Low-code: What it can do for your enterprise—and what it can’t

Building software with low-code visual tools can save time, but it won’t magically fix underfunded development departments

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The low-code concept has been gaining traction for the past couple of years. The promise of low-code is the removal or reduction in the amount of programming required when building applications, especially in-house applications for managing and processing data sets.

Instead of painstakingly crafting together new applications from scratch, developers—and perhaps even non-developers—can pull together a range of building blocks in a visual development environment. Then they just click a few buttons and—voilà!—a newly built application emerges.

It’s easy to see the appeal. Many organizations are struggling to create all the in-house applications they require to manage and mine their ever-growing sets of data. Low-code offers a ray of hope, a way of offloading the tedious grunt work of coding to APIs, applets, and services. It’s exciting because there’s a whiff of science fiction about it; drag blocks, click buttons, out comes the app.

If it works as advertised, why would any organization need programmers? The logical endpoint of low-code is to take development out of the hands of technical people entirely and put it under the control of business analysts reporting to customer-oriented managers. Flowcharts created by analysts could be translated into low-code instructions, then directly converted into the required software. Surely that would be faster and simpler, with less chance of misunderstanding or miscommunication?

But there’s a barrier to this goal, a significant one. Programming takes skill, experience, and a particular mindset. The most efficient programmers have tenacity, well-honed problem-solving abilities, work strategies based firmly on logic and the methodical elimination of errors, almost unbelievably fine attention to detail, and the ability to juggle dozens of factors (variables, routines, etc.) at once. They aren’t always paid well in return for these skills and talents, but that’s only because the people managing them don’t always comprehend what it takes to be a good programmer. It might look like easy work, but it isn’t.

Removing or reducing the coding part of the equation may have less of an impact than expected. Coding is the implementation of development ideas, but even if swathes of code are replaced with modular blocks, those implementation skills will still be required; they’ll just move up a level.

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