New highs on the road to low-code

Does low-code (and even no-code) mean the end of developers? Not at all.
9 March 2020

Low-code software platforms arrived with something of a bang over the last half-decade, or more perhaps accurately, something of a ping.

And many would say, about time too.

“We’ve been building software since the 1960s (if not slightly before), so why on Earth are we reinventing the wheel every day and trying to create new ‘apps’ in the form of applications that must surely do a lot of what many other pieces of pre-existing software have already been doing for years,” said anyone who ever thought about why there is such a focus on code and roles in software development in this post-millennial age.

They have a point. If you’re building a financial planning application, then you (the developer) shouldn’t necessarily need to have to build the core ‘calculator function’ (or foreign exchange function or even the data input function) that the application itself centers around.

Instead, the post-2020 developer should be concentrating on the architectural logic that makes the app itself different, uniquely suited to the deployment use case in hand and well-engineered to all the new platform advancements that exist today in areas such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), new connectivity points to the Internet of Things and so on.

A rational technology validation

The proposition is perhaps the rational technology validation for low code i.e. we can ‘compartmentalize’ a lot of this stuff and focus on bringing existing building blocks together to create new things.

In reality, low-code does rather more than simply offer drag-and-drop building blocks, it offers complex libraries and best practice architectures that can guide developers towards building better software by an order of magnitude, but any general thread that suggests low-code is shortcut is mostly still valid.

Key vendors and usual suspects in the low-code space include Appian, Mendix, OutSystems, Zoho Creator, Quick Base and then there’s Microsoft PowerApps, Salesforce App Cloud and other major-scale vendors app-build shortcutting systems. All these vendors tend to offer a compendium, a selection pack or toolbox of application build components.

OutSystems for one says that it’s toolbox (known as Forge, as in where ironmongers build solid new products) has just passed more than one million unique component downloads.

Designed to both first-timers and code veterans, OutSystems Forge claims to now offer over 2,500 assets that boost productivity when building apps. The Forge is a free repository of reusable apps, widgets, themes, templates and connectors that support machine learning, IoT, CRM, storage, payments, etc.

“Reusability is critical in application development today as delivery timelines continue to contract. To avoid rehashing monotonous work, the OutSystems community of some 275,000 developers can submit reusable components to the Forge for fellow developers to use. Components can earn a trusted certification, guaranteeing Forge members quality and performance,” said Goncalo Gaiolas, vice president of Community at OutSystems.

Another key player in this zone, Appian typically ranks in the top handful of players in the low-code space.

Like so many companies looking to bring automation to the fore in their platform offerings, the company used its 2020 Appian World conference to formalize a full-blown Robotic Process Automation (RPA) offering as a key part of its low-code platform.

Appian RPA claims to augment Appian’s core low-code automation platform with the ability to govern cloud-native Appian ‘software robots’ in a unified automation stack.

Unified automation stack I hear you say?  Well yes, it sounds like marketing-speak, but in practical terms it suggests a new tier in the total IT fabric where software AI ‘bots’ are empowered to provide users with pre- (or at least part-) baked functions that actually integrate with each other. Humans (that’s you and me) are still needed, but some functions in our IT systems will now happen both automatically and autonomously.

“Appian’s full-stack automation now combines AI, RPA, workflow, decision rules, and case management at the speed of low-code. This means businesses can apply the right technology for the right use case to automate any end-to-end process,” notes the company in a press statement.

Gartner’s November 2019 “Automate Business Operations to Scale Your Digital Business” report recommends that, “Application leaders responsible for application and product portfolio governance should combine RPA and low-code platforms to optimize and transform business operations.”

Key elements of what Appian is aiming to deliver in low-code RPA include (more marketing-speak, but stay with us) what is referred to as ‘full stack automation’. This is where Appian’s automation stack unites people, bots and AI across business processes, and enables centralized management of all enterprise automation technologies on a single platform.

As we low code, we’ll also need to lock down management controls on all this automation, so Appian is waving its governance flag and saying that its own brand of RPA leverages powerful governance to centrally manage, monitor and deploy bots across the organization for increased scale and performance.

Low-code not no-code

If low-code has suffered from any major misinterpretation, it has perhaps too often been confused with no-code. So by way of clarification, low-code is still code, i.e. it’s complex and you wouldn’t let your parents lose on it because this is developer territory. No-code, by comparison, is largely for businesspeople.

If low-code is all about shortcutting and compartmentalizing software components, then no-code is all about abstracting the lower level guts of the system to such a degree that non-techies can literally drag building blocks of application logic around and not even have to create user interface ‘skins’ upon which to present the resulting application builds because that upper layer is also encapsulated in the no-code platform.

Does low-code (and even no-code) mean the end of developers? Not at all, it’s simply a question of engineering the elements of software development into more easily consumable building blocks for those use cases that can take advantage of a certain amount of ready-meal engineering.

Sometimes you peel all the onions, mince the garlic, shred the oregano, slice the basil and loving measure out the olive oil… but then sometimes you just grab a jar of pasta sauce, right?