When many new technologies first arrive on the scene, they’re often ushered in with the expectation that they can (or should) only be used by specially trained personnel. That usually changes once a technology becomes successful. Somewhere along the line, the technology evolves into something that just about everybody can use on their own, without requiring any special skills or training.
For example, early elevators required a dedicated elevator operator. Although many brave souls drove their own early automobiles, a chauffeur was considered a wise idea if you could afford it. And although today’s aircraft could theoretically fly themselves (perhaps with occasional assistance from the ground), commercial airlines have yet to get on board with self-driving planes.
The world of enterprise software finds itself at an inflection point between a paradigm in which only software professionals can create applications and a new era in which non-specialists — a broad class of business users — are invited to “take the wheel” and create their own applications and interfaces. So-called low-code and no-code technologies have the potential to greatly expand the power of enterprise software platforms by streamlining the ability of an end-user to create new applications for themself.
No-code technologies are still not quite there, but many low-code tools have already emerged as viable options for many development use cases. They can handle many of the complex scenarios needed for real-world development — but can they deliver enterprise-quality applications?
Getting Off the Ground Floor
To answer that question, first consider the full scope of what it is that a technology specialist actually does. It may be helpful to think about a technology that — long ago — graduated from its exotic, cutting-edge phase to emerge as something so commonplace that we no longer even think of it as a “technology.” Let’s return to those early days of passenger elevators.
The true purpose of the elevator operator really wasn’t because those early passengers couldn’t figure out the UI in order to push the right button for the floor they needed to get to. The operator was there largely to provide a friendly face that would reassure the passengers that this crazy vertical transport system wouldn’t crash to the ground. If the passenger didn’t know where exactly they needed to get to, the operator could let them know that Mr. Smith’s office was on the fourth floor. And the operator could assist in an emergency situation if, on occasion, the elevator got stuck between floors.
In other words, the specialist played a number of roles, some of which might not have been part of their official job description. Over time, elevator end-users became comfortable pushing the buttons for themselves, checking the building registry ahead of time to see what floor Ms. Smith’s office was on, and worrying a lot less about increasingly rare technology breakdowns. And they grew to appreciate the freedom of using the elevator without having to rely on a middleman.
The software industry is clearly moving toward that direction. Today, we still think about the task of creating a new application as something that requires the expertise of a specialist. That’s especially true for enterprise application development for which issues like security and scalability are often high-priority requirements. But as low-code technologies continue to evolve, application development is starting to become something that — like using an elevator — can be managed directly by a non-specialist.
To help you think about low-code technologies, I’ll address a few of the fundamental questions you should be thinking about:
- What is it?
- Who does it help?
- How will it change your life?
- Why should others in your organization care?
- When do you know it’s time to take it seriously?
What Is It?
A low-code technology does for a software platform what the button panel does for an elevator. It makes the platform something that just about anyone can easily learn to operate on a self-serve basis. There may still be a learning curve (especially, for complex use cases), but it’s much flatter. And it’s far more accessible, open to a broad range of users, rather than just IT specialists.
Who Does It Help?
Low-code options obviously help your organization’s end-users, as they no longer need to wait for the IT team to create simple applications for them. Once they know what they want, they can create a new application.
They also help the IT team, in a couple of ways. First, they’ll typically be able to develop apps faster, even if the business user doesn’t absorb any part of the development cycle. And if those end-users do take on some of the development roles, the time demands placed on the IT team should be reduced even more. Either way, your organization will benefit from faster development time for new applications. And that means your developers will have more time available to focus on higher-value deliverables.
Such as? Think about all the roles that that old-time elevator operator played. Sure, their primary job responsibility was to get you to the right floor. But they often added something extra, and that something extra could be far more valuable. Maybe they’d tip you off that old Mr. Smith on the fourth floor was in a terrible mood today, and you’d be better off coming back tomorrow to see him.
Likewise, consider all the ancillary roles that a good developer can play beyond simply coding. One example of this is getting a handle on downtime, often a critical factor for enterprise applications. A traditional developer might have a much better sense than a business user about whether a particular computational source is going to reliably keep pumping out accurate data or whether you should expect occasional downtime. And a developer is probably better equipped to plan for contingencies to deal with the situation when a source does occasionally fail to work as expected.
How Does It Change Your Life?
You now have many options to build applications. Building enterprise applications doesn’t have to be the very complex, time-consuming exercise with an uncertain outcome that it once was. Your perceptions may be colored by past experiences with legacy ERP systems that took a long time to build anything — and often still failed to deliver any real business value.
Low-code platforms have certainly changed that paradigm. You can now choose from many options that promise to reduce time to develop custom applications. It can now be easy to develop, configure, and deploy small niche applications that serve a specific use case.
However, it’s a different matter when it comes to building complex enterprise solutions. Can low-code platforms deliver there? Absolutely. But you need to make sure there’s a good fit with your needs. Here are a few key enterprise requirements to assess when you’re considering a low-code option for enterprise applications:
- Enterprise security
- Infinite scalability
- Configuration management
- Complex deployment processes
- Ability to change existing systems without compromising system stability
- Ease of adoption
- Performance monitoring
- Integration with other enterprise IT systems
- Lower cost of ownership
- Enterprise-grade customer service
Why Should Others In Your Organization Care?
Successfully adopting low-code technologies can translate directly into increased business value for your organization. Among the benefits you can expect are:
- Increasing speed to market (for new products, promotions, processes, etc.)
- More time available for the end-users to focus on their core areas of expertise
- More time available for developers and other IT professionals to focus on activities that deliver higher value to the organization
- Streamlining the development process by collapsing multiple steps into a single process (e.g., defining specs and product requirements can be folded into user interface development)
When Do You Know It’s Time to Take It Seriously?
There are many signs that a low-code approach may be an appropriate addition to your tech stack. Ironically, when you deploy a successful system that attracts many new users, you may find yourself becoming a victim of your own success. More users means more demand. And it often means more demand coming from a more diverse group of business users who may be less experienced in technical tasks such as defining product requirements.
To put it another way, if you’re starting to feel like it might be time to install one of those take-a-number machines, it might be a good time to take a look at a low-code option for creating applications.
Here are a few other questions you may want to think about:
- What are the drawbacks?
- Why doesn’t everybody do this?
- What could possibly go wrong?
Low-code options won’t be perfect for every scenario. But when there’s a good fit, they can be a great addition to your development environment. We’re still in a transitional phase. But someday we may think of enterprise software environments that required specialists to create applications as being just as quaint as elevator operators.
Learn about Zinier’s App Builder capabilities here.