about APIs again. These, for the uninitiated, are defined by Wikipedia as:

In computer programming, an Application Programming Interface (API) is a set of subroutine definitions, protocols, and tools for building application software. In general terms, it is a set of clearly defined methods of communication between various software components. A good API makes it easier to develop a computer program by providing all the building blocks, which are then put together by the programmer.

That sounds super-geeky, but it’s basically a way in which, for example, you can share something from your web browser to Twitter by clicking one button. It connects things together. It’s the reason awesome services like IFTTT can exist.

Second, I’ve been reading Ryan Holiday’s new book, which in turn reminded me of the advice in his previous work, Ego is the Enemy.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about how thinking about yourself as a Human API can help get rid of your ego in several useful ways. This is particularly important when, like me, you deal with lots of different people on a daily/weekly/monthly basis.

  1. APIs don’t complain unless you provide an invalid input.
  2. APIs provide an expected output for a given input.
  3. APIs are (usually) well documented.
  4. APIs are inclusive and don’t discriminate between users.
  5. APIs enable things to be built that are bigger than themselves.

Another way to think of this would be to consider yourself a jigsaw piece and just one piece of a solution to a wider puzzle. You get to decide what ‘shape’ you are and where your edges are, but ultimately, the way to be successful is to help construct the solution. The great thing is that you also get to decide what puzzle you’re trying to solve.

Thinking about life in Human API terms can be liberating. It forces you to think about what you’re willing to accept as an input, what you’re providing as an output, and what overall puzzle you’re helping solve. I think it’s a great metaphor and it’s one I’ll be using more often.


Photo by Astrid Maria Bigoni used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.