The Low-Code and No-Code Movement Can Transform Your Startup Into Category Leaders
If done correctly, the low-code and no-code movement can transform your startup into category leaders.
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No-code and low-code technologies have been making inroads for years but have never quite delivered on their promise as reliable alternatives to traditional software development for complex, business-critical applications. Then COVID-19 forced a new, expedited timeline for moving analog in-person processes to semi- or fully-automated online ones. At the same time, IT and engineering roadmaps have been thrown out the window as technical teams scramble to adjust to new distributed working conditions while juggling multiple "hair on fire" problems. As a result, operations and business teams have been left with urgent needs for new business applications and scant developer resources, creating the perfect storm for no- or low-code solutions to emerge as the savior of productivity. But decision-makers should be wary of treating these platforms as a panacea to avoid costly failures and lost time.
What Are No-Code and Low-Code Technologies?
To understand how no- and low-code solutions fill the gap between business demand for development and supply of technical resources, it is helpful to understand what those terms mean exactly. No-code platforms allow people with no technical knowledge to stand up complex, cloud-based business applications using simple, drag-and-drop tooling. Relatedly, low-code platforms are also based on the concept of abstraction through pre-built software building blocks oriented towards accelerating time to development by reducing the amount of “original” code that needs to be written in any given application. Perhaps because of their shared DNA, there is a trend towards convergence; as no-code platforms become more powerful and versatile with add-ons and application marketplaces, and low-code platforms build features to require less coding. Given this trend, we can collectively refer to these platforms as Low-code Development Platforms.
What to Look Out for When Evaluating Low-Code Development Platforms?
As business leaders face digital transformation challenges with constrained development and financial resources, they must recognize that Low-code Development Platforms are a double-edged sword. Used in the right places and configured in the right ways, they can significantly speed up time to market and increase productivity. Used in the wrong places or set up inadequately, they result in unscalable, inelastic solutions and persistent application babysitting can be a drain on resources. To avoid the pitfalls of Low-code Development Platforms and harness them effectively, consider the following carefully:
Implementation: Who will be taking on the implementation? Do they have experience with the process and an analytical mindset? Do they have the right purview and leverage within the organization?
One of the key advantages of Low-code Development Platforms is the ease of implementation, either for “citizen developers” (non-technical individuals) or engineers of varying degrees of experience to quickly build and deploy applications that automate business processes. Although these platforms are known for being user-friendly, each does come with its own learning curve before one can smoothly navigate the platform, especially the more advanced features that are often the best ways to address intricate use cases. When accounting for implementation costs, decision-makers should factor in the hours it will take for their internal users to “ramp up” and become proficient with the platform in addition to the hours it will take to build and deploy.
Leaders also shouldn’t count on delegating implementation to more junior employees or those with limited knowledge of existing processes. A deep understanding of the end-to-end process, including the underlying business logic and connected technical systems, is a critical starting point for developing a solid foundation for a solution that is resilient to edge cases and changing demands. From there, employees managing the implementation need to think through how to model each step of a complex workflow on the new platform. Where a literal translation is not possible because of the tooling limitations, the person doing the implementation will need the analytical chops to come up with a workaround that is both efficient and reflective of business logic. Furthermore, that person will need the purview, skillset, and leverage within an organization to manage any change effort that arises as a result of having to adapt processes to an inflexible toolset.
Finally, the opportunity cost of high-skilled and highly-compensated employees working on an implementation using a Low-code Development Platform should be accounted for. Particularly for teams hired for their specialized expertise but instead working on low code application deployment, the quality and output of high-value core work such as relationship management and sales outreach can quickly fall behind.
Ongoing Maintenance: What does it mean to add this platform to the technical stack? How broad are its applications? What will be the long-term operational and HR overhead to support a growing suite of single-use platforms?
By their nature, Low-code Development Platforms trade flexibility for simplicity to increase implementation speed. The very design that enables platforms to support rapid development is also what hinders the platform's ability to adapt to more universal problems. Careful consideration must be placed on whether a solution is part of an organization's core competency or merely a necessary function of the business. Only then can the proper solution be identified, and investment allocated. Without such consideration, a business can quickly fall into a jumble of inadequate half-baked applications bending the boundaries of a given development platform, or worse, siloed solutions assembled atop multiple development platforms.
With each new platform added to the stack, business and development teams need to add another lightweight language to their vocabulary - although no coding is required, a user still needs to learn the commands and logic of each platform. Using multiple process-specific platforms for day-to-day operations means teams will need to have proficiency in all of them. This tool sprawl can easily become a hiring and talent management problem in addition to an operational one.
Risk: What are the consequences of downtime? What are the processes and resources needed to resolve issues as quickly as possible?
Finally, extra care should be taken when considering Low-code Development Platforms for business-critical workflows. Unlike traditional software development, the applications built on these platforms do not follow a company’s own IT practices including code reviews, test environments, code deployments, and often do not provide any visibility into what’s “under the hood”. Applications built by non-expert citizen developers or even by professional developers using abstracted tooling as shortcuts result in more brittle applications that are not, by design, as seamlessly integrated into a business core system.
Therefore, the chance for a small upstream change to break something downstream is high. Companies should expect downtime, the degree of which will change based on several factors. First, who managed the implementation of the low-code application? How available are they? How close are they to understanding the changes that may have caused the break? Secondly, how well does the platform expose issues in user implementation in a way that gives enough context to quickly identify and fix the problem? Many of these platforms are black boxes and fixes can take a long time to identify. For business-critical functions or external-facing processes where SLAs are in place, it may be better to avoid Low Code Development Platforms or look for one that exposes information more reliably.
Ultimately, the low-code and no-code movement has democratized the world of digital automation to corners of the economy disregarded by highly skilled developers. When applied correctly and used for its intended purpose, these applications can change the fortunes of a business, transforming laggards into industry leaders. When applied poorly, it can cause turmoil through increased complexity and reliance on a workforce with a broader set of skills, but lacking the expertise in any one skill. Certainly, low/no-code has made clear that the future is not one where everyone learns to code, but one where everyone can benefit from it.
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