(this article originally appeared in siliconAngle and was written by Paul Gillin)

When the U.S. government established the Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses cope with the early stages of the coronavirus crisis, the tech staff at Kansas City-based Academy Bank NA rushed to put a loan-processing system in place to catch an anticipated flood of applications.

The application was launched for friends and family members to test on a Friday evening. On Saturday morning, Academy Chief Information Officer Jana Merfen called Jeff Berger, administrator of the bank’s Salesforce.com Inc. account, to ask for help. The application the bank’s developers had built was having trouble keeping track of documents flowing through the system.

“I said, ‘Give me a couple of hours and I think we can do better,’” Berger recalled. “I thought I could, in real time, stand up an application with a very specific workflow and immediately report on what was going on to management.”

Academy Bank’s Berger: “Give me a couple of hours and I think we can do better.” Photo: Jeff Berger

By mid-afternoon, Berger had used Salesforce.com’s so-called low-code toolset to whip up a dashboard that associates could use to identify applications that were being held up or that hadn’t yet been assigned. Not only was the system robust enough to handle more than 1,300 applications from small businesses, the streamlined workflow also reduced the number of people needed to administer it. “We thought we needed 40 people to work on PPP loans,” Berger said. “We probably needed half that many.”

Berger isn’t a professional software developer. A theater major in college, he taught himself how to code on Salesforce.com’s Trailhead learning platform. He’s one of a growing population of what Gartner Inc. calls “citizen developers,” or people who use a growing crop of low-code and no-code tools to build business-critical software.

Approaching wave

By many accounts, the market for tools to support these technology-oriented nontechnologists is primed for explosive growth. Gartner forecasts that three-quarters of large enterprises will use at least four low-code development tools by 2024 and that low-code will make up more than 65% of application development activity. Verified Market Research forecasts the market will grow more than 44% annually through 2026, echoing similar predictions from other firms.

Investors smell opportunity too. Gartner’s 2018 low-code survey got responses from 82 providers in 2018; last year it was 124.

Indeed, investors are starting to place some big bets. Just this week, New York-based Unqork Inc., a developer of a no-code platform targeted at developers, said it has raised $207 million in a Series C funding, bringing its total fundraising to more than $365 million and its valuation to $2 billion, or double the amount that qualifies a startup for “unicorn” status.

Likewise, startup Formagrid Inc., which does business under the name Airtable, in September raised a $185 million Series D funding round that put its valuation at nearly $2.6 billion. The company’s low-code platform uses a spreadsheet metaphor to enable people to build collaborative applications.

All that said, questions remain about just how far a Lego-style building block approach to software development can go in creating the kinds of sophisticated applications that digital business requires. Skeptics say that though the tools are effective at automating workflows and generating reports, they’re not appropriate for mission-critical development or applications that create competitive advantage. Those require the know-how of professional developers.

Nevertheless, the current outlook is bullish. Why now? There’s nothing new about efforts to democratize software development. COBOL was touted as a user-friendly programming language in the 1960s. The 1980s saw a profusion of “fourth-generation languages” spring up targeting non-technical business users. PowerBuilder was a sensation in the mid-1990s. Visual Basic developed a passionate following in the early 2000s. All those tools either eventually migrated toward professional developers or were niched at the low end of the market where they were used to build simple but not very powerful applications.

One bugaboo of earlier efforts was performance. Software runs fastest when the code used to write it can be translated directly into low-level “assembly code,” which is close to the instructions that run on the physical computer. Because so much processing is required behind the scenes to make development tools simple to use, the software developed with them has typically required line-by-line interpreting at runtime, a much slower process than compiling into machine language.

The performance penalty has largely relegated such tools to use on a single desktop or as a prototyping aid. Although early low-code tools had considerable value, they rarely breached the walls of the corporate information technology department.

Cloud catalyst

Experts say that’s all about to change thanks to a confluence of recent developments.

A big one is cloud computing. Software built to run on cloud platforms is far less dependent on local processors than that written for a single server. Cloud applications can be composed of microservices, which are pre-built chunks of code that have been tested and optimized for performance. And it’s easy to boost processing power to give programs the power they need.

Claris’ Nelson: Software components on cloud platforms “have seen a massive amount of peer review.” Photo: Claris

That makes low-code programming more about assembling high-quality code modules, many built by professional developers, than creating the code itself. “The minute you start building on the cloud, you’re sitting on platforms that have seen a massive amount of peer review,” said Peter Nelson, vice president of engineering at Claris International Inc. “As long as you can serve from a data center where latency isn’t terrible you can get performance that feels native.”

