Innovator Spotlight: Bechtel - Improving Workforce Efficiency and Productivity through APIs
Bechtel is the world’s premier choice for engineering, construction, and project management.
Their diverse portfolio encompasses energy, transportation, communications, mining, oil and gas and government services. Bechtel currently has projects in dozens of locations worldwide from Alaska to Australia, bringing an unmatched combination of knowledge, skill, experience and customer commitment to every job.
Christian Reilly, Manager of Demand Management at Bechtel, discusses how Bechtel, through their innovative approach to deconstructing traditional applications, has enabled their “making information valuable” strategy become a key part of their Information Technology offerings.
How are you using APIs today?
We're using APIs at Bechtel as part of our strategy to “make information valuable”. Like many other large global organizations, we have a wide range of existing applications and systems that support and help automate many of our business processes, yet each of these have traditionally been deployed with a one-to-one relationship between the front and back end components.
Over the past several years, we have focused on bringing efficiency and effectiveness to our business and, today, using APIs as a cornerstone of our strategy, we are focusing on the expansion of our Information Systems & Technology platform.
Due to the sheer size and complexity, it would be prohibitively expensive to re-platform or re-architect our entire portfolio such that our applications could be used easily on mobile devices. Our alternative is the delivery of a clear and committed API strategy that serves to unlock and securely deliver information from the vast amounts of data that is generated and stored as we execute our projects around the world.
Initially, we are concentrating on meeting the growing demand that has been created by trends in mobility and consumerization. By using a combination of business-specific APIs and new approaches to user experience, we can provide secure, lightweight access to relevant information, helping our global teams be agile and better equipped to make informed decisions in the course of their every day work.
In addition, we are able to cater for our growing population of knowledge workers in ways that we have been previously unable to address. To us, knowledge workers are those require immediate access to small amounts of information and who may never have the need to use the full features of a “traditional” desktop application. Typically, these workers do not require the lengthy and time-consuming training on the huge amounts of functionality in a given application as they may never be required to use all the inherent capabilities in their daily work. Exposing these types of “role specific” functionalities via intuitive user interfaces enables us to significantly reduce the time taken to make our knowledge workers productive.
What need were you addressing with your API strategy?
Speed. On our many large and complex projects around the world, the need to deliver the right information to the right people at the right time is a key part of ensuring our success. Our project environments are incredibly diverse, fast-moving with unique requirements. Many of the solutions that we put in place to address a challenge on a project in one business unit may not be readily reusable on another. This drives a need for us to change our approach to delivering solutions, focusing more on an agile rather than waterfall development methodology and addressing specific needs tactically, while keeping a view on whether the end products can be re-used strategically.
As business applicability and personal productivity via smartphone and tablet devices moved past the simple email and PIM solutions, we were faced with a unique challenge – how to meet the demand of our workforce by putting the information they need, literally at their fingertips, from systems that were generally monolithic in nature and certainly never intended to serve the form factors of next generation mobile devices.
In our traditional application deployments, we often assumed that each user might need to understand 100% of how any given application worked and trained them on all functionality, irrespective of their role. Across our overall application portfolio, it became clear that we have two types of “users” – those who create data and those who consume information. In some cases, the percentage distribution of those who consume versus those who create can be as high as 80/20.
Using this new understanding of how our users used their applications, we began to consider how we might fulfill the growing demand by “deconstructing” the incumbent applications and delivering subsets of the application’s functionality across smartphone and tablet devices. This approach included the creation of standardized APIs to provide an alternative access method to the back-end systems and the development of new, intuitive user interfaces (or lightweight applications) that could be delivered, monitored, managed and analyzed via a combination of our Apigee infrastructure and private enterprise app store.
Over time, we see the “making information valuable” concepts being extended outside our immediate organization. As our existing and emerging technology providers mature their own API strategies, we envision using similar approaches, both internally and externally, to take advantage of advanced interoperability, ultimately bringing a better quality of information flow to our partners, customers and suppliers through the entire lifecycle.
How have your APIs evolved over time?
In the relatively short time since our production deployments and first APIs went live, there have been a number of shifts in our overall strategy. From a technology aspect, in line with current trends and industry best practices, we have deliberately moved away from SOAP-based implementations to a REST based API architecture.
