(this article originally appeared in SD Times and was written by Jenna Sargent)

Low-code app development platforms have been around for years, but for a long time, they were often looked down upon by developers as something not powerful enough to be used to create actual applications. Whether this was because of a fear of low code making their jobs obsolete or a true belief that these platforms couldn’t deliver on their promises, they were often viewed as just a toy for business users, not something that should actually be used in production environments instead of apps created with code by the development and IT teams of an organization. 

Over time, however, that mindset has changed, and people from all segments of the business — developers, IT, and business users — have seen what the platforms are actually capable of, making them a more viable option nowadays. In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2023, over 50% of medium to large enterprises will be using low code as a strategic application platform. 

This recognition by the industry is why SD Times is declaring 2021 the year of low-code platforms. 

2020 was a particularly big year for low code, and that’s likely been helped along by the sudden work from home (WFH) orders that many companies were subject to. Without much advance notice, workers had to do their jobs entirely from home. This meant that processes that were historically done on paper, and perhaps physically transferred to another person in the office, were no longer viable. 

Business users needed a way to transform their manual, office-based processes into ones that could be accomplished online. Many turned to low code to help get that done. 

Sheryl Koenigsberg, head of global product marketing at low-code application platform Mendix, explained that another area where low code has increased this year as a result of the changes the world has gone through is in companies’ interactions with their customers. “So we think of one category of stuff having to do with workers needing to work from home, but the flip side of that is people aren’t going to stores, people aren’t going to government agencies. Customers are not able to interact in person. So that’s kind of the other way in which we have seen the pandemic influence peoples’ use of low code because they’re very eager to offer capabilities to their customers,” she said. 

Shane Young, PowerApps guru at PowerApps911, a consulting company for Microsoft’s low-code environment Power Platform, has also seen similar trends of growth. He believes that growth has doubled since early April. “It’s been growing year over year pretty steadily, and then back when kind of the lockdown happened, so [at the] end of March, there was kind of this momentary pause where everyone didn’t do anything, and then say a week, 10 days later, it just took off and it hasn’t stopped since. So I would say we’ve definitely seen growth double since early April,” he said. Young cites the same reasons for that growth — transformation of manual processes. 

Young continued: “What it’s really been a lot of is people realized that they have a lot of processes that required paper, walking it over to somebody’s desk and saying ‘hey, sign this’ or ‘do this,’ and when we’re all working from home, you can’t walk over to my desk and have me sign this, or share some information with me. So a lot of the app uptake has been just trying to [create] simple apps, which lends itself so well to low code, but just things that facilitate conversations, or facilitate approvals, or what are the processes that used to be paper or hand-driven that now need to be electronically driven?”

These apps are nothing new, Young explained. People had already been using low code to build similar apps, but the WFH changes certainly sped up the timeline of those apps, and increased how many companies used them. “It used to be like I’ll get to that one day, and in April that one day is today, I need to start this project that I was going to start eventually. It didn’t change the types of apps, it just sped up the timeline of those apps,” Young said. 

Getting started with low code
So for those interested in low-code development, where is the best place to start? Young recommends starting a low-code program by looking at processes that are currently spreadsheet-driven. For example, say you have an Excel spreadsheet that is used to collect data from everyone on your team. You would email out the spreadsheet, have everyone fill it out and send it back to you, and then you’d have to cut, paste, and merge the data together. This is a process that can easily be simplified by transforming it into a low-code application. You could build an app where everyone inputs their data and it does the job of merging that data for you into a central location. 

Mendix’s Koenigsberg believes there are certain skill sets that transfer well to low code. For example, an actuary who has a bunch of custom actuarial tools and has written a lot of Excel macros would transition very easily to low code. Another example is a mechanical engineer who is used to doing model-based development. Koenigsberg believes that person would very easily transition to low code as well. 

“So I think that what low code does when there is a developer shortage is it means you don’t necessarily have to get that person with the Java certification, the .NET certification, who’s been doing it for 20 years. You can take somebody who has business domain expertise and have them meaningfully contribute to the software that the company needs,” said Koenigsberg. 

Forrester senior analyst John Bratincevic explained that the number one question he’s gotten from companies recently is regarding citizen development programs. One of the biggest things companies want to know about is training. Low-code developers might not need to be experts in a programming language, but there are several concepts that make it easier for someone without a programming background.

According to Bratincevic, the companies who have successful citizen development programs provide training not just on the low-code platform and how to build applications with it, but also provide training on problem-solving and design thinking. “The ones that are being smart about it and going after it proactively, yes. They buy it, they train people, they figure out how to mature it, the whole thing,” he said.

PowerApps911’s Young believes that teaching about data structures would also be helpful. “I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes we see, you’re like ‘all right, I need to collect this data and so I’m just going to make one table with 1,000 columns and then fill in all those columns.’ And that works, which is awesome, but it’s really slow and it doesn’t really scale over time, so I think that would be the biggest win for a lot of them.”

Domain experts building better apps
One of the results of subject matter experts being able to build their own apps rather than handing something off to an IT team that doesn’t have hands-on experience of a certain process is that they can incorporate their own knowledge and expertise into the application. 

For example, Koenigsberg brought up a scenario where one of Mendix’s salespeople was visiting an airline to give a demo of their platform, which the airline was considering using for its check-in process. They had modeled out the logic, and then the head of the flight attendants’ union walked by and they waved her over. She was able to look at it and quickly point out that the logic they were using didn’t account for the fact that the passport is needed before the ticket number can be validated. 

“So there’s an example where you can incorporate people into low-code development who don’t have a technical background at all, because it’s so accessible,” Koenigsberg explained.