“Cloud-based architectures and microservices-based designs using Web technologies are decoupling from the monolithic stack,” said Jason Wong, a Garner Inc. analyst who specializes in application design and development. “These newer platforms and the ones that have modernized to cloud-native don’t have those performance issues.”

Cloud has also democratized access to tools. Many software-as-a-service applications come with development environments built-in and those companies are more than happy to provide low-cost training and support in the hopes of tying customers more closely to the software. Salesforce.com provides a wide range of credentials and certifications on its Trailhead education site and even lists the salaries citizen developers can expect to earn with the right training.

“Cloud and low-code complement each other, said Matt Calkins, chief executive of low-code platform developer Appian Corp. “Each is driving adoption of the other.”

Short supply

Another factor driving the market is the growing shortage of professional developers. There’s disagreement about the extent of the talent shortfall, but there’s no question that good developers are hard to find and command big salaries. Claris’ Nelson estimates that there are 660,000 open job requisitions in the U.S. right now for software developers and only 75,000 graduating computer science majors. “That’s 585,000 jobs that won’t get filled,” he said.

The digital transformation craze that has taken hold in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic will only drive demand higher. The U.S. Bureau Of Labor Statistics forecasts that employment of software developers and software quality assurance analysts will grow at more than five times the rate of all other jobs through the end of this decade. “There’s not enough developers in the world to meet the ever-increasing demand for code and it’s going to get worse,” said Greynier Fuentes, vice president of Digital Solutions at VeriTran Holding Ltd. BVI.

“Typically IT teams are under-resourced to meet all the needs of the organization,” said Avon Puri, global chief digital officer at venture capital firm Sequoia Capital Operations LLC. “Every single CIO is at the point where technology is integrated into every process.”

Resistance melting

Sequoia Capital’s Puri: “Every single CIO is at the point where technology is integrated into every process.” Photo: HMG Strategy LLC

IT organizations are also becoming more comfortable with letting business-side colleagues get their hands dirty. Corporate databases are still tightly controlled, but applications such as workflow automation, forms-oriented data collection and analytical processing that are the sweet spot of low-code/no-code technology generally don’t touch the crown jewels and are considered low priority for professional developers.

“What’s changed is the intensity of the need to digitize operations,” said Arnal Dayaratna, research director for software development at International Data Corp. “IT is gradually embracing the reality that a certain amount of development work is going to be decentralized throughout the enterprise.” However, IT governance structures to recognize the decentralized model are still immature, he added. “There are no standards yet.”

Sequoia Capital’s Puri agreed that governance structures in areas like review cycles and data access have been lacking in the past, but said that’s changing. “IT practitioners have matured in our ability to deal with shadow IT and citizen developers,” he said. “IT used to get in an uproar about these things. I think we missed out on some things that could have been done and now that the tools have matured, there’s been a better embrace of shadow IT.”

In the same way that the pandemic has raised awareness of the viability of remote workforces, the success of low-code/no-code platforms in enabling people to quickly construct applications to deal with the crisis will change perceptions about their viability, said Ryan Ellis, senior vice president of product management in the platform division of Salesforce.com. “Eyes have been opened to speed and agility that can be achieved with governance and stability,” he said.

People are also getting more confident in their ability to program. Consumer-focused web tools such as IFTTT and Zapier enable mere mortals to engineer some elaborate application integrations. Even customizing a smart phone can involve procedural logic. “Every phone user is a no-code developer, essentially,” said Dayaratna.

Tools improve

The tools are also getting better on two dimensions. At the high end of the market, platforms from providers such as Mendix Tech BV and OutSystems Inc. sport cloud-native features and are powerful enough to be used by professional software developers. At the other extreme are platforms such as Quick Base and Claris’ Filemaker, which just about anyone can learn.

IDC’s Dayaratna: “We’re entering a world where we’ll all be developers.” Photo: Twitter

Machine learning has helped, said Claris’ Nelson. Although workflow automation was the traditional “sweet spot” for low-code tools, machine learning opens up a vast new universe of uses. “We think workflow and ML have a ton of overlap,” he said.

COVID-19 has helped boost the profile of low-code/no-code tools because of the need it created to put applications in place quickly to handle distressed loan applications, monitor employee health, support social distancing rules and perform contact tracing, among other uses. In some cases, organizations had days to comply with new regulations and their professional development staffs couldn’t move quickly enough. COVID-related applications were “the fastest-growing demand for any segment I’ve ever seen,” said Marty Sprinzen, CEO of VantIQ Inc., maker of an event-driven rapid application development platform.

