Low-code solutions allow for the creation of apps and automation of business processes by non-technical staff, leaving the professional developers free to concentrate on key functions. Low-code app development can be a response to the global demand for workplace digitalization that is growing at an incredible rate, with no signs of abating. This emerging combination of IT solutions and business objectives looks set to ignite innovation in 2022 and beyond.
What is low-code?
Low-code development platforms allow for the automation of processes to be completed by a broader pool of staff and without dependence on professional developers. This includes function-specific apps, where non-technical subject matter experts can create apps without having to resort to out-of-the box solutions or lengthy software development with professional teams.
Low-code or no code solutions are part of the larger drive toward hyper-automation. While the apps created on these platforms can ostensibly range from anything from workflow management to Excel-type databases, a lot of the apps are created by businesses to automate important processes.
Gartner identified hyperautomation as a growing trend that will continue to develop in 2022. The company defines it as automation that uses robotic process automation (RPA) and other available technologies, such as AI and machine learning, to support businesses in carrying out their core processes.
But why is low-code necessary and what is the background to its emergence?
The digitalization drive
Businesses were already beginning the process of digitalizing resources and processes before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020.
Since then, however, the need to adapt has significantly increased due to the subsequent deterioration of standard working practices and the rise of remote solutions. This has led to many workplace systems needing to be overhauled and digitalized to suit remote work.
According to the McKinsley Global Survey of executives, companies have so far responded resiliently to the pandemic. They have put in place temporary digital solutions to ensure that vital processes can continue in the absence of normal operations.
The necessity of these temporary measures has resulted in a wake-up call for businesses as to exactly how vital workplace digitalization and automation is going to be. As a result, companies have already significantly accelerated their digitalization development.
Low-code emerges from limited resources
This extraordinary demand also comes at significant cost. Microsoft estimates that a full professional application costs on average 45,000 dollars per item. Given the scale of the need, the commensurate costs for businesses are simply unrealistic, even for large corporations.
In addition, the usual software development lifecycle of a work-based project being digitalized is around three years. This is because it can take time for technical staff to create a fully functional custom app, as this requires multiple stages of feedback from subject matter experts as to its efficacy.
Consider too that the standard software development approach already involves a significant workload. The need for client-side and server-side development, testing, and deployment also adds to the length of time involved.
In addition to this, there is an estimated one million employee shortfall for software developers in the US alone, with this number rising to forty million worldwide. By 2030, this number is expected to grow even further to eighty-five million.
This means that it is a literal impossibility for developers to meet the rising needs and demands of businesses for automation and digitalization regardless of how fast businesses can manage to accelerate application delivery.
We therefore have a situation where businesses are scrambling to implement digitalization and automation at a greatly accelerated rate, combined with an insufficient labor force and at great cost.
High demand and the workforce
The nature of the contemporary digital workplace means that there are now more processes and functions required of IT solutions than ever before. Low-code tools rather than traditional coding are going to be an important part of the response to this.
Big businesses have a great deal of interest in developing low-code projects and low-code apps due to the amount of developer time and resources these can save. They can also improve a business’s time and attention economy.
Microsoft estimates that five hundred million apps will be required over the next five years due to the demands of digitalization. Additionally, Gartner predicts that by 2024, 65% of apps will be low-code.
This drive to digitalization has been further exacerbated by emerging millennial and Gen-Z workforces, both of which have fractured the traditional workplace and put remote and online work front and center.
The pandemic, specifically, has pushed businesses toward the necessity of converting their interactions with customers, as well as their sales and presentation processes, into digital contexts.
Indeed, digital interaction has risen 80% since the pandemic. This creates great demand for both complex and simple apps.
Low-code and expert solutions
Formerly, out-of-the-box solutions and third-party apps were employed when in-house app creation proved too expensive, but these apps rarely met precise project aims. Rather, they only approximated them or delivered a close compromise.
To better meet business needs requires expert solutions. Non-technical staff can create such apps themselves, using their own subject matter knowledge to guide them.
The use of low-code development platforms allows those with low technical knowledge to nevertheless create functional apps, thanks to the visual development environment and familiar components such as drag and drop and customizable menus.
Low-code technology, then, allows for a development environment in which non-technical staff can create simple applications using strong, intuitive UI. Additionally, teams of professional developers can work in tandem with such staff to scaffold the creation of more complex apps.
The necessity of rapid digitalization and the need to combat an insufficient global workforce has led to a situation where staff that have no technical training can now create apps that meet the requirements of all but the most complex or technical projects. This is leading to the rise of the so-called “citizen developer.”
Citizen developers and the flexibility of low-code
Gartner first coined the term “Citizen Developer’” in 2009, when the company predicted that the need to expand development and processes would of necessity force businesses to look beyond using professional development teams.
Low-code development offers an excellent advantage in both the time it takes for a project to be completed and the effectiveness of the final product.
Giving a citizen developer a low-code platform to create in-house business apps means that the pool of staff is expanded beyond the development teams themselves. This turns non-technical staff into employees who can nevertheless complete projects that might otherwise be considered more suitable for the in-trays of professional developers.
As low-code development uses intuitive visual UI structures, non-technical staff can quickly construct functional apps, greatly speeding up the development process.
The ease with which citizen developers can create apps means that the time taken to complete projects where a company wants to automate processes can be cut from one year down to months or even less.