Goodbye, shadow IT
When companies give their business users a platform to create the applications they need, it also has the potential to cut down on shadow IT. Rather than a business user finding and downloading a random application or signing up for a service that IT has no idea about, they have this platform, signed off on by IT, that allows them to build the applications they need in a controlled environment. 

“The worst case is when the IT department is swamped and isn’t delivering, the business is unhappy, maybe business comes along and says we want to look at this tool, and IT says you shouldn’t use that, blah blah blah,” said Mike Mason, global head of technology at ThoughtWorks. “The folks who need the software go ahead and build it anyway without getting any help from centralized IT, and then you run into a real problem because people are just building these tools, and can get themselves into a problem, can end up with a system that is difficult to maintain or extend. You might end up with security concerns around where the data is sitting and all that kind of stuff,” said Mason. 

Mason believes a more positive approach would be to involve IT in the selection of low-code platforms, so that governance is easier and people aren’t tempted to build things off on their own. 

Despite this extra control and the other benefits of low code, IT is often the last to get on board with bringing in these solutions, said Young. “I was helping [a Fortune 50 company] build an app and whatever app it is they wanted to build, they went to IT to get an internal quote. And IT was like ‘Oh yeah it’ll be 9 months and $170,000 for us to build you this app,’ and then I think I quoted him $25,000 and 6 weeks to build it in the Power Platform.”

To IT, that contrast is scary, Young explained. He continued: “IT is afraid of why this thing is so much smaller, cheaper, and faster, when they had to quote $170,000 for it. So I think that’s what IT struggles with. They’re the last ones to embrace low-code/no-code. They don’t want to look at it, they don’t want to think about it because they’re afraid it’s going to cost them their jobs. It’s not, but that’s the natural reaction.”

Low code isn’t a silver bullet
Low code isn’t perfect. Even though we’re declaring 2021 the year of low code, that doesn’t mean low-code platforms are a silver bullet for all of a company’s problems. 

One issue that arises with low code is that sometimes your use case might evolve and grow past what the platform is capable of. Mason gave an example of a company wanting to create an app that 10 people use and two people develop it. That use case might be in the sweet spot for that particular low-code platform, but imagine if that app continues to be successful and grows in complexity. Now it might be something for a 10-person team to build to service 10,000 people in your company.

Looking into the scalability of a platform can be tricky. “A number of the low-code vendors kind of tout their platform as being very highly scalable and they’ll give an example of a glossy tablet application for their bank that they developed on a low-code platform and they rolled it out to all their branches so it’s obviously pretty highly scalable,” said Mason. “And you look at that and you go therefore low code scales pretty well, doesn’t it? And the answer is well, that depends. What is that thing actually doing? If it largely doesn’t have very much logic in it and it’s just a little glossy thing to sit at the front of the bank when someone comes in and get them directed to a teller, that’s actually a pretty simple thing to deploy and scale so the ‘hey this low-code platform does cloud scaling,’ it’s true, but in what use case? What complexity of application are you able to scale?”

Another issue Mason sees with low code is that most platforms have a graphical drag-and-drop interface, which sort of sets an upper bound on the complexity of what you can do with these platforms. Issues such as how to do testing, version control, and data management may arise. “With software, traditional code, because it’s text, we have good methods for understanding what has changed. If two people change the same thing at the same time, you get a merge conflict and we can figure out how to deal with that. Those things are all more difficult to do in a low-code platform,” said Mason. 

Mason believes that the key to seeing success with a low-code program is to go in understanding its limitations. 

He gave an example of the UK losing 16,000 coronavirus cases from its database because they built the tracking system in Excel and ran into its limits, and anything over a certain number just got dropped, resulting in data being lost. 

“That’s really where our skepticism on low code comes from, which is there’s this kind of tension between low-code vendors who want to portray their solution as being able to do everything, and I’ve literally been on a phone call with a low-code platform salesperson where they said there is nothing you could not build in our solution, versus sort of the reality of every abstraction, every solution has a sweet spot, it has edges where if you get to that edge you start to run into more trouble, and you need to know where that sweet spot is and you need to have a very honest conversation about it,” Mason said.

Despite these criticisms from Mason, he believes low code does have a place in organizations, as long as those organizations aren’t trying to push it to the limits. The issues tend to arise once low code is seen as that silver bullet solution for the organization. 

Forrester’s Bratincevic also believes that it’s important for companies to understand that while people can use low code to build substantial apps, these platforms can’t “do everything under the sun.” Understanding that there are certain patterns that need to be worked in when doing low-code development is important so that people don’t push these platforms beyond their scope.

Low code as a feature, not a platform
Bratincevic believes that low code is becoming so widespread that it’s starting to become more of a feature of platforms than a category of platforms itself. 

“You have these platforms, general-purpose platforms for making apps, that’s kind of what low code is or started as,” said Bratincevic. “You’re seeing it become more of like an adjective, like a feature. So if you look at a bunch of software categories in general, go search for low code online and you’ll find low code for X, low code for Y. What’s happening is the idea of abstracted development features, it’s becoming a feature of many software categories. So the way I see it is what’s going on is like a glacial shift towards democratization. Technology is not just the job of a small group of specialists. There’s a spectrum developing. The more software-driven a company is, the more software work business people need to do.”

When the apps you buy have low-code capabilities built-in, that makes them adaptable, which is something companies should be looking for, Bratincevic explained. “COVID showed us that we need to change even the systems that we think don’t have to change. So low code is an incredible way to build that adaptability in. So to me that’s the big thing. Citizen development, democratization, technology being business people’s business — that’s not just a myth, there’s absolutely people that are pursuing it quite actively and I see it work out in some pretty cool places and it seems like a very important part of the formula for adaptability, for changing the software you have in this really fast, ongoing way,” said Bratincevic.