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The Software Developer's Fate in Low-Code/No-Code World

11 minute read
Jennifer Torres avatar
What does the emergence of no-code/low-code tools mean for the savvy developer?

With no-code/low-code tech, the skills of an average everyday worker are imbued with abilities only software developers and IT professionals once possessed, like building webpages, applications, data analysis and more.

Collectively, by expanding your abilities and turning you into a “citizen” designer and developer, they bestow you with “marketing superpowers, able to launch apps and workflows in a single click,” said Scott Brinker, author of the Chief Marketing Technologist blog and VP of platform ecosystem at HubSpot.

Great news for many — but what about the highly-trained tech professional or developer? Should they worry that tasks once requiring a squad of software specialists are now drag and drop, creating an opportunity for anyone to become a “citizen” developer? Or will they enhance the field and free up tech professionals for more substantial, meaningful work?

What Exactly Is No-Code/Low-Code?

The next time your teen is tasked with a school presentation, you might remind them there once was a time when only a technically trained pro could do such a thing. For those of us growing up in the early '80’s, presentations consisted of standing at the head of the class, awkwardly thumbing through hand-written notecards — but the release of PowerPoint in 1987 made us all more creatively capable.

While PowerPoint isn’t technically no-code — it’s basically the same idea at the heart of no-code and low-code platforms that empower non-technical professionals with the ability to create websites, workflows, apps and more — without the skill and training of a program developer.

With the lure of fast results and a minimal learning curve, tech leaders are being inundated by providers offering low/no-code tools that enable citizen developers to bypass the IT department and produce their own business apps and automations.

According to “Harness the Disruptive Powers of Low-Code: A Gartner Trend Insight Report” by Gartner Analyst Jason Wong, by 2025, spending on low-code development technologies is expected to grow to almost $30 billion with 70% of new applications developed by enterprises using no-code/low-code.

No-Code Is Simply an Evolution

Rather than comparing these no-code/low-code tools to PowerPoint, Wong said a better precursor to the no-code movement would be spreadsheets. “Before, if you wanted to do any type of data formatting you needed a computer scientist to construct it,” Wong told CMSWire. “Then along came Lotus and Excel and opened it up to business users.”

But he warns that no-code does not necessarily mean no skill — and low-code often requires the skillset of a professional developer to assure a proper integration with current tech. Despite the name, he reiterates that all software runs on code, and with no-code, any alteration from a non-expert can cause irrevocable damage.

“We don’t see this replacing the need for development programming engineers, and we don’t see these tools replacing business subject matter expertise," Wong said. "These are tools to draw higher efficiency and productivity from data engineers, designers and the businesspeople who want to contribute to these roles. We are seeing a blending of teams, so it’s not just designers, architects and database administrators — now you see sales managers, marketing and human resources working together once they learn the low-code and no-code tools.”

Related Article: No-Code/Low-Code Solutions Could Be Answer to Better Customer Experience

What’s the Difference Between No-Code and Low-Code?

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Wong explains that “low-code” tools support some small level of coding and the option to add custom functions, therefore some basic coding skill is necessary to cultivate and incorporate complex applications “No-code,” meanwhile, is essentially a marketing term that implies the tool is for non-professional developers.

Brinker says no-code is best for specific types of work, including tasks that are:

  • Relatively simple.
  • Mainly for internal use (or well-defined external use cases).
  • Only going to be used by one (or just a few) users.
  • Relatively short-lived, like a simple campaign for a webinar.
  • Very low risk (e.g., not working sensitive data). 

Will No-Code/Low-Code Help Beleaguered Tech Industry?

Promising a faster, easier, less expensive and more inclusive path — the advent of no-code and low-code tools and platforms could potentially cause further disruption to the already embattled tech sector.

Last year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary, approximately 47.4 million people quit their jobs in what has been called The Great Resignation. In August alone another 4.2 million more people quit. And according to an analysis by Harvard Business Review of more than 9 million employee records from more than 4,000 companies, the highest amount of resignations came from the tech and healthcare industries, likely due to increases in demand, increased workloads and burnout.

Then there’s the talent shortage. A survey of IT executives from Gartner revealed that 64% consider the current gap in talent as the most significant adoption barrier to emerging technologies, compared with just 4% in 2020.

“The ongoing push toward remote work and the acceleration of hiring plans in 2021 has exacerbated IT talent scarcity, especially for sourcing skills that enable cloud and edge, automation and continuous delivery,” Yinuo Geng, research vice president at Gartner, said in a statement. “As one example, of all the IT automation technologies profiled in the survey, only 20% of them have moved ahead in the adoption cycle since 2020. The issue of talent is to blame here.”

Under the banner of decentralized delivery where anyone in the business can build ops for themselves and others, Wong said low-code/no-code will certainly affect IT departments.

“But it could be a good thing because IT can’t do everything,” Wong said. “These tools will simply allow them to change priorities and work with citizen developers to enhance productivity.”

Do We Still Need Coders and Developers?

While these tools may be a great boon for citizen developers — will DIY apps fill a space once inhabited only by trained professionals?

