Now that we have a guiding compass for growing dandelions, what of the elephants? What are the conditions that might be effective for our APIs to nurture ideas that are like elephants?
As a quick reminder, elephants, as all species that rely on K-selected strategy in biology, are characterized by these four characteristics that are roughly the opposite of dandelions (the r-selected strategy).
First, constant size of the population is important in an environment at or near its carrying capacity, so K-selected strategy encourages low reproduction rate.
Second, to survive through ebbs and flows of resources within the particular ecological niche, an organism needs mass. K-selected bodies are usually larger in their size.
Third, rather than let mutation take care of finding the fit within their niche, there’s an additional band of adaptation – through knowledge. K-selected species learn and change their behavior over their lifetime. This encourages a longer life span and a longer maturation process. Children take a while to become adults and grown-ups invest time passing their learning on to their offsprings.
Fourth and final characteristic is a set of particular strengths. These come handy when K-selected organisms compete for limited resources in a crowded niche. Be it flexibility, agility, or just plain brawn – like for elephants, each is carefully selected for over a long curve of evolutionary selection.
Before we go any further, a reasonable question: why would one anyone want to build APIs for idea-elephants? The motivation is usually somewhere around their size. Idea-elephants tend to hold and retain value. If we want to build APIs to help us generate reliable revenue for a long period of time, we are probably looking for an elephant-caring strategy.
A good example of an idea-elephant is an ecosystem: people and technology mingling together in mutually beneficial ways. Thriving ecosystems have lasting power and behind each, there’s a learned way of doing things, the idea that defines the nature of the ecosystem. Unlike with dandelions, the idea is no longer freely mutable. The Internet is one of those gigantic elephants, with the Internet Protocol as the API that makes it possible.
At a smaller scale, anytime we want to preserve some value that we believe is contained in the use of a particular technology, we’ll likely want to create favorable conditions for elephants in our API design.
Just like in the previous exercise with dandelions, I’ll map the biological attributes to equivalent conditions.
Unlike dandelions’ obsession with excitement, elephants tend to want their dependencies to be boring. Being predictable and reliable is a highly sought-after quality. Earned trust is of the essence for the APIs that aspire to cater to elephants. Trustworthy API design is somewhat of an art form. In some ways, the seemingly easiest move is not to change anything. Every change might result in a potential breakage and loss of held value. Holding that value is more important than pursuing new ideas, and as such, the number of new ideas (the “reproduction rate” from biology) will be small.
One of the projects I helped start at the Chrome Web Platform team was the predictability effort, to identify and address key gotchas and inconsistencies that frustrate Web developers. The strategic thrust of this effort was to help make the Web Platform APIs more hospitable to the elephant of the Web developer ecosystem.
Every organization that accumulates value in its own infrastructure and code usually ends up investing in making both as stable and reliable as possible. An entire profession of Site Reliability Engineers (SREs) emerged to represent the special skill that’s required in making that happen.
Elephant-tending APIs cover a lot of ground. They are large (the biological “large size” equivalent). There are lots of use cases that accumulate over time and each unaddressed use case is a missed opportunity, a value loss. A very common thing that happens with dandelion APIs that become popular is that they grow in size and complexity. When that happens, we are observing a relatively rare event: the API is moving down through the pace layers, becoming more and more elephant-like.
Today’s DOM API is quite large, and it doesn’t even include most of the Web Platform APIs – to keep the DOM spec light, a notion of partial interfaces was introduced. The HTML spec captures the bulk of the vast surface. Give your scrolling muscles a go to get a sense of the breadth.
This is a fairly common occurrence when caring for idea-elephants with our APIs: their needs are rarely captured in a few simple calls.
Just like with dandelions, some conditions reflect the setting, rather than the APIs themselves. This is the case for rigor. As ideas expand to become elephants, they trade their agility for rigor as a strategy to extend lifetime (“longer lifespan” in biology). Haunted by the danger of potential lost value, decisions are made more carefully and thoughtfully.
One does not simply push to production in elephant-land. There are feature launch calendars, approval gates, and deliberate release processes that move developers through. New ideas emerge very slowly – and for good reason. Ideas must be tested to fit well with the massive body of existing ideas. Reducing uncertainty triumphs over explosive innovation.
For example, shipping a new Web platform feature in Blink (the Web rendering engine in Chromium) is a six-step process that involves building out an initial set of use cases, potentially asking for a mentor to help with specification writing, making a proposal in a standards organization, and socializing the problem with other browser vendors and Web developers. And by the way, all these items are just part of step one.
The upside of such a slow process is that the ideas that do make it through are at full maturity. Like elephant calves, they have to be slowly nurtured and “taught” all of the intricacies of the wisdom that affords the massive scale and value of an elephant.
The last, but definitely not least condition is power, which neatly matches the biological equivalent of a set of strengths. Idea-elephants gravitate toward — and often demand — more powerful and less opinionated APIs. Put simply, elephants want to be closer to the metal. Unlike dandelions, elephants have the capacity to hold their own opinions. In fact, some of these opinions might be load-bearing: the value that an elephant so carefully wants to preserve is based on them. Presenting them with other opinions might appear foolish or downright hostile.
One of the common struggles when designing APIs for the Web for me was trying to resolve that constant pressure from Web framework developers wanting to see powerful, low-level APIs and the declarative spirit of the Web. If you read this blog, you probably remember my stories about layering: all of them come from this weird paradox that the Web platform houses both elephants and dandelions in the same massive farmhouse.
When we are designing for idea-elephants, we are much better off letting the elephants hold their opinions, and concentrate on low-level, opinion-less abstractions that delegate most of the power to the elephants we are caring for.
What can we learn from this exercise? Here is a set of questions we can ask ourselves when looking to care for idea-elephants:
- Are the APIs we offer predictable, reliable, stable? Can we guarantee providing them for a long period of time and continuously reducing any inconsistencies or bugs that might creep in?
- Are our APIs comprehensive and cover most of the use cases that the developers are asking for? Do we commit to improving this coverage over time?
- Does the setting into which we release the API have the necessary infrastructure for ensuring that the API consumers make good choices, from robust integration and testing to deployment processes, as well as telemetry and safe experimentation, locally and in the wild?
- Do our APIs take developers as close to the underlying technologies as possible, offering little of its own opinion in the process?
An interesting question to ponder: so far, I’ve been only talking about conditions necessary for taking care of an elephant. I didn’t mention anything about the conditions for creating one, like I did with dandelions.
My intuition here is that elephants are rarely created from whole cloth. Every elephant-idea begins as a rare dandelion-idea that managed to grow and accrue value over a long period of time, traversing the idea pace layers. So, we rarely choose to be in the position of elephant caregiver: it’s something that happens to us as a result of our idea’s success.
2 thoughts on “Caring for elephants”