Decoding Digital

APIs, Integration, and Accessing the Value of Data with Ross Mason

By Ideas @ AppDirect / April 26, 2021

Ross Mason on the Power of Headless Applications

Ross Mason is the Founder of MuleSoft, a pioneering integration and API platform connecting data sources and applications.

Ross recognized big data’s enterprise potential early and, in 2003, wrote the first line of code for MuleSoft. Fourteen years later, Ross led the company through a successful IPO and then through a $6.5 billion acquisition by Salesforce in 2018.

In 2020, Ross left MuleSoft to found Dig Ventures, a new type of VC aiming to streamline the founder journey through early-stage investments in B2B enterprise SaaS companies.

In this Decoding Digital conversation with Daniel Saks, Ross shares his insights on building companies that last, why connecting information is so critical, and how to find balance as a founder.

From software to MuleSoft

Ross’s digital career got a rocky start in software during Y2K. He found himself primarily working in banking, where he realized that many applications used in the industry weren’t connected or engineered to communicate with each other. His work then began to gravitate from apps toward integration.

When his first big integration project came along, Ross worked to connect seven different systems used by twelve teams, all with varying agendas. Looking back, seven systems is a fraction compared to some of the projects he’s worked on since. It took the core integration team 18 months to launch the fully integrated system. After barely any testing, Ross had his doubts.

“It felt like it was a mess, but for everyone else around us, they were hailing it as this great new way of doing things. And I thought, if this is what people expect, we can push the bar much higher.”

That’s when Ross decided to position himself as a developer.

Evolving the CIO role

Ross’s passion for improving how we deliver IT projects fueled him to write his book, First, Break I.T.: How Composable Services Are Changing the Role of the CIO. He sees the book as a light manual for aligning those in IT with managing directors, executives, and more, around standardizing approaches to IT projects.

Big companies, in particular, tend to reinvent the wheel when it comes to delivering new IT. This comes at a huge cost each time. But this doesn’t need to be the case.

Ross sees digital assets as the second-most valuable assets an organization has (after its people). These assets are the combined digital footprint of everything anyone has ever done within an organization, and so could be a treasure trove waiting to be unlocked. That’s what Ross’s book is all about – finding new ways to access, reuse and leverage information, and a call to arms for doing things differently.

He suggests that the CIO’s role is to figure out the organization’s asset management strategies and find out where the business can use them most effectively. Now, more CIOs are part of executive boards and even transitioning into CEO positions.

“If the CIO is really operationally minded and thinking around running their capabilities as a set of operations as a service to the business, then it's very natural for the CIO to move into the CEO role.”

Ross believes that organizations need to foster more successful relationships between IT and business. He says you need to let go of the idea that you have to build everything yourself. Learn to use the assets you control and create a directive strategy that allows you to take full advantage of them. Then, if you do need new assets building, encourage your organization to specify what they need. The CIO needs to reduce the back and forth between the two sides, ultimately reducing the conflict.

What is an API?

In Ross’s own words, “an API is essentially a contract between a supplier that has a digital asset or capability, and a set of consumers that want to use that asset or capability.” API, then, is the programming language used to describe how you interact with this mechanism in the digital economy.

“You hear people say an API is a product. The productization of an API isn't building the API. It's putting all the infrastructure around it to help people get successful using it.”

In the enterprise world, it’s common for enablement teams to work with APIs and help people get the most out of what’s available to them. What matters, says Ross, is ensuring that the API is described well enough that people can discover and use it effectively across the board.

Unlocking data with APIs

Ross notes that across organizations, data is used differently and has varying values. If a large-scale company uses 30+ apps, what each team wants from each app can be completely different. Not all pipelines to that data are treated equally or valued the same. However, the API needs to normalize access to all. Ross’s approach is to make the data accessible and then specialize it so that users can find value.

This is the exciting part for Ross, discovering new and interesting ways to put these data sets together. He says that there are so many variables to consider, such as storing the data and presenting it, as these can all affect the outcome.

“Data is better than fuel. Fuel just makes something go faster. Data creates this new asset class of things, where you can go and create brand new things that are even bigger than where the data came from in the first place.”

As for the future of APIs, Ross believes the recipe for success is connect, access, and then enable. Ross claims that we’ve barely scratched the surface of what connectivity really means, and he’s excited about how tech will develop to bridge those gaps in the future. Then, once we’re more connected, things will become more accessible. Finally, it’ll be up to organizations to work out how to piece it all together and enable new valuable services, products, and ways of doing things.

A new phase of entrepreneurship

After many years working on all the ins and outs of MuleSoft, Ross’s passion for finding new and exciting opportunities took him outside of the business and into angel investing. He spent a lot of time with founders, listening to how they were solving problems and investing in solutions. When he moved from the US to Europe, he decided to continue this work by launching Dig Ventures.

Dig Ventures stands for two things. The first is likeability. Ross has to like the company he’s investing in – in fact, that’s where the name comes from. If he doesn’t “dig” the company, he won’t invest. The second is to redefine value add. This really means increase value add, as Dig Ventures seeks to add 10x (or even 100x) more value than people are used to.

Ross’s advice for future IT professionals

For those aspiring IT founders out there, Ross’s first piece of advice is to look after your mental health. Trying to change the world by setting yourself unrealistic goals is stressful, and while working 100 hours a week can be a good way to build a company, “it’s not the best way to live”.

Ross also suggests paying attention to the changing landscape. Right now, Ross is particularly interested in no-code platforms and the potential they bring for the future of tech and investors.

“I think we're going to see a different breed of startups and side hustles where people don't go for the big billion-dollar unicorn. But they build these tools that they can plug into other ecosystems very easily.”

If this is the case, Ross advises that the best thing to do is stay relevant in just one or two niches you like. As the tech industry continues to broaden, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stay on top of everything. So, stay afloat and specialize.

To discover more about how Ross approaches digital entrepreneurship and data, listen to his full discussion with Daniel Saks on the Decoding Digital podcast.

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