by James Townsend
As we bid farewell to 2020, we can look back on the tech trends that shaped the world response to the COVID crisis. The shock of COVID and resulting lockdowns accelerated existing trends such as digital transformation, remote work, and even software development methodologies and tools.
For decades, organizations could only choose between off-the-shelf products and custom software development. Over the last 30 years another option -- low code software development -- has risen. This trend began with fourth generation programming languages (4GL) and computer-aided software engineering (CASE) tools in the 1980s. Desktop database products like DataEase, Paradox, Clipper and Microsoft Access were early examples of the low code approach.
Today, there are many types of low code software platforms. Some are business platforms such as Microsoft Dynamics, Salesforce, and ServiceNow. Another group are business process management (BPM) products such as Appian and Pega, the heirs of CASE tools, which not only model business processes but create working code and user interfaces. A third group is more specialized, geared toward a particular type of scenario such as Boomi for integrations. Meanwhile, the leading cloud vendors Amazon Web Services and Microsoft have rolled out their suites of low code development tools and support for open source products.
The allure of low code is in the promise to:
- Build solutions more quickly and less expensively
- Allow flexibility for future changes as business rules evolve
- Reduce software testing requirements
- Reduce the staff needed for ongoing support
- Shift security and software maintenance to the cloud vendor of the low code platform
- Reduce reliance on high cost software developers
- Empower "citizen developers" or power users to create and maintain the apps in place or alongside developers
These benefits are a tall order for any product to fulfill. I have written elsewhere that low code doesn't mean easy, and that deep technical skills are still needed to succeed on these platforms. Eliminating code entirely seems to me a fool's errand, because there are business rules more concisely expressed in code than any other way.
Not every low code project succeeds. Like all software development, low code projects require the backing of stakeholders and users, solid understanding of requirements and data, project management consistent with the methodology, and, yes, software developers and infrastructure experts. Familiarity with the low code toolset is also a prerequisite for success.
Low code products are not cheap, and those that require licenses or subscriptions for all users can become prohibitively expensive for large organizations, overshadowing potential labor cost savings. If the licensing model allows it, some low code platforms priced by user become less expensive (at least per app) for each new app which is deployed, bringing the incremental licensing expense to zero.
The variety of low code platforms also makes it challenging to choose the right one for your project, and even more difficult to standardize on a platform throughout an enterprise.
Regardless of the limits of low code development, or whether shifting costs from people to platform really saves money, low code is here to stay and likely to increase in comparison to custom development. Perhaps 2021 will be the year that your organization moves in this direction.
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