I’m not interested unless it’s LateRooms.com.
That’s what Stuart Hughes used to tell headhunters, back when he was CIO of online retailer the Hut Group. He explains:
LateRooms is based in my hometown of Manchester. It has a reputation for great software engineering. It’s always had close links with the local developer community. It’s where I wanted to be.
Last year, the call finally came. In October 2013, Hughes joined the online hotel room booking specialist, owned by leisure travel giant TUI Travel, as its CTO. Since then, he says, his main goal has been not only to continue to build on Laterooms’ strong engineering culture, but also to layer on top of it an equally strong culture of innovation.
With that in mind, he and his team have been working to apply a smarter API [application programming interface] management layer to the complex and bespoke software that Laterooms uses to give visitors the latest views of hotel room availability and price, via a range of different devices. This API management layer, Hughes believes, will be instrumental in his mission of delivering more innovation, faster, at the company.
The API challenge that Hughes faces is not a unique one: APIs have long been the way that software developers have enabled one system to ‘talk’ to another, a set of programming instructions for accessing a system, defining how other systems can communicate with it.
Once an API is exposed by the developers of one application - LateRooms, for example - then other developers can use its specification to link their own applications to it. At the same time, APIs play an important role in internal integration, especially when a company is regularly adding new features, functions and business channels - a new mobile app, for example.
Our strategy for APIs is to increasingly break them down into ‘micro-APIs’ - micro-services with a very small remit. You call on a micro-API to perform a single, simple task and get an answer back very quickly. And you can combine them to create new features. But lots of finely-grained APIs require careful management.
With that in mind, Hughes decided to invest in an API management product and, after a request for proposal (RFP) process lasting several months, he settled on Apigee. The deal was signed in the second quarter of 2014. Hughes explains:
To me, Apigee’s strength is its ability to join together existing APIs to create new APIs, through configuration rather than coding. That speeds up the whole innovation process.
Apigee will give LateRooms a way to expose its APIs securely to a far wider community of external developers, who may be developing websites and applications that could benefit from the access that LateRooms offers to 65,000 properties worldwide - and, Hughes claims, more UK hotels than any other online booking site.
Businesses such as Trivago and Travel Supermarket, for example, already link to Laterooms in this way, but Hughes wants to see a big expansion in these partners:
This is my vision for Laterooms: that external developers from all sorts of businesses will choose us for hotel room booking functions, because our APIs are the easiest to integrate and offer the best functionality. That’s the end goal.
Innovation through API management
Perhaps more importantly, API management is set to play a big role in internal innovation, by making it possible for LateRooms’ development teams to ‘mock up’ APIs for new mobile apps or new website functions and trial them in a sandbox environment, rather than testing them against live systems. Hughes says:
Hughes’ efforts to foster this ‘culture of innovation’ go way beyond the IT department. Last week, LateRooms ran its first internal hackathon, ‘Hack Day’, where members of staff from every part of the business - including finance, marketing and the company’s call centre - came together for one day to work on new ideas for features and functions. It was the first of what Hughes hopes will be regular, quarterly events.
That will allow us to focus our effort on these new features or apps, rather than spending all our time on the plumbing, before we’ve decided whether the new feature or app is something that will work for the business.
In the past, if we wanted to build a new feature, we’d have to build the API itself and then go and integrate it. What we can do today is configure Apigee to ‘pretend’ to be the service, and that means our app developers can build a proposed new feature, show it to customers and get customer feedback really quickly. If it’s a hit - great. We put it into production. If not, we go away and get to work on something better.
What that gives us is a really short feedback cycle, allowing us to learn, change and adapt at speed.
We’re not trying to generate the next £10 million idea. What Hack Day is about is saying to the staff that everyone has a role in making our service better for the customer. Everyone at LateRooms has a role in innovation. If you’ve got an idea, even a small one, that you think would improve a customer’s experience of LateRooms, then I want to hear it.