woman looking at back-end code on two computers
PHOTO: Mimi Thian

In the two decades since my career started, there's been an ongoing push to move towards low-code solutions. While we never called it that, the purpose has always been the same: to give more power to more people. In the '90s it was drag-and-drop tools to customize user interfaces. Today, it is website templates and robotic process automation (RPA).

After decades of seeing the same repetitive drumbeat, you have to ask yourself, “Is any of this this really going to have an impact.” Is any of it real?

The answer is yes. Each generation of low-code tools builds upon the success of the previous generation. It is up to organizations to locate the right places to apply this technology, and know when to leave it alone.

Low Code Gets You 80% of the Way There

For most organizations, low-code will never get you all the way there. It may be able to knock out a task or get one started, but doing it all can be tough. While most processes are common from a high-level perspective, it is in the nitty gritty details that the commonalities break down.

Being able to handle those one-off business rules is important. Sure, many of those rules may be outdated and in need of retirement. However, to assume that will be possible with every little nuanced rule you have is an assumption that can lead to failure.

Nevertheless, 80% is a substantial amount. You can build a working prototype or an MVP (minimally viable product) application with that level of functionality. You can use the result to gauge the importance of the remaining 20% of the “required” feature set.

Related Article: A Look at the Low-Code Development Platform Landscape

Addressing the Remaining 20%

Here is the reality: people never use a significant chunk of that 20%. That is why you should quickly build out the 80% and see what happens. What you will discover is the real remaining 20% is not the same as the 20% you thought remained. Many requirements will be new items as others drop off the list.

However, you will need to address some of those remaining critical items. You have two choices: You can either build new components that to add to your low-code library of tools or you can write custom code.

That is why you need to avoid no-code solutions. Sure, if you are doing something for your school, church or book club, you can skip the fancy features and find a way to make it work. However, your company will have absolute requirements that you must meet. You may not know some of these requirements when you make your technology decision. They may not even exist yet given the rate of change in today’s world.

Related Article: Why Process Automation Is Not Always Process Improvement

Beware of Low-Code Upgrades

Almost every low-code solution I’ve encountered resulted in lock-in. The efforts did not carry over to another vendor. All the benefits of the low-code solution were erased when it turned me hostage.

Worse, sometimes we would be faced with a dead-end. As technology evolved, a new version of our low-code solution would roll out with no upgrade path. We would either have to rebuild most of the application or just stay on the current version until it was no longer usable.

Of course, fully customized applications also expire. Obsolescence is one of the hazards of customizing any solution. The only benefit of the custom code route is you tend to not lose capabilities as you move forward while the new version of an “upgraded” low-code framework may be less feature-rich at first, taking you from 80% capabilities down to 60%.

While a risk, it is entirely possible to deploy two versions of a low-code solution in the time it takes to customize a single high-code solution. You definitely need to do your homework regarding the product’s maturity and how quick you can build both the 80% and the remaining 20%.

Related Article: How Governance Makes Low-Code Platforms More Productive

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Low-Code Tools

Everything has risks. The easiest evaluation criteria for low-code technology is to determine how core the solution you're building is to your competitive advantage. If it is something that is your strength or distinguishing characteristic, seriously consider stronger solutions.

On the other side, if you can implement something by using low-code, maybe it isn’t your competitive advantage.

If you need a short-term or quickly implemented solution, low-code is the way to go. Your organization can only handle so many customized solutions at a time. Low-code solutions give you a way to build something that fits your business while not distracting you from higher value efforts.

So take a look but make sure that if the easy 80% isn’t the right 80%, that your organization will be able to pull through. If not, then maybe the low-code solution isn’t right for you.