May 10, 2022
Until recently, programmers alone possessed the power to write the code that directed various aspects of our professional and personal lives. What they created, the rest of us learned how to use so we can function in an increasingly digitalized world. But soon, software ate the world and the programming hierarchy had to come up with a new plan to keep it fed. Low-code platforms were quickly plated and served. The question now is whether low code is a satisfying course or a serving of junk food.
“Low code can be like fast food: delivered quickly and in bright packaging, but bad for you, your community, and your ecosystem,” warns Sean O'Brien lecturer at Yale Law School, Fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, founder of the Privacy Lab at Yale ISP, and Head Tutor at Oxford Cyber Security Programme.
But low code can be tasty though, especially when speed and agility on the cheap are the goals. And they are always the goals.
The answer to the question of whether low code is good for your company is “it depends.” And that dependency hinges first on who is using it.
“If low code is treated as strictly an IT tool and excludes the line of business -- just like manual coding -- you seriously run the risk of just creating new technical debt, but with pictures this time,” says Rachel Brennan, vice president of Product Marketing at Bizagi, a low-code process automation provider.
However, when no-code and low-code platforms are used as much by citizen developers as by software developers, whether it satisfies the hunger for more development stems from “how” it is used rather than by whom.
But first, it's important to note the differences between low-code platforms for developers and those for citizen developers. Low code for the masses usually means visual tools and simple frameworks that mask the complex coded operations that lie beneath. Typically, these tools can only realistically be used for fairly simple applications.
“Low-code tools for developers offer tooling, frameworks, and drag-and drop options but ALSO include the option to code when the developer wants to customize the application -- for example, to develop APIs, or to integrate the application with other systems, or to customize front end interfaces,” explains Miguel Valdes Faura, CEO and Co-founder of Bonitasoft, an open-source business process management and low-code development platform.
The Good in Low Code
There are distinct advantages for organizations in using low-code application development platforms, which “accelerate the development of apps when compared to traditional hand-coding methods by providing a development framework and reusable components. As businesses accelerate application development, they can go-to-market faster and hone their competitive edge,” according to Isaac Gould, research manager for Nucleus Research.
Gould added that other advantages for companies include:
• Reduced friction between IT and business users by enabling collaboration through the tools. For example, business users can design the workflows and framework of an application while developers manage the more complex aspects of the dev/ops cycle, such as integrations and troubleshooting.
• Reduced developer fees and third-party software costs. This is achieved by leveraging an LCAP to develop applications that can address functionality gaps and replace enterprise solutions entirely. For example, he said, an investment firm opening an office in a new region will have new regulations to contend with. Instead of deploying a new ERP system capable of managing regional compliance requirements, which could take months to a year, the business develops and deploys a compliance tracking engine in a matter of weeks.
Low code also reduces the entry barrier for an army of citizen developers working inside or outside of your company.
“A simple application built by a citizen developer can be turned into an enterprise-wide solution by the IT professional for mass adoption. This encourages widespread usage since such an application has been built by those who are the closest to the problems that the app seeks to resolve,” says Dinesh Varadharajan, Chief Product Officer at Kissflow, a cloud-based BPM platform.
Further, where low code really shines is in helping to perpetually fill the talent pipeline.
“Children are using computers as early as 3 years old, and elementary kids are already working across low-code and no-code environments in their school classes,” says Michael Hunger, Senior Director User Innovation at Neo4j.
Hunger also pointed out that low code is a boon to enticing people to enter STEM training as it “encourages them to understand more technical topics and proves that everyday people are capable of learning complex skill sets.”
Another place low code is helpful is in self-enablement for people looking to do their own thing in their own way.
“Low-code development is a term that refers to the use of well-developed tools for streamlined and efficient creation of digital products. Examples include Wix, Squarespace, WordPress, and similar platforms that allow for the rapid deployment of modern websites with very little or no coding to deploy,” says Michael Feinberg, CTO, of Hadean, a company that aims to democratize supercomputing resources “empower developers, data scientists and decision-makers to solve the world’s most critical issues.”
This has proven to be a highly effective strategy for small businesses, Feinberg says, “and those with ‘brochure-ware’ styled technology needs.” But it can also be used in e-commerce and analytics, both of which can also “be incorporated under the Low-code umbrella just as easily.”
The Bad in Low Code
While the pluses are tantalizing, this technology like all the others has an aftertaste. In other words, there is always a but after the buzz.
“It’s up for debate whether low code is hit or miss, but it’s safe to say that when you choose a low-code or no-code option, you are simplifying general developer-centric complexities by contracting parts of the tech stack. In that case, you are just hoping that the tool you’ve picked fits your needs today and down the line,” says Steve Sewell, CEO at Builder.io, a drag-and-drop visual editor and headless content management system provider.
“Unfortunately, this is not a working system as an organization grows and scales. Enterprises are constantly ripping and replacing pieces of their stack to be as dynamic as their growing business. With low-code and no-code tools, you’d have to scratch everything you’ve already built within your chosen development platform, which is less than ideal,” Sewell adds.
That’s not the only thing that can sour the situation.
“Even when your no-code platform does work, you might still find yourself pinging your developers to make quick fixes and workarounds, or to provide tech support. These are all issues the no-code platform was supposed to eliminate,” Zhang adds.
And, yep, things can get worse. “The ugly part about low-code platforms is when it comes to errors,” says Marc Ferradou, VP of Strategy at grid.ai. “By definition, you get a wrapper around code, and you hope that they are surfacing the errors in a way that is human readable. However, this is not always the case and in addition it is hard to cover every edge case. Therefore, you can find yourself getting errors that you cannot understand. And you can find yourself stuck and not understanding why,” he says.
Worse case in this scenario is that the errors are silent, and the end user feels the brunt of it, Ferradou adds.
But low code can get uglier still with proprietary scripting languages and an absence of version controls (depending on the platform, of course).
“No-code and low-code platforms occasionally build their own languages that you can use to go beyond their drag-and-drop functionalities. Now your team has a whole new language to learn, and one that's only relevant to this particular platform. It's maddening,” says Zhang.
“Better to have a platform that allows you to code with a widely-used language rather than something the company created on its own. At least then you don't have to train someone up just to get things done,” Zhang adds.
The naysayers concur that there is no magical shortcut to building good code.
“From a developer’s point of view, we tend to generally steer away from a ‘magical’ solution - meaning we can’t fully see or understand how it is working and therefore don’t have full control over how it is operating. This makes the code less flexible, which tends to be no-code’s biggest downfall, says Stefan Thorpe, Chief Engineering Officer at Cherre, a real estate data aggregator and analytics provider for investors, real estate managers, and underwriters.
The Big Picture
Like with everything else, low-code platforms have fans and detractors. The key in determining whether these platforms will work for your company is in carefully determining the outcome you seek and let that guide the tools you use.
Low-code development platforms can provide some short-term benefits, perhaps for non-technical individuals to build solutions due to a lack of developers because after all, there is a dearth of talent. And perhaps these might suffice for some internally facing needs. But when it comes time to build externally facing applications for competitive advantage, low-code development platforms largely fall short,” says Erik Gfesser, Director & Chief Architect at Deloitte Global.
“At a minimum, firms need to recognize what they're likely getting into when looking to adopt such a platform so that they can also actively plan for the long-term. As it turns out, most applications simply have a longer lifespan than initially expected,” Gfesser adds.
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