Low-code and no-code ready for sophisticated application development? It depends

Business-side developers 'often see more innovative, and sometimes simplistic, solutions than what might come from an IT perspective.' But IT still needs to stand by.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Are business users ready and capable of building sophisticated applications using low-code and no-code platforms? There is a lot of hope and hype associated with the low-code and no-code software movement, but that doesn't mean developers will be hanging up their IDEs anytime soon. We are nowhere near the point in which business users can actually build and deploy relatively sophisticated applications without the help of their information technology departments. 

"In general, most of the citizen-developed applications we see today are single-process focused with limited to no integrations," says David Beaudreau, VP of the US Cloud Practice at Sogeti, a part of Capgemini. "There are a few instances where citizen developers are creating multi-functional process and workflow applications, as well as complex business intelligence dashboards, but this is mostly the exception." 

Not everyone in the industry agrees that sophisticated applications are off-limits to low and no-code developers, however. Linda Ding, senior director of vertical marketing strategy at Laserfiche, says she has seen customers "build very sophisticated applications over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic." A combination of scarce IT resources and demand for immediate solutions brought about demand for a range of applications, she says, including "forms and processes for requesting hotspots for students who need them for distant learning; financial aid distribution; and paycheck dissemination." These are examples of applications that "all require relatively sophisticated workflows, logic and integrations, made possible through low-code, no-code tools in the hands of business users." 

One way or another, there will always be an active role for IT departments in terms of governance and support of an application, A business user's role is "build yes, deploy no," says Chris Ellis, technical director at Nintex. "Sophisticated applications have sophisticated problems. More often than not, an easy-to-build application can become a headache further down the line."

Ellis urges a "vetting-and-verification process or approval-of-solution-builds to deploy via IT" approach. "Organizations' business users should certainly be part of the identification of improvements and part of the solution, but it's short-sighted to see them as the only custodians driving a low-code transformation shift."

Beaudreau feels applications being built outside of the IT domain, tend to be simpler, more peripheral ones. "We are primarily seeing businesses build single focused process and workflow applications that support manual processes which often fall outside the IT realm because of budget limitations and/or perceived ROI," he says. "IT expertise is still important when dealing with new packaged platforms, highly integrated environments, or when looking to enable new technologies within the organization. IT is also still required to implement supporting capabilities like integration and modern data platforms to support citizen developers and their creation activities."   

At the same time, increasingly sophisticated low-code/no-code development methods are opening up new paths for innovation. "We see this with citizen developers as we guide them through immersive events like hackathons," Beaudreau relates. "As they understand low-code platforms, they're able to align capability to common issues in their daily work life. With their first-person perspective, they often see more innovative, and sometimes simplistic, solutions than what might come from an IT perspective." 

Recent events has also pushed the envelope for innovation. The Covid crisis "accelerated the adoption of low-code and no-code tools because of the urgency and direness of the situation -- challenges were evolving daily, even hourly, and organizations had to empower business subject matter experts outside of IT to create the applications that were going to meet operational and customer needs," says Ding. "Traditional ways of developing applications can take several months -- for testing, debugging and deploying in an enterprise environment. For the speed of today's business, changing customer expectations and the unpredictability of markets, that timeline is no longer sufficient."

Business users -- business analysts and administrators outside of the IT department -- "are intimately familiar with their own processes and those that affect their customers," she adds. "When they are given a platform or the tools they need to solve their problems, they are able to create very sophisticated applications that are not just back-end workflows, but customer-facing solutions that are very innovative."

With low-code and no-code approaches, "there are a lot of opportunities to enhance the client experience which would not exist if businesses relied solely on IT to develop applications," says Ding. "Low-code and no-code puts the problem-solving tools in the hands of business user, who can address customer challenges, speed turnaround times for deployment and add tremendous value for customers."   

Low-code and no-code approaches don't just benefit non-technical business users. Professional developers are also adopting low-code/no-code solutions for various reasons. "We've seen a significant interest in low-code/no-code training as developers now realize these platforms do not equate to functional limitation," says Beaudreau. "The platforms allow the developer to focus on business functional design rather than non-functional requirements that the platforms themselves often manage."  

This paves the way for truly doing more with less in today's development shops. "If you can scale your workload effectively as a professional developer to deliver full compliance -- whether that be with a low-code/no-code solution, full custom or something in between -- a successful customer outcome should always be the number one priority," says Ellis. "Using the path of least resistance to get there is simply working smarter and not harder. Just because you can custom develop something, doesn't mean you should."

A robust low-code or no-code culture with increasingly sophisticated applications poses new sets of challenges. For starters, "governance, or lack of it, associated with sprawl is something anyone that has grown up around SharePoint should be familiar with," says Ellis. "Allowing business units to build and deploy what they want, untethered, can very quickly become someone else's administrative and license headache."

A less obvious risk, Beaudreau adds, "is the growth in required application support that can occur as citizen developers accelerate their usage of the platforms. This can possibly outpace the organization's IT support capacity." Duplication is another risk with low-code /no-code. "There are bound to be commonalities across a business and efforts should be made to avoid doubling down on the same solution, just in different business units," Ellis cautions. 

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