With digital transformation initiatives and an increased number of apps making their way into organizations, some are turning to low-code development platforms to help ease the burden on corporate Information Technology (IT) departments.
Low-code platforms are increasingly being eyed by organizations in different industries for their ability to speed up application and innovation delivery across a range of devices; even for large-scale applications, industry observers say.
Use of such platforms enables organizations to "very quickly deliver applications that win, serve, and retain customers—and to nimbly evolve those apps,'' according to a 2017 report by market research firm Forrester Research, which identifies the leaders in this segment as including Appian, Kony, Mendix, OutSystems, and Salesforce.
Any low-code development platform should offer visual development tools; an app store; full app lifecycle support, and cloud-native deployment capabilities, according to Mendix. Appian says its low-code platform offers drag-and-drop visual development, with business process management (BPM) capabilities and intuitive user interfaces.
To gauge their performance, Isaac Sacolick, president of Tuckahoe, NY-based digital consultancy StarCIO, says he puts low-code platforms through a one-hour test to see how far he can get building a simple application. "It's a test to see how intuitive the user interface is and whether I can get through the basics without having to go through training or reading through documentation,'' he says. Then he tries to get a sense of how sophisticated of an application can be developed without having to go back to coding. Lastly, "I'm trying to understand in what fundamental ways the platform accelerates speed to market, makes support of multiple applications easier, improves developer productivity, or improves application quality,'' says Sacolick, who is also the author of Driving Digital: The Leader's Guide to Business Transformation Through Technology.
Sacolick says the latter goals aren't easy to evaluate right away, as it takes some time to get familiar with a platform, as well as to be able to compare its development approach against others.
Whether an organization is looking to develop customer-facing or workplace apps, "When you look at any digital transformation program, it's almost always going to lead to more technology to facilitate that,'' says Sacolick. "So there's higher demand to build these apps, and at same time, there's limited talent."
Funding is also an issue, Sacolick adds. There may be funding for digital transformation initiatives, but often, a CIO's budget is flat, "so they have to look at building things that are faster to market, more easily supportable, and require less talent to engineer; all things that are high on a CIO's list of considerations."
For digital initiatives to be successful, "Companies really find they need to break down the silos between IT and the business," and that's where the concept of citizen developers from outside IT can be valuable, says Greg Layok, a managing director at business consultancy West Monroe Partners.
"In the old days, the IT department would create a portal for customers and the business would articulate their requirements and … you'd create updates for that once or twice a year,'' Layok says. "In the digital world, we have to move much more quickly."
Today, the imperative is to make sure IT and the business units work together. Business people need to have a much better understanding of how technology is delivered, and technology people must understand more about the business than ever before if they're going to be able to deploy innovative technology in a way that's valuable to the end-customer, Layok says.
Citizen development means you are now empowering a person outside IT who has a better idea of the business need with the ability to build custom workflows, Sacolick says. That means they are more likely to build something that works, and are more likely to get their colleagues on board with using it, he says.
The type of employees who are ideal candidates for low-code development work are "people who are technically savvy who chose not to pursue an IT or developer career,'' Sacolick says.
Layok concurs, adding, "and if I had to make a vast generalization, I think it's the younger workforce who have grown up with technology."
Sacolick was CIO of McGraw-Hill Construction a decade ago, and when he found he didn't have enough developers and decided to turn platform development over to a group, "I'd always seek out the more technically savvy people. They're not that hard to find." This was the logical way to solve the problem without having to invest a lot of time and money, he says.
"Essentially, I flipped the process on them and provided them the tools and sometimes the practices to make them successful, and from there they were able to use their subject matter expertise and influence," he says. "How many times does IT put out a tool and no one wants to use it because no one understood the requirements?"
However, organizations need to realize that when they hand app development work off to non-IT workers, they run the risk that the process will not go smoothly. "Citizen development platforms change the role of IT; you can still create a mess by giving these tools out,'' Sacolick observes. "You're taking something IT people have the disciplines and practices on, like how to test an app—quality control, security testing—but now you're letting non-developers do things that may be functionally broken."
Developers typically are required to put rigor in how they release changes into a production environment, but then the organization "puts tools in the hands of business users who can change things on the fly,'' he says. "So IT has to set up governance and best practices to avoid those issues."
Layok echoes that, adding that good governance also means avoiding duplication of work. "The challenge with citizen developers is … they're accessing resources and you have to think about usage of those resources and in today's world, security. So there has to be some support from IT and governance and ensuring there is security."
Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area.