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Haircuts, Chocolate Bars and Application Interfaces

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

Last Saturday I went for a haircut. OK, not the most exciting start to a blog, but was the start of 2 hours of my life that I would not get back. And if I am going to gain anything from that short rather frustrating period, other than a haircut, it is going to have to be by extracting a few pearls of wisdom to share!

The barber shop is a short 20 minutes’ drive away from home. Yes, there are no less than 4 other hairdressers just 10 minutes’ walk away in my small hometown, but I have been going to my barber shop for three decades now, so a few house moves and shop re-locations are not going to change that. The haircut was fine: the usual chat about the weather and the inability to go on holiday. The smock was deftly removed along with my now grey hair trimmings, which lead to the final exchange. Ian the barber pulled open his wooden tray of cash and held out his hand and I offered my phone to make payment… Then we stared at each other for a few moments…  Ah.

In fairness, I had not had a haircut for a year (my wife having kept me in trim with the dog clippers!), so I had completely forgotten that while Ian very much runs a “cash only” business, I had become fully phone reliant. I don’t even carry cards.  Thankfully, 30 years of haircuts at the same place does buy a certain amount of goodwill and I left promising I would be back within the year, no, the next hour with some folding currency.

OK, so I have my phone – how to get cash? My bank had promised the ideal solution for my troubles. Use their app to get a cash code, go to one of their cashpoints and I would soon have the desperately needed brown piece of paper with a 10 on it, that I needed to return to Ian. Off I ran to the High Street.

As I stood outside the closed and now empty bank building, the weathered outline of the bank logo faintly showing above the door and the cashpoint replaced with a plywood board, the flaw with the bank’s cash code scheme became obvious. Checking the cash code conditions, I saw that all was not lost. The code, though not accepted by any other bank’s cash machines, was accepted by the cashpoints run by a certain large supermarket chain. Fabulous, one such store was just 5 minutes’ drive away and at least I knew the store still existed!

The store was there, and so were the ATMs – two of them, both with the words “Sorry – out of service” emblazoned across the screens. I remained hopeful and determined – they had cashback!  Heading through the now familiar and simple one-way maze that supermarkets employ,  I waited patiently in the busy Saturday queue before I made it to the till. Grabbing a couple of chocolate bars, I rather over-confidently said “Just these two bars please and £10 cashback”. They didn’t do cashback. It was a thing apparently, but not anymore – something about a pandemic. But I could take my chocolate bars to Customer Services and the till operator assured me that yes, she was sure they could and would do cash back.

I now stood before a new human. This one did not seem quite as enthusiastic to be there as the previous one, but safe in the knowledge I could finally get my £10 with a choccy bonus, I pressed on and made my request. “Sure, I can do that on this till” was the response, with a smile I placed my goods on the counter. “That will be £10.75 with £10 cash back”. No problem, I grinned as I waved my phone over the contactless payment pad, beep… no sale. “Can you pop your card in?” No, I do not have a card, I have a phone with my cards in my digital wallet. My grin faded. Yes, I can pay with my Phone. I could walk out of the shop having bought hundreds of pounds worth of yummy chocolatey goodness, but I was not walking out with a £10 note. Contactless cashback is not allowed. Some rule says you need your physical card. No card. No £10.

The universe had decided that Saturday was not going to be my day. With this dawning realisation I left the shop, gave up and drove the 20 mins home, found my cash card, drove to a bank that was open, and returned with £10 to the now grateful Ian.

What has this got to do with Application Interfaces, aka APIs, I hear you ask? APIs provide a means for different systems to exchange data. Ian could be considered an outdated API (Sorry Ian, no offence meant!) and my phone provided a whole host of new APIs (Digital Wallet, PayPal, Apple Pay) – all perfectly capable of exchanging data or in this case money. But it was not straightforward, just because you have an API does not mean you can exchange data with another system. Very often you need a bit in the middle, something and often someone, to make the data from one system’s API fit the other to work out the exchange. In my case, I needed to convert £10 digital currency on a phone to a £10 physical token, but the APIs could not talk to one another without human intervention.  So, when you ask your software vendor the question, “Can this system be integrated” and the answer is “Yes, we have an API”,  always remember that Great Software Alone Is Not Enough.

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