Adopting the REST design model, and conforming to constraints inherent in this approach has been one of our greatest challenges and biggest changes from a development methodology standpoint at Bechtel. The revised approach has forced us to evaluate how we deliver data efficiently from our large monolithic systems to users in the field.
Switching to a REST has allowed us to expose our underlying siloed “big data” sources via smaller, specific and more performant APIs, all of which are easily consumable by current and emerging clients. This strategic shift in thinking has positioned us to take advantage of existing publicly available APIs, such as Google Maps, and embed those services with our own data visualization efforts – creating powerful views and representations that enable our workforce to quickly obtain, analyze and act upon the information relevant to their role.
What kind of business benefits have you experienced as a result of your APIs?
One of the key benefits we've seen by implementing our API and mobile application strategy has been the efficiency and productivity gains in our “field activities”. These activities, most often undertaken on large construction sites around the world, can range from daily safety and quality inspection tasks to in-situ reviews of issued drawings for complex buildings or facilities.
Typically, our field-based personnel would carry out many of the above activities using manual paper-based methods, which are time consuming and generally inefficient.
By equipping the field-based personnel with smartphones, tablets or allowing them to use their own personal devices, we are “untethering them from their desks” and allowing them to perform the work from where it is physically needed.
Today, they are able to select, install and use our mobile applications, and their respective APIs, to access the information they need to complete their work or make timely, informed decisions without having to return to site cabins to connect to traditional LAN / WAN environments
How do you work with Apigee?
Currently, we use the Apigee Enterprise platform – which we have rebranded internally as the “Bechtel API Marketplace” – as part of a very deliberate attempt to emulate many of the successful “Web 2.0” companies by ensuring that the developers are attracted to a clean, well documented API environment, including the capability to “explore and test” our APIs.
In our production deployment, the Apigee Enterprise platform provides core “API proxy” gateway services, key management (each application that uses an API has a unique key to identify it to the gateway), control of traffic flow (rate limiting), and user token validation as part of our strong and layered approach to security.
In the early stages of our engagement with Apigee, we held a one-day “RAW” (Rapid API Workshop) where technical and business experts from both sides engaged in a very open dialog on the approach and best practices of implementing a major API strategy. The level of expertise provided by Apigee was impressive, comprehensive and extremely helpful in creating the “plan for the plan” of the ultimate implementation of the API strategy.
By using APIs and analyzing the traffic associated with them, we are able to very quickly take empirical data, understand patterns and create a well-rounded view of the usage of each API. This deep insight into actual usage provides the basis for a much more comprehensive decision making process around continued or new investment into APIs and / or mobile applications that form parts of the solution and is something not often found in traditional application deployment models.
Have you experienced any technical problems?
As with any technology implementation, there are inevitably learning curves and teething problems to be navigated at various stages of the planning and implementation. The general feel is that we, as an organization, were required to make some key decisions early on in the process, including defining the ultimate API design standards (REST & JSON) and the mechanisms for authentication (OAuth).
In our experience, the are many concepts and technologies inherent to an API strategy “traditional” enterprise may not have experience with and hence, any organization undertaking an API strategy should be aware of the different skill sets required for successful implementation and support.
What is your vision for your API program?
Today, it’s clear that we will continue to operate our traditional systems alongside their new mobile counterparts for some length of time and we believe the approach of working with our business to understand the real challenges, then selectively implementing APIs to act as an alternative method to consume, and in some cases, produce data is a great strategy that carries with it a low risk and a good return.
We see huge benefits in continuing to use the API approach to unlock the massive amounts of data we have in our silo-ed systems, with the ultimate vision of achieving our stated goal of “making information valuable”.
It is our belief that we will see continued uptake in the mobile applications we are delivering to our business and that the APIs in use internally will be aggregated with external APIs to provide even richer user experiences over the coming months.
We operate in a “multispeed” environment, where demand for delivery of information is accelerating at a breakneck pace. Using traditional approaches, attempting to re-platform our existing applications to be delivered to next generation devices would be almost impossible. It is clear that we need to separate the old from the new and a solid API strategy is a key component that will help “get us to where our business says we need to be”.