Keith Soura of Blend on the Future of APIs and MISMO
Keith Soura is a Platform Engineer with Blend, San Francisco, responsible for development of Blend’s core platforms, including APIs and event-driven architecture that power customer and partner integrations. His passion for complex architectural problems has driven him to the mortgage industry and, specifically, to MISMO and the JSON Workgroup to help foster the next generation of transnational, high-efficiency, high-speed standardized data exchange.
MBA NEWSLINK: Why are APIs gaining in popularity?
KEITH SOURA, BLEND: A decade or two ago, companies looked to trusted big-name technologists like IBM or Sun Microsystems to provide tailor-built compute solutions designed to meet “all” of a company’s enterprise business needs. This was expensive, time-consuming, and didn’t allow for much flexibility to change your mind. Once you’d committed the funds, it was challenging to change your mind even if you realized your initial idea wasn’t the best for your business.
Ubiquitous, cheap, and seemingly endless computing power delivered as a service (PaaS) from industry giants like Google and Amazon have leveled the playing field for technology development — whereas 10 years ago, it took a relatively large initial investment to explore an idea for new software. Today anyone with a few hundred dollars and an email address can spin up a cloud compute instance, write some code and produce the next Facebook-like product or idea. Ideas are what drive the modern technology economy.
That level playing field has shifted what is possible. Rather than a single do-it-all-somewhat-well solution, companies can now select different software for each individual aspect of their business. The trouble, of course, is making all of those excellent solutions work well together in a way that is as seamless as the massive enterprise solutions of the past. That continued need for connectedness is, in my opinion, the driving force behind APIs. If ideas are what drive the modern economy, then APIs are the banks and the data they process is the currency.
We’ve realized that great ideas can come from anywhere and anyone and that we should be open to using multiple heterogeneous “best-in-class” solutions for the varying aspects of our business. We also still understand the power of centralized information to drive important business decisions. APIs enable this flow of information in a controlled, piecemeal way that allows you to effortlessly ensure, for example, that your Google calendar is synced with your iPhone and that Siri understands when you ask it to “schedule a meeting with the executive team about the budget tomorrow at 9am.” You have the freedom to select the tools that work best for you…but still be sure that all those tools are acting in concert to produce the results you’d expect from a single point solution.
NEWSLINK: How does Blend use APIs in its platforms?
SOURA: Blend stands for “better lending.” We believe in transparency and equitable access to the consumer financial products that are a part of many major life decisions — from purchasing a home or car to planning for your child’s education. Since everyone’s situation is different, our platform must be flexible enough to provide broad accessibility and handle a myriad of different business cases in order to achieve our vision. To that end, we have designed a suite of products to deliver an unparalleled experience to both our customers and their end users. Powering that unparalleled, seamless experience is a complex network of purpose-built services that manage concepts like security, identity, files and documents, user experience, and analytics securely and at high speed. Each of those services is interconnected by APIs which expose a common interface that allows our teams to develop new solutions, bring them life with customers, and iterate interactively with those customers to ensure we deliver the best possible experience. This is more efficient and has far higher quality than would otherwise be possible in a large “do everything” mono-application. That agility translates to value for our customers in speed-to-market of new ideas, savings due to efficiencies in operation and processing, and delighted end-users who are receiving the financial experience that they have come to expect in the digital age.
NEWSLINK: Why is the MISMO API Toolkit so important and how are you involved?
SOURA: When discussing how Blend leverages APIs in its platform, one of the key concepts was the idea of a common interface. Computers — like people — can speak many languages. Just like in human conversation, computers need to be able to understand what is being requested of them (this is akin to clicking “send” on an email you’ve written in Gmail, it must take several actions to ensure the person listed in the “to” field receives your note) and understand how to respond to those requests (after Gmail sends the email, it responds with a “success” message that shows up on your phone or browser screen so you know your note has been delivered).
An enormous amount of work has been done throughout the history of computers on these languages but one major challenge remains: translation. Learning a new language can be difficult! It’s even more difficult for a computer. To bridge that gap, we use APIs with common interfaces — a language that both sides of the conversation agrees on — to abstract away the differences between different computer programs and allow for them to communicate quickly and efficiently over the internet.