Steve Jennis, principal at Jennis Consulting Group LLC and a founding partner of Founder's Compass, said the most valuable developers were always those with both domain and coding skills because understanding a problem in detail is essential to developing the best solution for it. As such, he believes that no-code/low-code tools do nothing to reduce dependence on domain experts but do mean more people can code efficiently.

“For employers, this means fewer and thus lower costs for IT specialists, so more money available to pay domain experts their true worth,” Jennis said. “It’s not the hammer, it’s how you use it.”

Brinker looks at no-code/low-code on a spectrum.

“On one end, no-code tools are letting non-experts do a lot of the things that, quite frankly, experts do not want to do," Brinker said. "If you are an expert web developer, you do not want to spend your days building landing pages for the marketing department, so actually, in those scenarios, you find IT folks and software developers are happy in that there's a whole set of stuff that's being taken off their plate."

According to Brinker, as these tools get better and better, we'll likely see experts adopt them and accelerate the implementation and delivery of what they do. Expertise in this arena isn't always about code, he added.

Learning Opportunities

"There's a certain amount of that," Brinker added, "but a lot of the expertise in software development is thinking about the logic, the concepts, how these things are going to flow, which if you're doing a complicated app, even if you're going to build it with a no-code tool, there's still a fair amount of expertise that is required in order to create it and create it well."

So, will anyone’s job be affected? Brinker acknowledged there is also a middle ground — and it’s a place of personal reckoning.

“There are probably some developers and IT people who aren't particularly experts with skills and what they’re able to do with code is relatively limited,” Brinker said. “I think as you see these no-code tools get better and better, it probably will encroach upon roles in which people who aren’t particularly good may be pushed out to find some other calling that better fits their talents.”

Related Article: How Low-Code/No-Code Are Changing CX Design

Tips for Selecting the Right Tools

According to Wong, the terms low-code and no-code are “overused” and end up creating confusion for leaders who are uncertain which tools would best serve their organization.

So, rather than focusing on the terminology, he advises a thorough evaluation of what’s available and then selecting only the tools that fit your particular use cases and skill sets. In addition, he says, make sure the tool supports your existing integration, automation, and software development life cycle (SDLC) stacks.

Gavin Hupp, vice president of information technology for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, said that prior to his position with SeaWorld, he used a low-code platform with success.

“I used OptimumHQ, which is an excellent platform, headquartered in Arizona and highly recommended but not all platforms are created equally. It depends on your strategic plans for the platform,” Huff said. “Stay within the intended use, don’t get too fancy with customizations, and you’ll be OK. Otherwise, low-code can be a ball of spaghetti just like custom code.”

According to Jennis, when evaluating no-code and low-code development tools, go beyond the vendor’s marketing message to assess the underlying approach to their development tools or platforms.

“Just because a vendor is marketing ‘low-code’ may not mean it’s for professional developers, and another marketing ‘no-code’ doesn’t always mean it’s for citizen developers,” he said. “Determine how code is abstracted and added because this will ultimately determine the extensibility and flexibility of their approach, and how easy the tool is to connect with other technologies.”

Related Article: What Do Low-Code and No-Code Mean to the C-Suite?

Is Low-Code/No-Code Risky for Your Organization?

Michael J. Montgomery, a senior software engineer at ServiceNow, said he’s enthusiastic about the prospects of low/no-code but tempers it with caution.

“While I am excited about the applications that no/low-code platforms empower those who are not engineers to build and interact with, the importance of factors like security and efficiency cannot be overstated and must not be overlooked,” Montgomery said. “There are a lot of moving parts to a well-built application, and I’m all for ‘working smarter and not harder,' so long as corners are not being cut.”

Brinker said there are hundreds and hundreds of no-code tools out there, and a lot of them weren't really created for large companies. "They were created," he said, "in many cases for these individuals, these creators. There's a bunch of these no-code tools that are really empowering for creators who don't yet have to worry about things like corporate governance.”

Dark Reading’s 2022 Secure Applications Survey of IT and cybersecurity leaders, found that while more than half of the respondents said their company had implemented some amount of low-code/no-code within their organization, 32% were worried there was no governance over how the applications were accessing and using their data; 26% admitted they don't even know how to check for vulnerabilities in the low-code/no-code applications.

“You probably do want to empower people in your organization for a certain amount of self-service capability, but you want to make sure of the data they're working with, the services they have access to, and control over when things can be deployed publicly to the outside world,” Brinker said. “These things need checks and balances in place, and I think you'll see more tools in no-code get better at supporting good governance because that is absolutely crucial in order for these capabilities to ultimately be adopted by enterprises.”

While there is a lot of enthusiasm and adoption behind these tools because they can often solve problems independent of IT, create solvent solutions and are more adaptive to market conditions, Wong said there is a downside. And it’s important to understand what the “lock-in” is.

“With some of these tools, you are locked in, and can’t see or inspect the code as you improve in complexity or if something changes in security,” Wong said. “People need to remember that not everything is magical, and there is a tradeoff, but it doesn’t mean you have to run on them indefinitely. There is value in starting with these tools to prove out a concept and then move it into a different tool.”

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