The rise of low code: Think of it as digital building bricks

  • Posted on April 19, 2022
  • Estimated reading time 14 minutes
Rise of low code

This article was originally written by Avanade alum Chris Huntingford.

Over the last few years, we have seen and heard more and more about this concept of “low code/no code,” otherwise known as LCNC. For some, it means absolutely nothing, but for others, this is an absolute game-changer.

Whether you decide to ignore it or take notice, this movement is taking place. Those who embrace and involve themselves in this great tide of change are in for some exciting opportunities. I believe that the drive for low code solutions in business will change the way organisations operate. Let me explain why.

A Gartner article noted that the “Worldwide low-code development technologies market is projected to total $13.8 billion in 2021.” This is an increase of 22.6% from 2020. WHAT!! A 22.6% increase during a pandemic. WOW! But actually, when you think about it, it makes total sense. During COVID, people were forced to work remotely. We were forced to “digitally transform.” This has led to a need to reform, transform and optimise, which has led to tremendous adoption in low code tools.

What is low code and why?
OK, so let’s back up for a moment; all this is incredible, but what on earth is low code/no code and why does it exist?

The answer is pretty exciting, actually. LCNC has been around for a lot longer than we probably all know. In roughly 2014, Forrester used the term “low code” to describe platforms that promoted “ease of development” without needing to write physical programming code.

I like to describe low code platforms as being a bit like digital interlocking building bricks. Let’s stick with this concept for a second. Imagine you decide you would like to be creative one day and go out and get yourself a fabulous box of building bricks (or you order it online if you are anything like me). Your bricks finally arrive; you grab a rug, hurl it onto the floor and pour out your bricks. You take a gander at the instruction manual and start building.

What’s always fascinated me about these bricks is you don’t buy the “cool red spaceship” or the “fairy princess castle” in a completed state. No, what you buy is the joy of creation. What you purchase are the ability and instructions to make something very cool.

But what happens when you buy one of those boxes that don’t have instructions? Of course, you already know that the box contains no instructions, you buy it because you want to make something! But what?

Building Bricks Low Code

The world is your oyster at this point. So you grab a cup of tea, pour your bricks out and start just snapping things together. Sometimes you plan. (If you do, you are better than me.) Still, before you know it, you have a multicoloured spaceship with a bunny at the steering wheel. (That’s generally because the kids have gotten jealous and taken over halfway through.) The joke here is that when creating things from building bricks, more often than not everything ends up like a spaceship.

I digress!

Digital bricks to build great solutions
Back to the codey stuff, or lack thereof. Why did I take you through that very random build process? Essentially LCNC tools provide you with the digital bricks that you can snap together to create really excellent solutions.

The LCNC tools are all different but offer some similar experiences and practices. Still, ultimately, their goal is to provide those prebuilt digital building bricks for people who don’t know how to write programming code to build solutions. This is really exciting because I can now make something, just as good as a developer, that can be used across the organisation.

Imagine being able to recognise a business problem and then rapidly solve it without having to write a ton of code or ask a developer or IT person for help? Imagine feeling empowered to use the skills you have acquired in a particular area and then applying those skills to technology to make your job and other people’s jobs much easier and more streamlined?

LCNC tools help you do just that. Makers of all types get to explore their creativity with tools they feel comfortable with, so yet again, the world is your oyster. (As a side note, I’m not super fond of oysters, so I might start saying: “The world is your lasagne.”)

What does this mean for organisations?
The perception and reception of LCNC tools within organisations has been mixed, depending on who you talk to. Let me explain.

Historically, if you work in tech, you may have noticed a slightly thin line between the business (users) and the IT department (techies). Obviously, if the sarcasm here was a strawberry, this statement is a daiquiri. The line between the two areas is pretty thick. In fact, so vast that there is very much a “them” and “us” divide. Now, please don’t misquote me, this is not true for all organisations, and some teams get along famously. But for the most part, this is not the case. I can vouch for this as I have been on both sides of the fence and have used horrendous acronyms to describe user-related tech issues.

Often, the IT departments will provide a service to the rest of the organisation in the form of “systems.” Ever heard this little chestnut “The system is down.” Yup, you know the one. Often this is part of the “service that IT provides.” Not taking the systems down (reserved for particular cases or mistakes) but providing and supporting these “systems” throughout the organisation.

