“Anyone can cook!”
So proclaims Chef Auguste Gusteau in one of my family’s favorite movies, “Ratatouille.”
I say the same thing about software development: Anyone can code.
And these days, it seems everyone sure is trying to enable these new legions of programmers. That’s because “low” and “no-code” tools, while not new as a concept, are booming in lockstep with companies moving towards becoming more digital enterprises.
These tools are what they sound like: Easy-to-use utilities that allow anyone to create apps of their own, even with minimal or no background in computer programming. I’ve written about them in the past in postings on the renaissance of custom software and the rise of the “citizen developer.”
These trends have gained even more momentum since 2019. I can tell you that almost every organization I talk to is using or interested in using low-code/no-code (LCNC). And that jives with the findings in the Technology Vision 2021 report: More than a third of executives say they’re already investing in LCNC.
Bumper cars: Ensuring a safe set-up
But how should organizations proceed with LCNC? Just like an automobile, you can’t just give the keys to a novice and say “drive.” Actually, you need to design a toolset that operates like bumper cars, built to withstand the inevitable collisions that occur when non-IT workers become developers.
First, I’d suggest following the advice of my colleague and LCNC expert, Niel Eyde, who says, “go slow to go fast,” i.e., start small and move slowly before you attempt big things. That way, you work out the kinks before they do any damage.
As your citizen developers and IT staff—working as partners—build competence and begin to understand potential use cases better, they can expand the LCNC program and capabilities little by little. This also allows you to tweak the hard stuff like security, data management and reusable components like authentication.
Another way to build a bumper car-like development environment is by establishing a clear tier system, which protects the enterprise while giving people the freedom to realize new opportunities.
You need to design a toolset that operates like bumper cars, built to withstand the inevitable collisions that occur when non-IT workers become developers.
So, for example, Tier A could be for your average citizen developer with no prior or substantial programming experience. Tier B could be for your power user, and Tier C could be for your professional IT user. Each tier has its own guardrails and protocols in place, with Tier A being the most regulated.
Ultimately, this is about striking an important balance between imposing restrictions that severely limit citizen developers and launching a coding free-for-all (and having to dig yourself out of a hole later).
I’ve seen both—take my advice and go for the middle ground.
In addition to these overarching protections, you have to watch out for specific problem areas, like avoiding data silos, LCNC app maintenance and application duplication.
Big results with no code
If you can get the right protections in place—build your bumper car—then you can reap many rewards from LCNC programs.
A typical use case for LCNC is automating data processing in some way.
At Accenture, for example, we are all in on LCNC. Citizen developers (I consider myself one as well) have been able to create apps that help ensure compliance with travel policy, speed up the accounts payable process, and even track other apps. All tasks that were done painstakingly by humans before.
We are automating the mundane and ordinary so we can focus more on adding value and the extraordinary. In the long run, this is better for workers and for the enterprise.
Another key advantage is you really can enable better reuse of existing resources. This has truly been an objective in IT since I started working in the field 30 years ago.
While it gets a little better with each technology generation, the reusable widgets common across LCNC tools promise a genuine leap forward in actual reuse of existing IT assets. For example, if a citizen developer creates an app for a common enterprise function—like log-on authentication—then its API set can be made available for reuse in an internal “app store.” Pretty soon, all of the company’s LCNC users leverage the same proven log-on function for their own apps.
So, where is all this going?
Like Helen of Troy, LCNC is “the face that launched a thousand ships.”
Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, and the number of LCNC software makers has increased. My guess is that out of hundreds of them, there will be consolidation not dissimilar to what we have witnessed in the PaaS market. The big cloud providers will lead, and smaller companies will fill niche needs like LCNC tools tailored specifically to an industry.
It’s important to remember, too, that LCNC exists on a continuum of approaches for developing applications, one that includes “pro code”—genuine full stack developers who traditionally worked in the IT department (and mostly still do).
Also, LCNC tools can and will often be used in concert with more traditional custom development approaches to build applications. In fact, decoupling of applications presentation layers from backend services will encourage more use of LCNC, as those complex “pro-code” services of the backend can be easily consumed by citizen developers working on their own unique applications.
As for the future of “LCNC” itself, I see “no-code” becoming increasingly popular as more businesses become “digital enterprises,” and low-code becoming more of an alternative for professional developers to use for productivity purposes. This is because “low-code” is a more complicated hybrid approach that, so far, has proven less popular than no-code, which is simpler and more effective for the DIY developers to use.
Reflecting more on the movie “Ratatouille” (isn’t it remarkable what we can glean from animated family features!), other characters were reluctant to let the protagonist from a non-traditional chef background show his stuff in the kitchen. But, it turned out, he had the makings of a master chef.
Who knows what talents we’ll unleash from our people once LCNC gives them a chance to be chefs, ahem, I mean developers, whatever their backgrounds happen to be?
By Adam Burden