The shock to industry from the COVID-19 pandemic has brought Low-Code/ No-Code platforms into the limelight. Fueling this trend is the desperate need of businesses to go digital as a way of managing unpredictable disruptions. Low-Code platforms make this goal of digital transformation simpler and faster to achieve.
While the pandemic is the proverbial stick beating businesses into examining Low-Code as an option, the carrot lies in allowing employees at all levels to fashion solutions using technology, without the need to become coders. This first-hand use of technology to improve efficiency makes a critical difference. It empowers users to design solutions by questioning what they do, gaining a better understand of their processes and re-engineering them if necessary. Low-Code pushes employees from being owners and executors of processes to also becoming creators of better technological solutions.
I am reminded of NTT Data that made a $3.1 billion acquisition of Dell Services some years ago. The acquisition brought with it about 1,000 applications from Dell. Naturally, NTT Data wanted to rationalize the applications. When the task was undertaken, the company found that many applications also needed to be modernized. However, re-building them from scratch was not an option (expensive and time consuming). Instead, NTT Data used a Low-Code/ No-Code approach, modernizing the identified applications in weeks instead of months.
The bet on Low-Code/ No-Code paid off. It quickly helped modernize the applications or build interim solutions (while vendors worked on delivering full-fledged capabilities), raising the digital standards, the company claims, of 45,000 employees and making them more productive. Most heartening was that employees were excited about making a difference in corporate technology. “As a COTS organization, it’s easy to fall into a routine. This…provided our staff with an opportunity to learn about new technologies and application development methodologies, enabling them to grow and advance as professionals,” observed Barry Shurkey, the CIO of NTT Data Services.[i]
Not surprisingly, to see that the worldwide market for Low-Code development technologies is projected to be $13.8 billion in 2021, an increase of 22.6% from 2020, according to a February 2021 forecast by Gartner. In addition, the analyst says that half of all new Low-Code clients will come from business buyers outside the IT organization by year-end 2025. The surge in remote development during the COVID-19 pandemic is credited as the reason for the heightened interest in Low-Code. [ii]
There is another, more pressing, reason for the interest in Low-Code. The lack of qualified talent is hurting businesses. The skills deficit, especially in areas such as data and analytics, process automation and artificial intelligence, is acute. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for software engineers in the US is projected to go up by 22% in the decade between 2019 and 2029 (compare this to the average growth rate for all occupations at 4%).[iii] Acquiring this talent will remain outside the budget of most businesses. Now is the time to counter-balance the coming skills shortage by getting in early on the Low-Code development boat.
Low-Code isn’t new. It was first developed by James Martin in his 1982 book, Application Development without Programmers.[iv] At the time, the practice of Low-Code promised more than it could deliver and therefore faded from the technology horizon. The time for the idea, back in the early 80s, just wasn’t right. We did not have development best practices (documentation, version control, etc.) and, more significantly, the approach was viewed with suspicion as citizen developers were seen as multiplying the risks a business was vulnerable to.
Today, Low-Code platforms hardly need an explanation. They deliver application development through a graphical user interface and configuration tools. No prior coding experience is required. The technical knowledge necessary is minimal and nothing that cannot be learnt in a matter of days. Think of it as the Lego of software development: Business users are provided drag-and-drop functionality to create workflows and add data models to automate repeatable processes (No-Code). This is usually called an Integrated Development Environment (IDE). Connectors at the back end manager data storage and retrieval. Sometimes, a systems engineer may be required to write some scripts to execute the automation (Low-Code). These platforms also come packaged with handy application lifecycle management tools for testing, debugging, staging and deployment.
A small word of caution here. Low-Code platforms will gain traction because everyone wants to save time and money while improving efficiency — but there is the risk of system malfunctions or even complete breakdowns with even small changes in data formats.
Data, its volume, quality, variety and how it is used, is the key to success for every organization. Data management is a sophisticated practice. This is why businesses will do well to ensure that even their Low-Code development falls under the purview of, and is supervised by, the IT team. The IT team is critical to the successful adoption of Low-Code platforms.
Enthusiastic proponents of Low-Code will invariably want to leverage the platforms for the experimentation and innovation they can unleash. But it is wise to balance it with proper governance that focuses on ensuring it becomes easier for the business to do the right things and, conversely, make it almost impossible to take a mis-step.
The business and technology environment over the last 12 months has made James Martin and his ideas in Application Development without Programmers highly relevant today. Processes and best practices have turned Low-Code into Low-Risk and High-Reward. Plus, the approach offers a reasonable path away from legacy. If that doesn’t swing it for Low-Code, nothing will.
Founder, Chairman and Managing Director, Microland Ltd