We have found over the history of this significant relationship, or lack thereof, that the people in the business will have some needs regarding their subject matter or focus areas. You will know these as “use cases” if you are in tech. Typically, a businessperson will require a technical solution to solve a business problem.

An example: Imagine working in a contact centre, and you have a set of files on your desk. You manually search for that person’s folder every time someone calls in. Then you can do verification and help them. That has been transformed to using tools such as CRM systems where people’s information is stored and securely managed within a database with a front end. This is a significant use case for a specific scenario, and ultimately, CRM solutions have become a multi-billion-dollar industry.

If someone hadn’t recognised that this process needed refinement, we would all be in a heap of trouble, surrounded by hard copy and drowning in meaningless telephone calls and faxes.

Now take this simple concept and compound it by about 5,000. Now by that much again. And again and again! I’m definitely not going to type “again” again (oops), but you get the general idea. There are literally endless amounts of “things” in an organisation you could solve with technology.

This is important for business because no single IT team in the world can solve every problem in an organisation. It’s pretty much impossible. The more processes advance as time goes on, the better technology we need to snap into these processes. The further behind you fall in keeping up with the demanding processes, the larger your transformation gap really is.

In a nutshell, the cost of doing nothing increases every day because something will break.

This is why LCNC tools are of vital importance. They empower makers (users, citizen developers, business technologists) to solve problems with modern-day tools without needing to learn to be a developer or to join the IT/development team.

How great, right?

IT does not have to worry about making an Excel sheet or writing a complex formula, building an application, creating simple data strictures, dealing with process automation or centralising simple data, or, or, or, or... The list is endless. This can all be placed in the hands of makers who are not part of IT. LCNC can bridge the gap to digital organisational transformation by empowering makers of all types.

Solving Challenges with LCNC

Citizen development: Blessing or curse?
Now that you understand what LCNC is and its potential to bridge the digital transformation gap, you probably think, “Hmmm, this LCNC stuff sounds pretty good; maybe I should try it.” And the answer is YES! Yes, you should.

But ... (There’s always a but; thanks Chris, just ruin our day.)

“If I let this loose in my business, won’t Cedric in accounts be able to make anything or won’t Karen in Sales just build random stuff?”

Well, yes, that’s the idea – to enable people in your business who have no coding skills to build solutions to solve business problems. That’s what you wanted, right? To bridge that transformation gap. Create the “organisation of the future”? Give everyone hoverboards? (OK, maybe not.)

“Citizen development” aims to promote the comprehensive utilisation of the LCNC solutions across an organisation under the citizen development banner. Essentially, IT digitally enables regular business folks to solve problems with technology. I feel that if a person knows how to use Excel, Word, PowerPoint, they are likely capable of using a LCNC toolset. Yes, anyone can be taught, so I don’t want to rule out any potential maker.

Low code citizen development

This is quite a large pill to swallow as an IT person, knowing that you have just enabled a technical resource for all of these people to build things. But, in fact, most IT departments panic and fall victim to “dislodged technical totalitarianism.” Essentially, they freak out that they don’t have complete and utter control of everything happening in the business!

Guess what, they never did.

Alright, alright, maybe in some rare cases, IT governance actually works, and the barbed wire of technical totalitarianism has been put in place. So all users mope about with their limited spreadsheets and the odd email with a cat meme that is quickly dissolved into the phishing pool because cats are evil, and so is creativity and fun.

You would hope I’m totally exaggerating, but I promise that I am not in some cases. The fact of the matter here is times are changing, people want to make things to solve their problems, and they will always find a way to do so. Organisations have unknowingly been living with “shadow IT” solutions all over the business for decades. This is not new; it’s here, now. The fact is that the person is always brighter than the tech, and people go as far as to buy their own laptops to do their work to avoid being stifled by corporate governance.

So why not promote creativity? The different angle here, huh? Let people be creative. What a thought. Imagine we enabled people and gave them the freedom to try. Imagine we gave them the freedom to make things and solve problems. The idea behind citizen development is that we want people to build. We want people to be inventive and solve business problems the way they know how. In other words, congratulations IT, you have become a digital psychologist. Your medicine for a user’s problem is the user. You provide guidance and support.

What about governance and guardrails?
Ah yes, the proverbial digital party ender – governance. I mean, I just used the concept of governance in such a terrible frame of reference in the previous act. Are we still going to trash this concept?

