I have spent over 30 years in the application development space starting my career in the late 80s as a mainframe developer developing software for the Federal Aviation Administration for air traffic control. Back then we were using tools to help abstract away the complexities of application development – in this case, 4th generation languages that would generate COBOL code for compilation and execution on the mainframe. As we progressed through the decade of the 90s I rapidly embraced the visual programming paradigm to develop client-server applications. The low code visual builders of the 90s were new, exciting, powerful, and were able to abstract many of the complexities of application development – and they all completely failed to deliver the lasting business benefits they promised.
Why did they fail? It was because they could not deliver anything more than a simple application. While the ability to drag and drop visual components like a button and a text entry field (things that are very common with today’s tools) was very easy, creating the logic to visually tie events to actions quickly became unwieldy. So the paradigm fell apart when you deliver anything more than a simple demo – which made these visual builders great sales gimmicks but poor in delivering results.
Fast forward to today and here we go again with the promise of Low Code and No-Code development tools. So what has changed? Well, a lot has changed of course, but having been through this cycle a few times now I have a unique perspective on what will work and will not.
So why all the noise about low code and no code now? It’s because we are still trying to solve the same problem – there are too many business needs and not enough programmers. The business cannot wait for their IT department to build them what they need – this is why SaaS is such a big movement. But even with the myriad of SaaS products available there is still a huge demand for more application development and integration because every business, every department, and every user needs something customized for their unique business challenges. And with the pace of change and technology increasing every year this demand keeps growing. Throw in the demand of the Internet of Things movement and you have a combination of Business personnel and Operational personnel converging and demanding the ability to customize and control their own applications.
For many years I have dismissed the Low Code and No-Code movements as the recycling of the same mistakes we made with Computer-Aided Software Engineering (CASE) tools and visual programming tools of the 90s. But I was wrong – or I was partially wrong. Low Code is a lie but No Code is here to stay.
Low Code Is a Lie
Low Code is a lie because I’ve lived it. The visual flow/code builders you see today are virtually identical to the virtual code builders of the 1990s. The simple truth is application programming is complex – no matter how you slice it. Visual builders are exciting and they demo really well but once you try to do anything more complex than a simple demo they fall apart. They are a really great way to sell a product but a horrible way to do anything in production. In addition, who is the target user? A Business or Operational user does not want to learn a flow building tool for if-then-else logic or data mapping – they want a tool that allows them to do their job without needing to follow a tutorial or learn basic programming logic. And if the flow builder is targeting the developer community forget it. Real developers want to code – in fact the developers I see in my company use a command-line interface (CLI) exclusively so they are as far away from the graphical user interface as possible.
From a business perspective, I see no audience for a low code visual programming tool. It’s a lie that it is being told by software companies to sell you a product. Period.
No Code Is Here To Stay
No Code is here to stay because I have seen the reaction of my customers when provided a simple, no code experience. I was a skeptic until I understood this simple fact – operations and business professionals ARE NOT CODERS and they do not want to become coders. This took me a while to realize because I have a degree in computer science and even now after I no longer code for a living (I do miss it though), I still THINK like a coder. This all changed for me last year as the pandemic slowed our business down to a crawl except for our Intelligent Asset SaaS application that was being used by several companies to track and monitor their critical assets. As my team and I drilled down on our success and talked with our customers we started getting rave reviews from business and operational people on the flexibility of our software. I was pleasantly surprised at how effusive their praise was on areas of our product that quite frankly I took for granted. There were basic things like color configurations and visual layout for different form factors like browser versus tablet that I consider “table stakes” but the real praise came for our form based asset descriptions and rule builder. Now forms aren’t all that exciting – we fill out forms everyday for a simple online order for credit card and shipping information. They don’t necessarily provide for an exciting demo either BUT when you give a person a simple interface that they are used to in their everyday lives – and then your software does the things that it was asked to do on that form – THAT IS EXCITING. So that was my “aha” moment – hearing my customers praise our software because it was so flexible and so easy to use – by non-coders.
So the No Code movement is REAL and it’s here to stay. Especially in the world of IoT where there is so much demand and not enough developers to satisfy that demand. We need to provide simple, No Code user interfaces that connect to any device in a very simple way to allow operational and business people to build the workflows and systems they need to improve their operations. There are FAR TOO MANY IoT “science experiments” slowing down IoT adoption and draining operational budgets today. Businesses need out of the box deployments that allow operational people to easily configure their systems – that is the promise that No Code delivers.
In summary, what we have learned here at ClearBlade is Low Code is the wrong solution to the problem of building and configuring software without the need of developers. It misses the target because it’s too complex for the business user and too simplistic for a developer. More importantly, it doesn’t work once you get beyond a simple demo and therefore is a tool for sales to show how cool their product is. Do not believe in the Low Code hype. No code however is the real deal as long as the no-code environment gives your operational and business personnel the control they need to customize your software and build the experience they are looking for.