Innovating at Startup Speed

By Tony Kontzer  |  Posted 02-28-2013

Innovating at Startup Speed


By Tony Kontzer

It wasn't long ago that the application programming interface--or API, as it's popularly known--was regarded as little more than a play thing for programming geeks and as something that was of little value in the big picture of running a business.

But in an age in which applications are designed to be able to draw data and additional functionality from numerous other sources, the API, which enables disparate applications to communicate and even borrow from each other, has become integral to achieving the kind of agility that companies need to thrive.

The rising importance of APIs is on full display at Nationwide Insurance, an 80-year-old giant in an industry not exactly known for fast-moving IT innovation. Nationwide Insurance recruited Jeff Schumann from the world of startups five years ago with a specific purpose: To inject Nationwide with the type of agility and mindset normally found at startups, and which the Columbus, Ohio, company needed if it was to keep pace with a fast-moving marketplace.

"Just because we're in the insurance space, and we're in a highly regulated area of the business world, it's still possible for us to be innovative," says Schumann, who was originally hired as a business analyst on the collaborative services team and is now product owner of enterprise collaboration.

After spending his first few years with the company championing the use of social media and collaboration tools, Schumann oversaw the creation of an internal SharePoint portal to serve as a collaborative workspace for employees. With that platform in place, the next step was to populate it with useful applications. Schumann borrowed from his startup background and spearheaded the company's adoption of competitive hackathons, in which technical teams spend the night playing with APIs in an effort to invent new applications for the portal.

So far, Nationwide's hackathons are delivering in spades. The first such event, held last July, was won by a team that leveraged an API for a software as a service application that offers movie, restaurant and other discounts to Nationwide employees. The problem? Most employees weren't willing to visit a third-party site to find discounts in their areas. The solution? Bring the discounts to the employees via API calls and display them with a map-like interface that shows up in a worker's customized portal view.

Not only did the application deliver value to Nationwide’s employees, it greatly increased the use of the third-party app that Nationwide had been paying for. It also netted each member of the five-person development team two days off of work.

At the company's second hackathon, one team tried to tackle a more daunting area: approvals. Recognizing that employees who were tasked with approving time-off requests, budget changes, equipment purchases and the like had to log in to a different system for each approval, the team set out to build an app that would leverage APIs for each of those systems, thus allowing employees to access and complete all of their pending approvals from a single app.

The effort proved too ambitious to complete in a single night, but the value was so clear that the resulting app, dubbed "My Approvals," has evolved into a full-blown IT initiative.

Innovating at Startup Speed

Now Nationwide is gearing up for its third hackathon on Feb. 28, when the focus will be on human resources apps. The largest gathering yet is expected--as many as 100 developers may attend--and there's been advanced buzz about a couple of planned apps. One team will attempt to use APIs to consolidate the company's three-system gauntlet for requesting time off into a single app, while another team will work with PeopleSoft APIs to simplify employee access to paycheck data.

The success of Nationwide's hackathons has convinced Schumann that even the largest companies can behave more like startups with the right encouragement.

"We can be agile as a company," Schumann says. "I don't think just because we're an insurance company with 45,000 employees, that's a reason for us to be slow."