Why developers shouldn’t just dismiss low-code platforms

Low-code, no-code, and citizen-development platforms have a place—but they need the guidance and oversight of professional IT developers to really deliver

Why developers shouldn’t just dismiss low-code platforms
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The business need for new applications has never been greater, and IT departments are being asked to find faster and innovative ways to develop and support more software projects and application releases. Even with improved processes and tools, it’s not just that easy.

Three closely linked proposed approaches—low-code development, no-code development, and citizen development—typically cause It developers to roll their eyes. But should you? Before deciding that these approaches are like doing self-surgery, take a few minutes to understand them and see, with IT’s expert guidance, they could actually work. And to understand where they are fantasy, so your negative response is backed up with analysis and not dismissed by business leadership as mere self-interest.

Why business leaders care about low-code platforms

These are the pressures many development teams are facing that are causing business leaders to look for some new approaches to supplement their IT developers:

  • Three departments are sharing spreadsheets to track their production work. There’s limited data validation in the spreadsheets, and mistakes are creating delays and work quality issues. Can you prototype, develop, test, and deploy a new workflow application in a few days that eliminates the spreadsheets and improves the department’s productivity and quality?
  • In another part of the business, a field operations team is being asked to update information in multiple enterprise systems whenever it visits a customer. How quickly and easily can the development team create a mobile application that connects to these systems and provides a single, easy-to-use tool for this operations team?

Business leaders know that they can gain significant competitive advantages the more they digitize their business operations and offer customers personalized experiences. They support agile practices and want to release applications early, learn from users, and adapt the applications to evolving needs and opportunities.

Many leaders, especially CIOs and CFOs, are also concerned about the cost to develop and support applications. They want to reduce the number of legacy platforms and proprietary applications that require ongoing support. They want their talented software development teams working on the applications that drive revenue or provide significant competitive advantages. They also want to make sure that new applications are secure, scalable, and perform well once they are deployed to production environments.

To accomplish these goals, leaders seek agile ways to manage the development process and technologies that improve software development productivity and quality.

Technology companies have responded with tools and platforms that aim to make it easier to develop and support applications. For example, tools like integrated development environments (IDEs) and code editors help developers be more productive when it’s appropriate to develop a customized application in Java, .Net, PHP, JavaScript, Python, or other programming language.

Other technologies aim to minimize the coding required to develop and support applications. They are sometime called low-code, no-code, and citizen-developmentplatforms. These technologies are often cloud-based and provide tools for developing applications, running them for production use cases, and integrating the user interfaces, data, and workflow with other technologies.

This is what your business leadership is hearing:

  • Stacey Levine, director for developer advocacy at low-code tools provider OutSystems, provides this pitch for low-code approaches: “Businesses care about low-code platforms because developers can focus on delivering complicated and critical processes, without worrying about some of the nuances of traditional code. The overall impact is that developers are able to deliver applications faster and are therefore more valuable to their business.”
  • Jay Jamison, senior vice president of strategy and product at low-code tools provider Quick Base, says, “Developers are in huge demand and short supply, making them a precious resource for organizations. As software is eating the world, it’s key for businesses to gain as much development capacity as they can, and low-code platforms offer a needed solution to this challenge.”

Some of these platforms have been around for more than 15 years and are getting increasing adoption today because many more companies are investing in developing software applications.

Understanding the differences among low-code, no-code, and citizen development

There’s a lot of confusion over the terminology around these platforms.

The term low-code platform implies that there is some coding required to develop an application, but the technology company is selling a low-labor tool to develop the application. This might be in the form of drag and drop interfaces, visual programming models, WYSIWYG user interface design tools, and other paradigms that let crafting an application in less time and potentially with higher quality.

Low-code platforms differentiate themselves over the target developer. The more sophisticated low-code platforms that require some coding target application developers and aim to make development easier and more productive.

Other platforms that require very little and sometimes no code for developing applications let business developers create and support their own applications. These platforms can still be used by developers to create sophisticated applications.

When entrusted to business developers, these no-code platforms are sometimes termed citizen-development platforms.

These platforms have different names at different research firms. Gartner calls them application platforms as a service (APaaS), Constellation Research calls them enterprise low-code tools, and Forrester splits them into two categories, low-code for application development and delivery and low-code for business developers.

Key questions when reviewing low-code and no-code platforms

The main thing to keep in mind with low-code platforms is whether they can be used to deliver the types of applications needed by the business, with a good-enough user experience and developed in less time, cost, and developer expertise than doing the same with custom programming.

Many of these technologies are designed to do certain types of applications—not be used for anything and everything like a general interest development language and associated environment—and provide guard rails so that developers can configure the applications quickly and easily.

What should you consider when reviewing low-code, no-code, and citizen-development platforms? Consider answering the following questions in your review:

  • What types of applications does the technology enable rapid development on?
  • Does the technology enable a satisfactory user experience, or are you going to have to customize with native code anyway?
  • Does the integration it provides sufficient for the types of applications envisioned?
  • Does the developer experience and expected skill set align well to your organizational capabilities?
  • Does the hosting model and compliance standards supported by the technology meet your organization’s regulatory needs?
  • Does the platform’s development process and application life cycle meet the minimal requirements needed for the applications that might be developed?
  • Does the cost model work well for the applications you intend to develop?

The long tail: Where low-code and no-code platforms can make sense

Dave Landa, CEO at low-code tools provider Kintone, says that low-code and no-code platforms have matured and can deliver sophisticated applications. What type of applications? Frank Zamani, CEO of low-code tool provider, Caspio says, “There is a long tail of processes in every organization. Main operation functions usually get most of the attention, but you can't transform any organization unless you deal with the long tail.”

Long-tail processes exist in every department:

  • In marketing, it might be a way to track the editorial process for content being published on the corporate website.
  • In HR, it might be a streamlined process to onboard a new employee or contractor.
  • In finance, it might be a yearly workflow to propose, review, and adjust departmental budgets.
  • In operations, it might be a specialized application designed to respond to a major issue or crisis.
  • In IT, I’ve personally used low-code platforms to manage the department’s budget, track IT assets, and manage an innovation pipeline.
  • It can also be used to manage aspects of the supply chain, workflows with partners, or tools to better manage vendors.

Friend or foe? How developers should contribute to low-code development

What’s common about these long-tail use cases is that it may be hard to establish strong business cases to develop applications for them. The result is that some of these use cases may not get properly fulfilled:

  • Some will be accomplished with Band-Aid workflows living on top of email, spreadsheets, and other office tools.
  • Others may be fulfilled with a technology procured outside of IT’s management, a form of shadow IT that creates inefficiencies and may add to compliance risks.
  • The worst case is having no solutions and then leaving people to address issues without the benefit of information and collaboration technology.

To avoid these poor outcomes, developers should help enable low-code solutions. For more sophisticated applications, learning to develop on low-code technologies means that you can address a business need that can’t be addressed affordably through traditional development approaches. The technology’s guard rails may also improve quality, provide a better user experience, and have a more-secure hosting platform than applications developed with native development languages.  

Developers can also play a role helping citizen developers with best practices in what goes into maintainable and supportable applications. The platform may enable citizen development, but business developers still need help on best practices in user interface design, data architecture, naming conventions, testing, and other design considerations.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.