This isn’t only because low-code development tools are that much more time-efficient than traditional development practices, but also because low or no-code development platforms allow expert employees to directly create relevant apps themselves.
Citizen developers are free to experiment with whatever platform they wish and which best helps them to get the job done. Low-code development tools have cross-platform compatibility, meaning that the apps users create are able to run on multiple different devices, browsers, and cloud solutions.
The learning curve and rapid deployment
Low-code tools then, allow the citizen developer to create the apps required for workflow automation, or even customer-facing apps, in as little as three months, or one business quarter, instead of years.
Low-code solutions, then, can also be thought of as rapid application development, as the demands and obstacles of traditional software development and the demands of creating custom code are dispensed with.
The emerging market is significant
Microsoft estimates that its Power Apps reduce the cost of professional development by 74% while also saving 132,000 man hours due to the automated activities that can be created with low-code applications.
Other low-code development platforms confer similar advantages, revealing industry relevant metrics as to the resources that can be saved by using such tools, and indeed, how existing resources can be used more efficiently.
This confers great advantages in terms of deployment speed and use of a business’s knowledge economy. As such, low-code tools are quickly becoming the go-to items companies adopt to create their own business applications. This means that the low-code market is one that is set to become even more appealing to businesses. The digital transformation of work creates a demand that existing technical staff cannot meet without low-code solutions and the knowledge of their non-technical staff.
Microsoft has already firmly cemented its place in the developing low-code economy with its suite, and Apple has taken its own initial steps into the market also. Other leaders in the field include Appian, Mendix, Quickbase, OutSystem, Nintex, and Unqork. Companies like Salesforce specialize in providing automated sales processes.
These are enterprise-grade applications in that they are able to work across any of the existing cloud systems and browsers to give users the most flexibility to use the product and so ensure the owners of these platforms can reach as many businesses as possible. This significantly expands the reach and potential of the market, ensuring that any business that does well in this field will find lucrative rewards and be able to position themselves as an IT leader.
Disadvantages of low-code solutions
The numbers presented so far show a vast number of employees who are now, or will be, developing web apps for their companies. Some of these employees will have some facility or awareness of technical skills, while most will certainly have very low awareness or none. This means that when their low-code project is finished, multiple problems can arise.
As we shall see, though these problems can be significant, there are solutions that can be found, meaning that low-code developing is still a viable and necessary way for companies to go.
As to the problems: the first is that many of these apps simply won’t be very good. Despite the fact that the learning curve for using a low-code tool is not at all steep, it’s unlikely that a citizen developer’s first low-code project will be a complete success. This leads to the creation of a lot of apps that will need tweaking by the IT department or other technical staff.
Low-code and no-code development is in very high demand. The platforms that specialize in low-code application development are specifically intended for non-technical users. This means that for a significant portion of this work and an equally significant portion of time, the technical employees, professional developers, and IT department will be kept out of the loop.
This gives rise to what is often referred to as shadow IT, where software and hardware solutions are found and employed outside of the knowledge, awareness, and scope of the official IT department. This creates a kind of digital Wild West where anything goes: bad apps, faulty apps, or apps that do the job intended but can only be used by a few people as there has been no training in their use or attendant documentation created.
When employees who create such apps move on and leave the company, there is a very real chance that this leaves behind a low-code tool that nobody knows how to use, interrupting work and so requiring the creation of another. This duplicates work and is not a good use of resources, even with the increased pool of candidates who can accept the task.
While this looks like a dismaying obstacle for the adoption of low-code, this is actually an obstacle that presents an excellent opportunity for companies. To ensure that the work of the citizen developers is fruitful, functional, and on track during development process, businesses will need to oversee the full cooperation between the IT, business, and professional development departments.
This leads not only to careful management of the low-code development process, but to increased harmony, communication, and shared work between teams who would otherwise have little common ground. The potential for this to promote excellence and innovation is high, and at the least ensures that the non-technical staff receive the support they need to produce high quality apps.
Job erosion or job creation?
This directly addresses one of the most anticipated criticisms and disadvantages of the wide-adoption of low-code platforms: that of job erosion regarding professional developers and IT staff.
After all, if a low-code development platform allows non-technical staff to create their own business or mobile apps, then why would companies continue to hire professionals? It sounds as though professional developers have been made obsolete by the success of good visual UI with drag and drop capabilities.
This certainly is not the case given the above-mentioned solution to ensuring that shadow IT does not become prevalent and dominate the IT space in a company, and instead provides the opportunity for supervisory roles to professional developers.
This means low-code does not remove the demand for technical teams, but ensures their relevance.
Also, the existing apps created on low-code development platforms will need professional developers to adopt them at scale in organizations. This also entails more technical testing and the inclusion of APIs from other library ecosystems.
Tasks like this are not part of the low or no-code repertoire, meaning that professional developers are not losing jobs, but gaining potential work. Likewise, they are free to concentrate on complex or high priority work as the low-code platforms allow their non-technical peers to take care of automation and other less complex workflow tasks.
Having citizen developers adopt low-code tools allows the professional developer labor shortage to be addressed and meets the incredible demand for applications from businesses. This also leads to remaining professional developers being able to concentrate on high priority complex tasks and work with these new non-technical teams to stimulate further creativity and productivity.