Low code development: Is this the future of enterprise apps?

Low code promises to streamline the development of business applications. Appian CEO Matt Calkins explains why.
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor

Low-code development aims to make it easier to build applications by removing as much of the hand-coding as possible. Such initiatives become even more important as companies have to build applications to work across a wider range of devices, including smartphones.

Appian is one of the low-code companies looking to accelerate this trend. ZDNet recently spoke to the company's CEO, Matt Calkins, to see how they are doing it.


Appian CEO Calkins: "There is a sort of permanent freshness about your application in that we're going to port it to platforms in the future. I love that."

Photo: Appian

ZDNet: You have built up an impressive list of customers.

Calkins: I'm very proud of the customer list. Some of the world's best organisations have made serious commitments on the Appian platform.

If you look at the concepts behind low-code, every organisation today needs to be, or wants to be, unique. In the software business the way to do that, historically, has been to write your own software.

We all know that's very difficult, expensive and time-consuming. There are a lot of disadvantages to writing your own software but it's a necessary evil.

Now with Appian and with the low-code industry which has come along with us, we have a new way of building unique software that allows you to make that software very powerful and it's much, much easier.

Instead of starting with writing lines of code you begin with a drawing like a flow chart. You drag-and-drop elements onto the palette and you create a flow of behaviours. And then you can configure each one of those elements and drill into it and configure your forms, your data integrations.

And every one of these elements is very simple and graphical to make. And the it becomes a re-usable element like a Lego brick which others can assemble their own applications with.

We're making it as simple as possible to built powerful software and while the low-code industry exists with a lot of different sorts of customers,

Three of the top five pharmaceutical companies use Appian for multi-million dollar applications like permission to sell drugs, drug safety, and trials and so on. We're used by many of the world's top banks, insurance companies, retailers, energy firms and airports. What we've done is unique in our industry.

Low-code, in many applications, seems to be the future. Would you agree?

There is such a worldwide need for unique software made simply. All of these companies can thrive. All they have to do is execute properly and take care of their customers and they are all going to the moon. And others are too - there are going to be plenty of entrants into this space that will also do well.

It's going to be one of the fundamental markets in software. It addresses such a core need that for so long has gone unaddressed.

How do you think that is going to happen?

It is going to happen because we are going to demonstrate it. And we're going to raise the flag and let people see what's happening here. Appian is not a household name for a lot of people, not yet. But it has sure gained a lot in 2017.

And notice, by the way, that the pioneers in low-code are not household names for the most part. I mentioned OutSystems and Mendix and, it's debatable but if you want to put Saleforce in there - that's a household name but they're not famous for their low-code offering - none of these products are famous. Not yet. But they're going to be.

This is how technology decides. You've got great ideas with low profiles and, at one point you just realise that there's something there. Then attention just starts piling in. It's happening to us because we've got a whole set of case studies and happy customers and so on.

What do you see as the main driver for Appian now?

The key for us is extreme simplicity. We exist as an industry only because we have found an alternate strategy that is easier than writing code yourself. We exist because we're simpler and the simpler we become the more we exist and the more we matter.

My goal is to follow something akin to Moore's Law - every two years the size of the transistors in a chip drops by a half - and in our case, every two years the amount of work it takes to build a new piece of software should drop by a half.

In our company, we rigorously quantify all the phases of building a custom piece of software or a unique process. The planning and the sketching, the iterations, the training, the roll-out, every element in the net effort to create, deploy and use a unique piece of software is quantified and tested.

We do this again and again and we are roughly following the Moore's Law curve.

See also: What is DevOps? An executive guide to agile development and IT operations

How did you come up with the idea for the Moore's Law comparison?

I was obsessed with simplicity. I was actually an economist before I was a technologist, so I love the idea of diminishing impedance and reducing friction. Themes that seem like economic abstracts are actually, exceptionally important to me.

The idea of reducing a deadweight loss or moving the supply curve in a virtuous direction. That, to me, is fundamentally what Appian software is all about.

And so, I have been fishing for years for ways to express that or quantify that. Right, you can't really go to your team of engineers and say, please move the supply curve for me!

I had to come up with a way to say it that engineers would understand. To tell them to follow the Moore's Law curve was something that they could see. They got that and so for years that has been the purpose of all our development.

As an example, here's one of my favourites features which really gives you a feel of what we are about. If you build an application using us, that application automatically runs on all popular mobile devices. Even the ones that are going to be invented after you have finished writing the application.

We at Appian make sure that your intentions, as described in your flow chart, are translated to whatever form factors and operating systems we may support.

There is a sort of permanent freshness about your application in that we're going to port it to platforms in the future. I love that.

I also love the flexibility to be able to move your application to the cloud in the future even though you did not start by deploying it in the cloud. Especially in the high-end of the market where a lot of customers know they are going to the cloud but just aren't there yet.

Can you talk about any of your customers and how they are using the software?

To take one, in the UK we have Aviva. A customer can call in and say, "I've changed my name", and find he or she has to touch nine different systems. You can't just make one call. So, Aviva were finding that as a result of their success they were having to do multiple calls.

So they put it all on an Appian system and now they just make one call to Appian. As a result, there is much higher customer satisfaction, a much-reduced call time, many fewer touches, less confusion and so on.

And what it also does is take an application and give it a human face.

Another example is Pirelli. When we first talked to them we originally did one little application to do with the different moulds for tires. They always have new moulds being created.

The process of moving the moulds from idea to reality was automated on Appian. They saw the potential and realised that as you add more applications, every time the marginal benefit is greater and every time the marginal cost is lower. Which is to say that each new application is better than the last in both ways - it's more beneficial and it's cheaper.

So, there's this wonderful, virtuous scaling effect - the more you use it the more benefit you get at lower prices.

They rolled out a very ambitious plan where a large number of apps would complement each other so that users at Pirelli would be more in touch with each other than they would have been had they been using separate systems.

This is where the app empowers the users. It brings the organisation together. It reduces the cost and then streamlines the output.

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