Do APIs Eliminate Middle Management Or Improve Quality of Life?

There's a raging thread over on Hacker News regarding a post by Segment co-founder and CEO Peter Reinhardt that cites several compelling examples of how APIs are not just eliminating middle management, but how they're also disrupting one of the most important tenants of a workforce culture that's more than a century old; opportunity and upward mobility. 

Reinhardt does a good job of connecting the dots, pointing out how the biggest "department" at brands like Uber, Lyft, 99 Designs, HomeJoy and Amazon (with Mechanical Turk) is a democratized but disenfranchised workforce that's trading convenience for upward mobility. The analysis could easily be connected with the broader national conversation about the destruction of Middle Class America.

The centerpiece of his argument -- and a valid one in the cases of his examples -- is how it's the APIs and not middle managers that are essentially marshaling millions of workers to piecemeal tasks --- a potentially unfair exchange that drives significantly more value for the API provider than it does for the task master.  Says Reinhardt:

"What does that make [Lyft and Uber] drivers? Cogs in a giant automated dispatching machine, controlled through clever programming optimizations like surge pricing?….Humans are on the verge of becoming literal cogs in a machine, completely anonymized behind an API. And the companies that control those APIs have strong incentives to drive down the cost of executing those API methods."

It's true. It could easily be argued that, in as much as the API is replacing what a middle manager used to do, the API represents a layer of software that is eliminating an important rung (maybe the most important one) from many corporate ladders -- that first initial stepping stone from the front line to elevated income (often crossing over from hourly to salaried pay), greater organizational visibility, and significant if not profound opportunity. In almost the same breath though, Reinhardt says:

"Drivers have often told me that the job grants them incredibly autonomy: they can drive whenever they feel like it, and they’ve stopped looking for jobs in finance or construction because the daily freedom is so valuable to them. There’s liquidity in the marketplace that allows them to come and go as they see fit."

Drawing upon these conclusions, Reinhardt worries about drivers or other task specialists that opt for easy work with no upward mobility and even worse, no future, particularly when the task masters themselves could get replaced by up and coming technologies like driverless cars. Due to the incentives (if you're the API provider), the software layer could easily "thicken," not only disintermediating a wider class of managers but literally growing the gap between the haves and the have-nots, further driving (no pun intended) the elimination of the middle class.

But, as I read his post and am largely compelled to side with his concern, I'm not sure I can be just as dismissive of the autonomy and freedom side of the coin. Perhaps some of those drivers are smarter than we think. Maybe they are fully aware and at peace with the sacrifice they're making, if you can call it a sacrifice.

There are people that look at me and the way I'm tethered to my job 24/7, going to bed checking my email, waking up in the morning in a hotel that's thousands of miles away from my children, and stopping less frequently to smell the roses and they think I've got it all wrong. To them I say, I love my job. I'm passionate about what I do. After nearly 25 years of tech journalism, I consider myself damn lucky to wake up every morning just as excited about my work as I was when I first started. 

But let's be honest. That choice -- the one that Reinhardt, I, and others make as a matter of our ambition --- involves sacrifice too. As far as I know, you only live once. In other words, if you've seen the video below, you only get one allocation of jelly beans. Again, I pretty much side with Reinhardt. But that doesn't mean that the drivers for Uber have it wrong when it comes to their jelly beans. Maybe, they're the ones who've got it right. It's something to think about. 


David Berlind is the editor-in-chief of You can reach him at Connect to David on Twitter at @dberlind or on LinkedIn, put him in a Google+ circle, or friend him on Facebook.