An interesting article with a good comparison: “Low-code application developers have become the tech version of a volunteer fire department. They show up quickly in the wake of disasters with web applications to organize work, locate and share goods, and even connect people to relief and rescue efforts.”. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in many examples of how low-code and no-code has been used to build relevant apps in a very short amount of time. And this article gives some good advice.
(this article originally appeared in Forbes and was written by Jeff Erickson )
When the COVID-19 lockdown first threatened the medical community with shortages of N95 masks and other personal protective equipment, Michelle Skamene did what we’ve come to expect from developers in a crisis: She built an app to help others.
Skamene and a few colleagues quickly built an online exchange where people anywhere could share needs and offer supplies. Tens of thousands of masks, gowns, booties and other items have been requested and committed through the site.
Around the same time, Scott Spendolini was also building. With two day’s work, he launched Daily Grocery Status, a web-based app that helped apprehensive shoppers around Austin, Texas, see what stores currently stocked the items they sought. It works by letting shoppers or store managers sign on and update the app when a coveted item hits store shelves. Like Skamene, he built and launched his app in days using a low-code development platform called Oracle Application Express, or Oracle APEX.
Low-code application developers like Spendolini and Skamene have become the tech version of a volunteer fire department. They show up quickly in the wake of disasters with web applications to organize work, locate and share goods, and even connect people to relief and rescue efforts. Helpful and inspiring COVID-19 examples abound in the APEX developer community, which has also jumped to the rescue in past disasters, such as hurricanes.
Low-code development platforms like Oracle APEX work well in a crisis because they handle the complex relationships between technologies behind the scenes, while letting developers, and even non-developers, quickly assemble the parts into a working application. Oracle APEX is included with Oracle Database, so APEX apps very often involve letting people access and share data in both small ways and very big ways.
“These developers see a need and realize they have a tool to address it, and then they do it,” says Joel Kallman, an Oracle APEX product manager who helped create APEX in the 1990s, and now finds himself at the center of a thriving APEX developer community. Kallman reels off a few recent notes he’s received, including from developers who built a HIPAA-compliant app overnight to help organ donor networks ensure recipients that organs are COVID-free, developers who built three apps in three weeks for his city in the UK to manage various aspects of testing and contact tracing, and a volunteer developer in South America who built an APEX application to connect people to a government aid program, which had 10,000 visitors in its first few hours of existence.
APEX is just the perfect toolkit to actually launch something while other developers are still building concepts and mock-ups.
But having a low-code platform at your fingertips is just the first step. There is still plenty to consider when building and launching an app in a crisis. Here are three top tips Spendolini and Skamene shared.
1. Organize to Work Quickly
In a low-code application environment, results come fast. Michelle Skamene’s team at Insum knows this. As the enormity of the COVID-19’s effect on businesses started to become apparent, her development and consulting firm “made sure we could react quickly” to meet needs that her clients had never anticipated, she says. Her firm assembled rapid response teams, set up APEX environments, and made sure everyone had the access they needed in order to move fast, “because we expected engagements would last a few days to maybe a few weeks.”
Another key element: Make sure each team has a business person who is frequently in touch with key stakeholders and understands their goals. Because APEX allows you to build so fast, “you can move off in the wrong direction very quickly,” Skamene says.
Once a project starts, prepare to make changes on the fly, with stakeholders taking an active part in the development process, she says. A good low-code environment like APEX means there’s little need for a lengthy process of requirements gathering, mock-ups, and feedback.
“The rapidness is stunning to people who aren’t familiar with it,” says Spendolini, who designed, built, and launched his app in under three days. “APEX is just the perfect toolkit to actually launch something while other developers are still building concepts and mock-ups.” When Spendolini showed his app at a hackathon, “people were like, ‘how big is your team?’ And I had to break it to them that it was just me. And that the app wasn’t a prototype, it was live, and they could go use it. And they were just dumbfounded.”
Many things that take a lot of developer time to think through are handled automatically. For example “I never worried about security, because APEX let me hook into Google authentication, which took like one minute,” he says. He used a feature of APEX, Quick SQL, to quickly design a data model, and it all ran on the cloud-based Oracle Autonomous Database. “I didn’t sit down and come up with a complicated data model. I have five tables,” he says. “It took a half-hour to generate the data model, kick out the scripts and I’m off and running.”
2. Take Advantage of Free Cloud Resources
As Skamene prepped to react quickly to COVID-19-driven needs, her team set up several instances of the free tier of Oracle Autonomous Database. This gave her team a ready-to-use, secure environment to develop and deploy applications.
Spendolini also hosted his app on an Autonomous Database in Oracle Cloud Free Tier. “I don’t have a DBA, I’m not a DBA,” he says. “I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars or even hundreds of dollars on this, I didn’t know if it would take off. Using the autonomous database means, it’s backed up, it’s secured, it’s being maintained, it’s being patched. I don’t have to do a darn thing.”
Plus, he says, the always free database comes with enough resources to keep his application going even with heavy web traffic. “This thing would have to get to probably millions of views a day before I would have to worry about moving it to a paid program,” Spendolini says.
3. Understand the Life Cycle of a Crisis App
“These crisis apps have two very defined paths—they either spike and die off, or eventually become part of the information infrastructure” for an industry or a government agency, says Spendolini, so it’s important to be ready for either eventuality.
He built Grocery Status with the expectation that it would fade away when the crisis wanes. “I don’t want anyone to need it, because that means we’re not out of the crisis,” he says.
But he knows the application might also be tweaked for other uses in business or as a community resource. If that happens, “You’re on an enterprise platform, you have all sorts of enterprise stuff you can easily turn on,” he says, referring in his case to the autonomous database. “Let’s say my app starts getting millions of hits a day, then, OK, I turn on paid cloud and I throw a couple of OCPUs at it to handle the load, and maybe look for some advertising income to pay for it.”
Skamene prepped for her COVID-19 Masks app to take off by making sure it worked in several languages and was easily adoptable in many locations. For example, Skamene’s team used the multi-tenant capabilities of Oracle Autonomous Database, “so if we want to roll this out in another country, we can,” she says. “With multitenant you don’t have to go back and change all your table structures, change all your queries, in order to make sure one country can’t see another country’s data, for example.”
Her team used features in Oracle APEX that make it easy to provide the app in multiple languages. “We had our app up and running in days in three languages,” she says.
A Developer Community Responds
Another powerful resource beyond the technical capabilities comes from Oracle APEX’s user community. In April, community members put together a 24-hour marathon of online sessions talking about APEX techniques. (You can watch the videos here.)
As the community has grown, Kallman has seen countless times where people in the APEX developer community shared their advice or expertise to help their peers with a question or roadblock. “In a very organic way, Oracle APEX has grown into industry’s most-used enterprise low-code development platform,” Kallman says. “Now there are millions of apps in the world, deployed across every industry.”