Van Marke NV, the leading wholesaler of plumbing supplies in Belgium, built and deployed a contact tracing application to monitor the health and safety of 1,600 employees across four countries in just eight days. The company worked with integrator BPM Co., which used the Mendix low-code platform to create a system that lets employees voluntarily record interactions with their extended personal networks and upload the information to an SAP SA application running in the cloud. BPM Director Jan Ickroth said the process of organizing a sub-cloud in SAP to host the application securely, which typically takes a month, was completed in less than five days.

CIOs on board

The combination of all these factors is leading to big changes in attitude on the part of corporate technology leaders. Gartner reported that, 41% of respondents to a recent survey said they have active citizen development initiatives and an additional 20% are in the evaluation or planning stage. Gartner also found that 41% of enterprise employees call themselves “business technologists,” while just 5% self-identify as technology professionals, Wong said.

“There’s a strong feeling that successful enterprises will evolve to a model in which everyone has some training in software development, whether as a professional, a low-code developer or a business resource that’s skilled at providing requirements,” said IDC’s Dayaratna. “We’re entering a world where we’ll all be developers.”

And pros are finding a lot to like in some low-code platforms as well. “Any professional software developer worth their salt is more focused on the value they create than how they write the code,” said VeriTran’s Fuentes. “Low-code is not here to get rid of developers but to make sure they can take advantage of their full potential.”

No-code debate

Although low-code/no-code tools are often lumped together, there are significant distinctions between them as well as debate over which better balances performance and usability.

“The term ‘no-code’ is confusing,” said Gartner’s Wong. “There has to be code somewhere.” No-code platforms that use simple metaphors like drag-and-drop assembly are unquestionably easier to use, but they can also be a bit of a black box that limits flexibility down the line.

“If the vendor writes all the Lego blocks, it becomes a bottleneck,” Wong said. “No-code says, ‘We’re not going to give you the recipe for the Lego block.’ Low-code says, ‘We’ll give you molds and recipes so you can create your own.’”

“Unless you’re developing only the simplest applications and require little in the way of customization, low-code will always be the better option,” Chris Souther, senior manager of marketing communications at OutSystems, wrote in a post on the company’s blog.

But no-code advocates say the goal should be to eliminate coding entirely, which low-code tools don’t do. “Low-code offerings provide efficiencies that increase developer productivity but they almost all require coding to do the hard stuff,” said Alex Schmelkin, chief marketing officer at Unqork Inc., developer of a no-code platform targeted at enterprise developers. “This new code becomes legacy the moment it’s written and recreates the same problems low-code/no-code claims to fix.”

Better together

Although the quality of applications that people can build with low-code tools is improving, IT organizations are mostly reluctant to put them into widespread use without careful vetting and often the involvement of professional developers. In many cases the best results come when professional and citizen developers collaborate.

Guatemala City-based Banco de los Trabajadores SA, which is known as Bantrab, built a digital wallet application earlier this year in an effort to reach the 70% of Guatemalans who don’t have bank accounts. The bank’s IT team worked with VeriTran developers to create middleware that exposed services from a 25-year-old mainframe application while bankers sculpted the user interface using VeriTran’s low-code platform.

Bantrab’s Caputi: Strong IT teams needed to get full value from low-code development. Photo: Bantrab

“Low-code permitted us to get a very friendly platform with continuous evolution of the look and feel,” said Bantrab CEO Michel Caputi. “But low-code doesn’t solve anything by itself. You need a strong IT team to make services available so you can then use low-code to orchestrate the features.”

Bantrab’s Yolo app has been downloaded more than 20,000 times and is generating 30 new accounts a day compared with an average of 10 opened in branches. By using low-code tools, he said, “We went from nothing to launch in four months while we were working from home. Now we can adjust the user experience very quickly to put services in front of clients such as inter-bank transfers and bill pay.”

Digital democracy

Not everyone has bought into the idea that the market has limitless potential. “We’ve been talking about workflow being a multibillion-dollar market, but I have never seen a workflow vendor grow past a couple of hundred million,” said Ajay Patel, senior vice president of product development for cloud services at VMware Inc. “As complexity goes up, you quickly get into code.”

Patel hastened to add that VMware has numerous low-code/no-code partners and that the platforms have their place. “Specialized use cases are where you see great traction,” he said. “Business intelligence dashboards are a great example.”

In the end, the trend is likely to play out in much the same way as the web has evolved. Twenty years ago, content management systems were expensive and complex and took months to configure and test. Today the same functionality can be spun up in the cloud for little or no money.

Sequoia Capital’s Puri remembers delaying the installation of a customer relationship management system by three months a decade ago because the necessary hardware hadn’t yet arrived. Such a delay would be unthinkable today.

“As infrastructure has become ubiquitous it has put pressure on development teams to move forward and opened up the playing field for nontechnical people,” he said. “The line between technical and nontechnical is blurring.”

And with it falls another barrier to digital democratization.