Why “low-code development” isn’t always truly “low-code”

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The severe and growing IT skills shortage is harming innovation and hampering companies’ digital transformation efforts. Eighty-six per cent of respondents to a survey by job search site Indeed said that it was “challenging to find and hire technical talent.” Meanwhile, organisations are operating in a cloud-first, mobile-first, “software-driven everything” world where the ability to quickly develop and deploy apps is crucial to survival. Not surprisingly, 83 per cent of respondents to the Indeed survey stated that their difficulty finding qualified candidates had harmed their organisations’ revenues, product development, market expansion efforts, and the job satisfaction of current employees forced to shoulder extra burdens.

To combat the skills gap, a growing number of organisations are turning to low-code development platforms, which allow apps to be created with little or no programming using drag-and-drop, WYSIWYG modules; low-code app development is commonly compared to building with Lego blocks. Forrester Research predicts that the low-code development market will reach $15 billion by 2020. Yet low-code development platforms that can help accelerate sustained digital transformation will have a significant impact on the much larger and evolving market which is estimated to reach $493 billion by 2022.

In theory, low-code development platforms dramatically speed up application development and deployment. They also dramatically increase the talent pool by making it possible for beginning coders and so-called “citizen developers” – non-coders with strong general computer skills and domain expertise – to build applications. However, not all low-code platforms are created equal, and many fail to live up to their promises.

Low-code – or “hidden” code?

The biggest issue with many “low-code” development platforms is that they don’t actually eliminate code; they just hide it from the end user. These platforms utilise a code-generation approach where the visual modules the end user has pieced together are converted to code, which must be compiled, linked, and executed, just as if the app had been hand-coded.

So much for the idea that non-developers can create and deploy apps quickly and on their own.

“Hidden” code platforms exacerbate one of the most pressing challenges of sustainable digital transformation: enormous levels of “technical debt.” For years, many organisations have accumulated legacy systems and applications – many of them bloated, buggy, and unsustainable – that must now be upgraded. The last thing any organisation needs is more brittle software that won’t scale and will hamper their digital transformation efforts, but that’s exactly what “hidden code” platforms end up generating. The biggest drawback to such hidden code platforms is that they may deliver the false perception of having a ‘fast and easy’ development platform to tackle digital transformation, yet will be incapable to deliver agility at scale when the number of developed applications reaches critical mass. This is a key capability to support sustainable digital transformation.

When is low-code actually “low-code”?

Low-code platforms shouldn’t only be faster and simpler than traditional hand-coding; they should produce adaptive and scalable apps so the lifecycle of the apps can align with the lifecycle of the business as the business evolves during its journey of digital transformation.

Sustainable digital transformation requires a build-once, adaptively re-use-many-times approach to app development that dramatically simplifies software development and maintenance and makes it easy to scale across the enterprise and adopt to business changes. For example, imagine the sustained benefits that could be derived when one develops a new app that can run on-premises or in any cloud services without having to re-build or re-invent each time the business decides to subscribe or unsubscribe a cloud service while also preserving the consistent engaging experience across channels. Unfortunately, hand-coded software has traditionally not achieved this; organisations are required to continually rebuild or re-invent, resulting in the mountains of technical debt many are struggling with. Low-code platforms should not only enable rapid development but the creation of sustainable, scalable applications that can be configured in multiple ways to support different use cases.

In contrast with traditional low-code platforms that simply “hide” code, responsive low-code platforms use a true model-driven architecture for both design and execution. Instead of being converted into static code, model components are abstracted into XML and pushed directly into a stateless process engine. Not only does this reduce storage and processing requirements, but it also enables components that are not currently in memory to undergo modifications without incurring an engineering cycle for code changes.

As a result, responsive application models can be manually modified at runtime; as new business conditions are pushed into the model, the underlying code is modified, and the application changes even as it continues running. Responsive low-code application models can also be programmatically modified through feedback loops of fresh data originating from devices or other applications.

In either case, the application is truly future-proof; it can self-adapt to changing conditions. This means that thousands of different workflows can be replaced by a single app that is built and embedded in all of an enterprise’s systems and runs seamlessly across environments. Each version of the app can be easily configured in multiple, different ways to satisfy specific needs of groups or individuals, and all versions can run in parallel.

Sustainable digital transformation requires future-proof software that can self-adapt to evolving conditions. Responsive, truly low-code platforms, based on an explicit model-driven architecture for both design and execution, generate intelligent, self-adaptive apps that can evolve based on manual or programmatic changes at runtime. It also addresses the last mile challenge to enable cross-discipline subject matter experts to rapidly create of AI-driven applications at scale.

Finally, perhaps the ultimate responsive, truly low-code platform would be one that also comes with a low-code transformation abstraction and extension framework.  It enables the increasingly scarce software engineer resources to digitalise the business’ unique competence by code yet can then be abstracted and transformed for low-code use by non-technical users. This helps organisations combat the skills gap and frees up their existing IT staff to focus on initiatives that will drive the underlying business instead of dealing with technical debt.

Jesse Shiah is CEO and co-founder of AgilePoint
Image source: Shutterstock/McIek