Human APIs Are Inherently Flawed

by Adam Spector in

Parenthood is the most fulfilling job on the planet. It’s also exhausting. Even before COVID-19, think of the tasks a parent faced each day: getting your kids up, making them breakfast, getting them dressed, driving them to school on time, picking them up, getting them to and from any afterschool programs, scheduling appointments with doctors and friends, helping them with homework, making them dinner, etc., etc., etc.

An extremely simplified view of the job of parenting is: working to constantly connect disparate tasks to provide a quality, seamless life for a child. No parent is perfect at this connection work; life has distractions, searching for the “best” “lowest cost” option for your child is difficult. However, because these tasks seem discrete and, therefore, not automatable, each parent just pushes through hoping they don’t miss too much.

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For non-school living, the wealthiest parents outsource much of the work, hiring assistants, nannies, cooks, etc. For the rest of us, the work can be aided with technology — synced calendars, AI assistants to answer questions, apps to organize a harried life or just quick access to YouTube Kids! If the technological aids are the software toolbox and the child’s hectic schedule and unforeseeable moods and desires the problem set, then the parent acts as the Application Program Interface (API), the central operator that tells pieces of software how to interact. Though the technology is helpful, any parent can tell you that it still falls to them to input and organize the many disparate tasks and needs. 

A Less Human API

In the example of parenting, it takes that parent to conduct the messy orchestra that is the child’s life; the technology (be it a Google calendar, Siri, Cozi, or anything else) alone cannot solve the problem. Thus, in this example, the system of parenting has a human working as its API. And any human API has the inherent flaws of, well, humanity. This is worth it in this example; parenthood is not something that should be automated (though that doesn’t mean well-used technology can’t reduce time wasted on repetitive tasks, allowing more time with their child, which is a fantastic use of technology). 

However, in the business world, the promise of automation is much more enticing. Over the past ~5 years, a wave of tools have come into existence created with APIs in mind: Rippling for HR, Quickbooks for finance, Mercury for banking, Ramp for credit cards, Salesforce to connect your sales and marketing stack, and AWS to manage your cloud needs. These companies realize that making it simple to connect to the other tools in a business’s toolbox adds value to their product. What could it mean for business if your entire business back-office software stack could work in unison?

A perfect example of a way that a well-designed API has already changed business is the API that pulls your credit card or banking data directly into Quickbooks. In the pre-API days, these transactions had to be imported manually. Now, they are imported 24/7 in the proper format without typos or other mistakes.

Now, imagine expanding that beyond just expenses. Imagine tying every piece of your operations software together. Imagine the time you would save and the human errors you could eliminate with a truly automated API at the center of your company.

Human Error from The Adult in the Room 

Though the mythology has taken some lumps in recent years, the Cult of the Founder still survives in Silicon Valley. This means, to a certain degree, startups are funded and companies’ fortunes rise and fall on the decision-making and mystique of their creator. Often, the skillset needed to dream up the next big thing has little to do with the work of running the day-to-day operations of a business. In the past, investors would ask promising startups to bring in an experienced COO to help make sure the lights stayed on. This Adult in the Room was charged with constantly connecting disparate tasks to smooth the life of the founder and the employees. So, as we earlier explained: this COO was asked to act as the company’s human API.

It’s certainly comparatively advantageous to replace an incapable operator — such as a junior, underpaid and untrained Chief of Staff or executive assistant — with a talented human API to help streamline a startup’s systems and processes. But that Adult in the Room COO has their own humanity, which introduces cracks into the system. Disorganization, a dispute with the founder, or even something as simple as a bad night of sleep opens the door for missed details. 

There is only so much even the smartest, most organized COO can remember or be an expert at. A human’s ability to know the intricate details of multiple business lines is lacking. This might mean not knowing about the best tax credits or remembering the time to file your Delaware franchise tax, or delivering a late paycheck for a contractor; it could also lead to a misfiled document that dooms you at a stage of funding down the line. This isn’t an attack on the COO — it’s simply stating the simple fact that placing a human at the center of a system introduces human error.

So, what’s a better model? How can we rethink the way operations are managed at startups? Rather than a Human API, businesses should have an automated API with a human at the wheel.

The Promise of Autopilot

For years, commercial airlines have implemented a system like the one we’re proposing. Two highly-trained pilots sit at the controls of a mainly automated system. When Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit in their Falcon 9 rocket, they used a similar construction. Doug and Bob were experienced operators ready to step in if and when a problem arose, but they were not tasked with actually conducting the system. In an emergency, they could take control of the ship — they could also communicate with a roomful of experts at mission control. However, on their historic launch and reentry, they never did have to take the wheel. The automated system worked; they simply went along for the ride. 

AbstractOps has built an automated API for a company’s operations so any founder can take flight (apologies for the cheesiness…it was just sitting right there). Our system works seamlessly with your toolbox of software (QuickBooks for accounting, banks such as Mercury, credit cards, and expense tracking such as Ramp, Gusto for HR, Carta for equity and cap table management, and much more) which allows a founder to cost-effectively outsource the COO role. Our dashboard provides a single view of all back-office activities. Instead of those activities living in your Human API’s head, they are now tracked within the system, allowing for complete peace of mind. Doug and Bob had mission control; AbstractOps equips founders with a team of experienced experts to help them through the unexpected issues. 

Humans are great at one-off, rare, or fluky problem-solving — we’re less adept at the repetitive, detail-oriented minutia. This is why a human API fails where an automated API with a human driver succeeds. 

The promise of software in business is vast, but it’s not as simple as just handing over the keys to the machine. Humans are unrivaled at creativity, community-building, and solving for the unforeseeable and the unexpected. The goal of an automated API is to let humans focus on what they’re best at. Intelligent machines give humanity back the time we should be spending on what matters — in business, that means products and customers, and at home, that means our families. The skillset of a great founder rarely syncs up with the skills of a great operator; every Steve Jobs needs a Tim Cook. The key to success in the startup world is focusing on what you’re great at and outsourcing the rest. AbstractOps is an outsourced and automated COO — it’s built to let founders be founders.