The MISMO Toolkit brings this idea of providing a common language to the financial industry: every company, every lender, every government agency does things just slightly differently. They have different business terms and different operational processes that help them serve their market segment in the best possible way. But underwriting a loan is not a one-person job: it takes a community. From lenders to government agencies to underwriters to realtors to insurance and title companies, every part of the complex process of originating a loan is handled by a specialized party that deeply understands the need of that single component. Interestingly, most of those folks need to know very similar data in order to do their part, but they refer to that data and use it in very different ways.
This is where MISMO comes in. MISMO provides a common language for all of these parties to speak to ensure that, in this example, the person requesting the loan gets transparent, speedy, accurate service. The toolkit takes this common language a step farther and enables those companies to use automation and software to make rapid, accurate decisions with the common data by providing defined API standards that allow each company to quickly build integrations with one another. This translates to a better overall experience for the applicant: answers about your request for credit in minutes rather than days.
Blend has been involved with the JSON Working Group (the folks responsible for gathering consensus from the vast lending and servicing community on what should be standardized and what use cases we can help with) since its inception. We are proud to commit engineers directly to the group because we believe that common understanding and transparency are not a competitive advantage to be held privately but rather a service to provide to the community at large. These values are at the core of Blend’s vision for the future of finance and at the core of the MISMO organization.
In addition, being directly involved in the formation of the standards helps Blend better understand the needs and challenges of its customer base and partners in an applied, real-world way. This experience helps inform the vision and direction of our API products thanks to the close partnership of Blend engineers and product managers. Rohan Joshi, our PM for Blend’s API Ecosystem, drives an internal group of engineers and thought leaders that leverage the lessons learned from MISMO — and especially the excitement and promise of the API Toolkit — to engage in brainstorming sessions that often result in direct improvements for our customers based on our new understanding of their challenges.
NEWSLINK: You recently participated in a MISMO session at the MBA Live: Technology Solutions Conference. What was your assessment of the session and what kind of feedback have you received?
SOURA: First, I want to thank Jan Davis and the entire MBA/MISMO staff for organizing a digital conference — their ability to pivot quickly from an in-person meeting to a well-executed digital experience shows the power of collaboration across our industry and their dedication to furthering standardization and access to information in finance. On a personal note, Jan has been a wonderful mentor for my entire MISMO experience and is a joy to work with.
Specifically related to the session: it was exciting for our working group — led by Wells Fargo’s Christopher Stookey — to present the hard work of the past two years. While only four of us presented, the work represents hundreds of hours of meetings and thousands of hours of research from dozens of people representing an amazing cross section of the MBA membership. We’re preparing to publish our draft specification for comment, and as such have been eager to discuss why we’re doing our work with as many people as possible to make sure we’ve collected as much feedback as possible. We’ve received some wonderful notes and emails from the presentation and, more importantly, some incredible questions and new participation in our workgroup that have led to improvements in our specification!
NEWSLINK: Going forward, what do you see as the next steps the industry needs to take to enable greater API adoption?
SOURA: Adoption is always challenging; changes incur risk and cost money for both implementation and maintenance. The first and most major key is to listen to one another; listening (in more things than software design) is the key to understanding. Seeing beyond what a person may be saying or how an existing process may work and trying to truly understand what they need or what that process is really trying to accomplish is the key to a great integration strategy.
From a development point of view, when planning for a move from a monolithic application structure or business process to something more dynamic and flexible, I have three suggestions:
1. Always to remember that you don’t need to change everything at one time. Many people think about shifting to an API-first development culture as one giant project. In my 10 years of experience designing and implementing API strategies, I’ve found that the best solution is to start in one place where you can demonstrate a measurable return on investment for the change. Work through the small project, keep the scope small, and measure your failures and successes dispassionately. Use that as a template to collect feedback from the people affected by the change and as input for your next iteration.
2. Iterate quickly and often. Don’t create a large multi-month project as your first effort. You’ll soon realize that everything you thought you knew was, most likely, only half-true, and you’ll uncover value you didn’t even know existed — which will allow you to make better decisions about the next improvement you’d like to make.
3. Embrace your failures — they are just as valuable as your successes. You will fail more times than you will succeed, but by keeping the scope small and targeted (1) and iterating quickly and often (2), the eventual success you achieve will be far greater than you could have initially planned thanks to all of the learnings that your failures have provided. I like to think of this as maintaining the “adventurer’s attitude” because everything seems “impossible” until suddenly…someone has done it!
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