We have reached a point where the industry’s focus on low-code development has transformed it from “a hot topic” to “commonplace.” According to Gartner, by 2024, 65 percent of app activity will fall into this category. It is a monumental shift in the industry. However, and I cannot emphasise this enough, it has already occurred.
Why hype it if we’re approaching a steady state of normalcy? Are the promises associated with this hype, to put it charitably, exaggerated?
For those unfamiliar with low-code, it is the ability to create application software through a graphical interface with minimal or no traditional programming. By abstracting the code, these low-code platforms and tools can accelerate the development process. This is the guarantee. It is not contentious.
Where the exaggeration occurs is in predicting the effects on users, organisations, and the industry as a whole.
First, it is essential to acknowledge that low-code is not new. It originated in the rapid application development (RAD) environments of the 1990s. A little more than a decade ago, we began referring to these tools as “low-code,” and one could (and I do) argue that they are now pervasive.
It is not so much a question of whether companies use low-code, but where. If IT is not doing it, then users are. The practise is so ubiquitous that it appears in CRM, machine learning, BPM, ERP, etc. From this perspective, Gartner’s prediction is likely an underestimation, as low-code has long since captured a significant portion of the market.
Again, why the fuss? What is all the fuss about low-code? I contend (and do so) that it is actually about two other trends.
The first is citizen development, a not-at-all-new movement that received a new and catchier moniker roughly a decade ago. The idea is that by bypassing IT and having users do their own development, more applications can be created, and since these users already know what they want, there is no need to communicate requirements and risk confusion. Citizen development heavily relies on low-code platforms and tools due to the fact that few citizens have mastered coding.
The second trend is continuous improvement, which is also an old concept repackaged in a worthy manner. No effort, process, product, or method should be set in stone; instead, organisations should collect data, evaluate alternatives, and seek ways to improve and evolve things. This means that applications in the software industry are not so much deliverables as they are ongoing relationships. Diverse methodologies operating under the Agile banner reflect this mentality in the world of code, but an emerging supposition is that low-code is easier to adapt and evolve than code – an idea riddled with caveats, but nonetheless an emerging idea.
Low-code can help both of these movements significantly. It can also assist conventional developers in conventional IT departments in building conventional objects. However, not all low-code platforms and tools aid these movements in the same way.
Low-code development is nearly mandatory for citizen development. Here, however, a maturity model is essential. Numerous proponents of citizen development exert pressure on vendors to develop “anyone can use” tools.
However, this idea is founded on premises that do not hold up well. The first is that users want to develop their own applications. Not every salesperson, graphic designer, nurse, or financial analyst desires to develop software. They hold daytime jobs.
The next fallacious assumption is that everyone could construct their own necessities if they had access to simple tools. That the only thing holding them back is the annoying requirement to type instructions in some text-based language. However, software development is a professional discipline for a reason. Not having to code like a developer does not eliminate the need to think like one.
Vendors make yet another incorrect assumption, albeit one based on demand. It emphasises the construction aspect of application delivery. Professionals are well aware that construction is only about 10 percent of the work required to deliver an application; one cannot omit design, testing, profiling, security, auditability, documentation, education, deployment, change management, and countless other needs for anything but the simplest solutions, and some (e.g., compliance auditing and security) may still be required even for “simple stuff.”
Finally, simplicity does not endure over time. Eventually, application developers desire ever-increasing functionality. That cannot be accomplished without compromising simplicity. And it is frequently impossible without a vendor switch. Eventually, citizen development initiatives begin to resemble IT-driven initiatives.
Helpful low-code tools and platforms tend to prioritise the entire delivery cycle, not just construction. They prioritise efficiency over simplicity. They provide some tools for non-professionals and others for technical professionals, as well as facilitate communication between the two groups. These approaches and tools are not necessarily the most popular, but they are the most effective.
Thus, it is not so much that citizen development is expanding (though it is), but rather that evolved citizen development is expanding more rapidly.
When applying low-code to continuous improvement, the focus is typically on an initial release; a minimum viable product (MVP). To release something to collect data that can be used to develop the “real” product using “real” tools and platforms (e.g., code).
This is not what continuous improvement actually entails, but it is where the majority of the buzz is centred.
It is also a result of the fact that the vast majority of low-code tools concentrate almost exclusively on the construction phase of application delivery and view low-code efforts as disposable. The majority of low-code tools offer minimal support for structured deployment and change management.
With the right low-code tools, however, applications can be constructed, deployed, modified, and redeployed rapidly on a regular basis. Even if they reject the school’s concepts that are tightly coupled to code, they can gain inspiration from the world of Agile development.
In fact, organisations with a culture of continuous improvement produce superior software. People (both professionals and amateurs) aren’t very good at imagining and describing what they want, and even when they get what they asked for, they invariably realise they forgot something. That conditions have changed. And (the right) low-code tools enable rapid responses to these ever-changing needs, circumstances, and desires.
The media attention is misplaced.
It’s not that low-code programming is useless. It is so significant that it is already widespread. So diverse that thousands of vendors implement low-code in a variety of ways. To the extent that many large commercial platforms include low-code scripting and automation capabilities. It is performed because it increases productivity. Frequently, it contributes to clarity. It can occasionally contribute to creative chaos. However, it is essential to view low-code development as, well, development.
What’s actually happening is that low-code is incredibly useful to movements that are trending and growing rapidly. And this makes some sense. Low-code increases the efficiency of many types of software development. It will accompany all forms of innovation, regardless of their nature.
It is also not alone. Aside from being ubiquitous, artificial intelligence is rapidly becoming a component that one can rely on while working on something else. Every day, business intelligence expands, and collecting/analyzing/responding to data is once again becoming a component of something larger.
I prefer to focus on these higher-level trends rather than the technologies that enable them, but if low-code (or certain providers of low-code) are doing such a good job that they’re enabling other innovative moments to flourish, it’s probably hype that’s well spent.
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