Low-code platforms mean anyone can be a developer -- and maybe a data scientist, too

Aerospace and defense giant Rolls-Royce is using low-code platforms to democratize software development -- and it's looking to extend the approach into other in-demand areas as well.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Rolls-Royce has created a Digital Expo to show people the benefits of low-code development.


Low-code platforms are democratizing application development and giving all kinds of business professionals the opportunity to create their own software solutions to the challenges they face.

That's certainly the case at engineering giant Rolls-Royce, where chief digital and information officer Stuart Hughes has overseen the implementation of the Microsoft Power Apps platform. 

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The aerospace and defense giant is working with Microsoft to help staff embrace low-code techniques and build tools that boost productivity and support research and development.

What's more, Hughes expects more people across the people to start developing their own applications.

"How we work with the Microsoft Office Suite today is exactly how we'll work with the Power platform in the future," he says. "I think it's a really high productivity tool for our employees."

Some of the low-code apps that have been developed so far include a 24/7 on-call system for the company's research and development department, a Kudos app that helps employees pass on praise, and an analytics dashboard that visualizes important information.

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Hughes refers to these apps as "micro innovations" and estimates the benefits from these small improvements added up to between £8m and £10m in cost efficiencies and savings through 2022.

Research suggests Rolls-Royce is far from alone in turning to citizen development.

Gartner says all kinds of organizations are increasingly turning to low-code development technologies to fulfil growing demands for rapid application delivery and highly customized workflows. 

The analyst says global spending on low-code development will reach $26.9 billion in 2023, an increase of 19.6% on 2022. 


Hughes on Microsoft Power Apps: "I think it's a really high productivity tool for our employees."


Gartner also predicts developers outside formal IT departments will account for at least 80% of the user base for low-code development tools by 2026, up from 60% in 2021.

With line-of-business employees feeling increasingly comfortable taking application development into their own hands, is low code/no code the future of software creation?

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"It's another tool," says Hughes, who suggests services such as Microsoft Power Apps should be seen as a key weapon in the arsenal of tools that companies can use to power their digital transformation efforts.

That shift is important because IT teams are under a huge amount of pressure. Research suggests more than half (56%) of staff report their role gets more stressful each year.

Rolls-Royce recognized that the ever-increasing demand for digital transformation meant it would be almost impossible for the IT team to complete what seemed like a never-ending to-do list.

So, while some IT professionals might view the rise of low-code development as a threat to their own roles, Hughes believes no-code tools give big companies the opportunity to create small, targeted solutions much more quickly.

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"This is about using the people with the skills to do the most valuable work that they can do," he says.

Low-code techniques free up developers at Rolls-Royce, so they have more time to focus on higher-value tasks, including ensuring there's effective governance in place to support citizen development strategies and to turn smart ideas into fully formed products.

"It allows our IT team to govern things," says Hughes. "It gives us more space to innovate. It allows us to find changes that we can make to our enterprise systems that will replace some of these applications as things start to mature."

For Rolls-Royce, therefore, low-code development is a way to reduce the strain on IT departments while also providing a ready source of fresh, innovative ideas and applications. 

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And while the company has already had some big successes with its low-code strategy, it's also looking to do much, much more.

The company ran a Citizen Digital Expo recently, which was attended by 500 colleagues from across the business. Low-code developers were given a booth at the Expo where they could show how their app worked and interested parties could chat about how the tool might be applied in their area of the business.

"The event was great for re-use -- people seeing things and saying, 'I would like one of those,'" says Hughes.


As many as 500 people from across the business visited the Digital Expo.


In fact, Rolls-Royce makes it easy for people to dip in and use the low-code software that other citizens have developed. 

The company has an internal app store where people can go and see if someone else has developed a piece of software the helps them meet their business requirements.

There's also an online community on Yammer and Teams that allows people across the business to chat about low-code techniques and the apps that are in development.

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For those who are keen to get their hands dirty, Rolls-Royce provides in-depth four-day Microsoft training courses. 

Hughes' team has also created an internal guide to help employees get started with Power Apps and works with "champion super users" across the business to spread the benefits of the low-code approach and to share best-practice techniques.

Democratizing software development has allowed Rolls-Royce to remove cost from the business and boost efficiency.

Hughes believes there's more benefits to come from the Power platform -- and he outlines his desire to create citizen data scientists. 

"I really believe that everything we're doing is moving us towards that destination," he says. "With data science, you can unlock quite large amounts of value."

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Hughes says it won't be easy to make the move towards citizen data science -- right now, low-code tools are still more focused on the activities of IT professionals. 

However, he envisages that shift to data science will come in the not-too-distant future.

"You've got to have all the data in one place and it's got to be clean," he says. "But I think that being able to unlock the power of big data and data science in a citizen environment is something that will come in the next five years. And I think, again, that'll give another big push for digital transformation."

Appropriately for a company that builds aeroplane engines, Hughes expects low-code data technology to act like a "co-pilot", working hand-in-hand with employees to achieve set goals.

"It will help them do their jobs better," he says. "I think we're going to see people doing more with data, more people doing roles that involve data analytics, and hopefully being able to democratize areas of data science and machine learning, just like we've already democratized some of the elements of the software development process."

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