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Navigating the new era of low-code and no-code

by Morgan Goddard: Software Development Executive at +OneX.
Just 10 or 15 years ago, launching a new ecommerce business built for high transaction volumes and robust security was a complex undertaking. If you wanted a scalable site with customised functionality, integrations with enterprise systems like inventory management, and a bespoke look-and-feel, you would probably have needed to spend millions of rand just to get started.

Today, the barriers to entry have crumbled. Consider the example of Ollie Health, an online mental health platform for global enterprise teams that offers video consultations, a customised calendar and booking system, and secure payments. The platform, which was launched in 2020, connects therapists to employees needing mental health support in over 18 countries. It was built end-to-end by two founders with little technical background. According to Ollie Health CEO and co-founder, Marc Gregory, they just had the vision and creativity to stitch together the tools and components they needed for their business from solutions already available on the market.

We’re still in the early phases of seeing how such tools will change the game. OpenAI’s Sam Altman recently said that the billion-dollar unicorn companies of the future could be built with just ten people, and eventually, just one person.

Welcome to the age of the citizen developer

With the vast selection of cloud platform-as-a-service solutions, low-code and no-code development platforms, and software-as-a-service offerings available today, business users are more able than ever to create software functionality without turning to the IT department. Software developers, too, can use these tools to accelerate development and deployment of new features and apps.

Although there are caveats to adoption of low-code and no-code software - especially for larger enterprises - the trend is set to vastly accelerate the pace of software development over the next five years. Forrester forecasts that the combined low-code and digital process automation (DPA) market will grow from $13.2 billion at the end of 2023 to $50 billion by 2028.

We are still early in the adoption curve for low code. A KPMG survey of 2,000 corporate decision-makers around the world found that 81% of companies consider low-code development to be of strategic importance within their organisation. However, only 31% have so far made low code a central component of their software development strategy.

The impetus for low-code and no-code adoption arises from the pressure organisations face to accelerate digital transformation programmes. Top-tier software development skills are in short supply in a digital era when software features and applications are key to most organisations’ competitiveness. In addition, the pace of today’s market means that it’s more important than ever to rapidly develop and deploy new software.

Low-code and no-code defined

Before delving deeper, it’s worth differentiating low-code from no-code. Both sets of tools enable developers to use visual tools such as drag-and-drop interfaces to generate code and build new software features. Nearly anyone can learn how to use no-code tools relatively quickly, but they are somewhat limited because they don’t allow one to add custom code.

With low-code development, developers can incorporate custom code into the platform's automatically generated code. These days, they can even create their own code and subsequently modify it within low-code interfaces, and vice versa. This demonstrates a growing sophistication in the available tools on the market.

In the longer term, we can expect to see low-code and no-code approaches democratise app creation and technology-fuelled innovation for people without technical skills. Generative artificial intelligence (AI) will open up even more possibilities - though it’s worth noting that the text-based prompts of Gen AI tools are not a substitute for the visual tools that no-code and low-code platforms offer.

The potential is exciting for small and medium businesses (SMBs), like the startup, Ollie Health, I mentioned earlier. SMBs can today access a range of sophisticated online services and software solutions, but no-code and low-code promise to enable them to build and customise software in ways that weren’t possible in the past without dev teams of their own.

In larger organisations, the landscape is more nuanced. Development teams are inclined to adopt low-code solutions to expedite the deployment of new software features, cut costs, and streamline data integration. But within enterprises with intricate environments and sophisticated requirements, the utility of low-code and no-code solutions may not yet be able to handle complex platform development. Substantial transformation is still required before the incumbent stack can be entirely replaced.

Speed versus governance

Enterprise clients are cautious about the governance, security, and technical risks associated with empowering non-technical users to build software using low-code and no-code tools. It's imperative to implement measures to uphold quality control, mitigate security risks, and avoid accruing technical debt. If non-technical users are to engage in building their own software releases, they must be guided by explicit technical standards, security protocols, and governance frameworks.

At a high level, medium and large organisations need to balance speed and agility against strategic articulation of business requirements and iterative refinement. They will need the expertise of season programmers to unlock the value of their software. Low-code and no-code tools can augment the capabilities of their teams, but not completely replace them.

There is, however, an opportunity for organisations to harness the combined power of non-technical users and expert programmers to navigate today’s complex digital environment and drive innovation. Freeing up time for software developers to focus on more complex and higher-value tasks is one of the most immediate benefits companies can achieve.

Each organisation should consider how and where it can use low-code and no-code platforms to enhance its workflow. In so doing, an enterprise can balance the benefits of faster, more democratised and more productive development with the rigour, discipline and security required to develop and deploy enterprise-grade software.
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