No, we aren’t. Actually, I just intentionally set you up. I needed you to trust me on the freedom and citizen development thing, so I needed an authority figure to trash; it just so happened that it was governance. I’m sorry, I was trying to be cool. Peer pressure.

Let me reel it in a bit and explain. I owe you that after this emotional turmoil. Whispering voice: “Governance is actually cool.”

Fourth wall break: Wow, I’m glad I said that! Been wanting to get that out all blog post long.

In the world of LCNC, governance actually means “safe space.” So don’t believe all those pesky published, approved sources like the Oxford English Dictionary. C’mon, what do they know?

Yes, in the LCNC world, what we want to do as IT is make a safe space for makers (citizen developers) to build great solutions to business problems. So, all IT wants is to provide those digital guardrails and rules to protect data, protect the business and protect the makers. The goal of IT should be to make sure that makers feel comfortable enough to try new things, build new solutions and share what they have made.

There is a flip side to the LCNC coin, and that is the protection element. Businesses still need to be compliant and need to mitigate risk. Having an entirely open platform for everyone doesn’t necessarily reduce risk. It may actually create risk. So it’s essential that these rules and layers of protection that are put in place also favour the business compliance rules.

The above two points are a careful balancing act between enablement and protection. This changes the IT person’s job substantially. Before, it was all about making systems, maintaining systems and dealing with user complaints. Now, LCNC has taken IT’s role to a new level. This is scary and fantastic because now IT people need to look at themselves differently.

Most LCNC platforms have the ability for organisations to set up governance and guardrails and also bake these processes into their current IT landscape. These are key and core to starting an LCNC journey at any point because protection is critical, but so is freedom of creation.

Ryan Cunningham, global Power Apps product owner from Microsoft, once said in a session, “Better a governed free market you know, than a black market you don’t know.” The point is that if you give makers the ability to build without going outside of the platform you provide, they will make, and at least you can govern. At least you have visibility.

What about pro developers?
When looking at how organisations are transforming right now, the possibilities are endless. LCNC is not going anywhere, and in fact, it’s growing – and growing fast. Remember I wrote about those digital bricks? Users will always find a way to solve problems whether IT likes it or not. But here’s the thing, so will developers.

Developers have written code around IT organisations for years. It’s so easy for developers to solve problems because they know all the ins and outs. They know all the tricks. So where do developers stand in this new world that apparently doesn’t need code?

A great question. Are we done with people who can write code? No. Sheesh, don’t be silly! Who do you think wrote the LCNC tools?

Now that I have gotten that out of the way, let’s get back to those digital bricks. Most LCNC tools provide you with a box of prebuilt digital bricks that can be used to create solutions, right? Yes. OK, so now that we all agree ...

What happens when you need a digital brick and you can’t find it? Imagine you are building a thing and scratching about on your fabulous, colourful digital rug looking for an exceptional digital brick, and you can’t find it. And it’s the last brick you need.

I can think of several choice words here!

Anywho, you can’t call the building bricks company and say, “Hey, I need a brick.” Doesn’t work that way. Same way as you can’t call Microsoft and say, “HEY, I NEED THIS TO BE ADDED INTO THE PLATFORM.” I do realise that the caps are unnecessary. However, I need to represent my frustration levels in some way.

What you can do is call up your friendly neighbourhood developer. I find bribery with pizza works quite well. You can then put forward a case for why you need them to make you a unique digital brick in the platform you are working on. Sometimes I beg, sometimes I cry a little bit, it all really depends on how bad I want it. Most of the time, the excellent part is they usually say yes, and they make it for you and boom, your solution is complete. And there is a bonus; that special thing that dev made for you is reusable by other makers. That dev has just been added to your LCNC platform.

Developers make all LCNC platforms even more amazing for the wider maker community. Plus, they are super bright and should be worshipped. (You can tell I know how to get stuff done around here, right?)

Low code LCNC platform

The final countdown
It’s a relatively simple construct to round up, really. However, I’ve never been one for goodbyes, so I’ll do my best to make this short and sweet. LCNC is here to stay, and it is filling the digital transformation gap already at millions of organisations. I’d prefer to be part of the movement than not to be. It is a demanding industry that has created millions of opportunities and changed millions of lives.

LCNC transforms businesspeople into business technologists. It changes the way we perceive technology data and how people solve problems. Ultimately, freedom and people are the tools you need to successfully change the way your business works.

Low code/no code is a movement, not a technology. Be part of the movement. Look out for my next post about how you can join and the technologies we work with.

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