Is software now everybody's job? The implications of low-code and no-code for developers

Some industry experts argue that the time has come for business users to be able to steer their own destinies when it comes to application development.

What are the implications of the growing low-code/no-code movement to professional developers and their business counterparts?

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Photo: IBM Media relations

Some industry experts argue that the time has come for business users to be able to steer their own destinies when it comes to application development. That's the message conveyed at a recent conference focused on this very topic, sponsored and hosted by Ninox. (I was a participant and moderator at the event.) The Covid-19 crisis illustrated the advantages low-code and no-code are bringing to the world. "Some IT organizations are faring better if they already have low-code platforms in their tool belts," according to John Bratincevic, analyst with Forrester. "They have more agile ways of development, and the scale of having many businesspeople on a platform." 

If there is one silver lining that came out of the crisis, it is an acceleration toward user-driven application development and deployment, agreed John Rymer, also a Forrester analyst. In the process, attitudes that have existed over the past two or three decades are starting to wash away. "We're in the midst of is a gigantic mindset about software," he related. "The biggest issues have been about the risks of software, the costs of software, and who does the work. Software is viewed as very arcane, and we've had a bit of a priesthood in central IT, using words we don't understand when they talk to us. The idea that software is everybody's job is really radical."

In a recent post, Mina Pêcheux took on some of the concerns professional developers and IT leaders may have with low-code and no-code, suggesting that this trend may be a boon to software development at all levels. "Thanks to these tools, coding could become a mainstream hobby," she writes. "People could get a better understanding of how the products and software they use everyday work. Moreover, it would give plenty of enthusiasts from the broad audience a chance to build, maintain and master the programs they continuously live with."

Pêcheux outlines some of the benefits to both developers and businesspeople:

Make innovation easier: "In startups or small companies, it could also empower users or 'citizen developers' to be part of the implementation by helping out with tweakable and scalable contributions," Pêcheux says. "It could light the creative spark in many 'makers' and 'pioneers' that so far were blocked by tech constraints."

Make prototyping easier: "No-code tools are like LEGO bricks: they're a fun way to learn how to build something complex from small pieces," she points out. "The ability to quickly prototype something is not just a nice gift for non-developers: as a programmer, you'd often like to have some quick-sketch sandbox to test out stuff, so this could be a sweet alternative to Github templates or tutorial bundles."

Make development easier: "There also are some types of software a developer is not at-ease with; we all have specialties and we cannot branch out to learn about everything -- computer science advances so blazingly fast it would be an inhuman task," Pêcheux. "This is how the no-code movement could even attract some professional coders: we regularly find ourselves in situations where the gains of a simplified easy-to-setup framework could far outweigh the loss in tech choices and visual customization."

Take the drudgery out of programming: "As a professional, it's also a great opportunity to automate the most boring tasks in your work pipeline: auto-machine learning solutions are sort of a case study for this because they offer to take dumb data processing, basic feature engineering and even model deploying off of your hands."

At the same time, Pêcheux cautions that low-code and no-code tools may cost developers some of the deep insight they need to effectively design applications and systems. "You might miss some common concepts just because it's not presented the same in two different tools, or you might overly emphasize a step of the process because it seemed particularly in the spotlight on this particular platform," she says. "I'm not sure how much of a bird's-eye view these tools give you -- and therefore how much of this holistic-deep understanding they give you on the matter at hand."

There is also a risk of homogenization, she adds. "Having one way to do things ends up creating very close-looking apps or websites/ it may require a lot of effort to come up with a somewhat original design and it's usually more about the underlying idea than actual personal UI customization." 

Still, low-code and no-code presents new kinds of opportunities for IT managers to move the business forward. "Why are we still hearing low-code is for simple things, for simpletons?" Rymer asks. "The experience says it's not true anymore. Sophisticated, scale, secure applications are nontrivial to build, but are way easier to build on low-code. IT people can be the mentors of that; they can be the lifelines."