In a recent blog post, I looked at a trend that’s reshaping the landscape of major application development projects: the renaissance of custom, fueled by the need to evolve applications rapidly to do new and different things.

In this blog, I’m going to examine a parallel and somewhat related shift: the rise of “Low-Code” and “No-Code” tools, which is putting an increasing amount of development capability into the hands of relatively non-technical people.

Remember Visual Basic?

In fact, it’s probably fair to say that this is also a renaissance. Those of us who were around in the 1990s will recall a language called Visual Basic, which was used for quite a lot of application development by people who were not formally trained as software engineers.

Other concepts aimed at making programming more accessible included model-driven development and CASE tools. But trends like the rising adoption of package solutions saw these types of Low-Code tools fall out of favor.

“Draw-and-point” programming…

Until now. Having spent a decade or two on the back burner (stewing and improving), Low-Code and No-Code systems are now attracting growing interest once again.

How do they work? In simple terms, these tools enable people from any area of a business with a couple of weeks’ training to develop working applications that people can use, whether in a department or across an enterprise.

The individual doing the development starts by using a visual interface to draw an application very quickly. Then they point to some data and objects to hook into, set some rules in a visual way, and bingo! There’s your new application. We all know it is not quite that simple, but it really does accelerate building applications considerably and enables otherwise novices to rapidly reskill in the digital era.

…is democratizing development

It’s a far cry from the traditional scenario of people with computer science degrees developing applications using arcane languages. And its effect is to democratize development by opening it up to a new generation of “citizen developers.” These are people who may not know what object oriented is or microservices are—but who do understand how the processes in their business work and can be improved through automation.

As demand for these tools increases, it’s spawning a new generation of solutions aimed at realizing the promise of Low-Code and No-Code. Which is to empower genuine citizen developers to create, maintain and deploy legitimate production applications that support business processes and are built in a secure, resilient and scalable way.

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The quest for productivity, agility and better outcomes

The driving force behind this trend is the growing need to improve productivity. And its emergence links to one of the biggest shifts in recent decades—from waterfall to Agile development methodologies.

The move to agile teams is giving rise to the “full-stack developer” who can handle any aspect of the development process—from business analysis to software development to the provisioning of infrastructure. The latest Low-Code and No-Code tools are effectively taking the functions that those full-stack developers perform and making them visual and consumable for someone with less specialized skills.

Combine this with the trend towards creating small, agile development teams as front-to-back “pods”, and the logic of including citizen developers in these teams becomes all the clearer. It also fits with the move towards rapid prototyping and incremental delivery. Putting the development of an application in the hands of the people who will actually use it not only accelerates the development cycle, but also produces better outcomes.

That said, you can’t just give the tools to a citizen developer and turn them loose. To deliver the goods, they’ll need to be a self-starter and fluent in business process training—two key ingredients. The right engineers and architects must build guard rails around their applications, in areas like data integrity, analytics, security and regulatory compliance are needed to pull this all together. With these risk areas locked down, the speed and flexibility of using citizen developers come to the fore and you can create greater leverage for the rare architects and classically-trained full stack developers in your organization.

No-Code will open up new areas of productivity

Going forward, I believe High-Code, which is custom development and the domain of the classical developer, is making a comeback. It involves extremely fine control on processes, usually very sensitive ones where for example, latency is a concern.  But, in the renaissance of custom, No-Code will see dramatic growth. This prospect has already seen a stampede of visual development tool providers enter the market, aiming to help companies improve productivity.

This echoes what happened with platform-as-a-service (PaaS) about a decade ago. And, as then, the proliferation will ultimately give way to a shake-out and a handful of Low Code-No Code survivors will emerge. Ones we are keeping our eyes on are: Mendix, Outsystems and Apptio, plus offerings from the cloud hyper-scalers. As that happens, we’ll continue to see entirely new areas of productivity being unlocked, as non-IT developers take greater control and build and deploy ever more applications.

Welcome to the era of the citizen developer. It’s only just beginning—but it’s here to stay. And its biggest impact will be on productivity.

Adam Burden

Chief Software Engineer, Accenture

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