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Low-code/no-code tools are filling the tech talent skills gap

Tools for non-programmers are speeding up development and allowing users to solve their own problems.

Vermont Electric Power Company (known as Velco) has 150 employees, and these days, they're all programmers. The pandemic sapped the Vermont utility of its programming talent, and strict work guidelines exacerbated problems all around. Developing a new app—such as the COVID-19 screening app Velco's HR department wanted—would have taken months. But thanks to the Volt MX low-code/no-code platform, Jarrod Harper, application developer and data integrator, says he was able to get the system up and running in just 60 hours.

Low-code/no-code app development—using platforms that allow program creation with minimal or no programming skills—isn't a new idea, but the technology is getting more attention lately. A shortage of developer talent, the growth of hybrid work, and demand for accelerated digital initiatives are all driving adoption of these tools. In fact, Gartner forecasts the worldwide low-code development technologies market will grow 23 percent in 2021 to $13.8 billion.

The rise of the citizen developer

Low-code/no-code platforms are not just meant to speed app development within IT. Proponents say it democratizes technology across the enterprise and enables employees, sometimes referred to as citizen developers, to build code to solve their own business challenges especially at a time when IT professionals are in short supply. This frees them up to focus on more strategic digital transformation projects aimed at increasing revenue or productivity and reaching business goals.

Please read: How low-code/no-code platforms may reinvent DevOps

Pre-COVID, CIOs were not so bullish on low-code/no-code platforms, often expressing concerns about issues such as openness and security when building an application in a third-party platform, according to Isaac Sacolick, president of digital consultancy StarCIO. CIOs were more apt to say they'd rather use tried- and-true approaches that were in their wheelhouse, he says.

"Post-COVID, they just didn't have that luxury,'' he says. "If you look at every CIO survey, the number one thing enterprise CIOs say is they don't have enough talent, especially around emerging technologies." To cope, smart CIOs are putting their top data scientists, engineers, and integrators on projects that are most strategic to them, Sacolick says. Their plan B is to use low-code platforms in areas where technology is still needed, such as creating an employee onboarding mobile app, for example. This gives people the ability to expand their skill sets, he says.

Anyone can potentially use low-code tools for software development, Sacolick adds. The harder thing is finding the right business case, where it's going to make an impact and not just throw technology at a problem.

This may depend on the other systems in use by the organization. Sacolick points out that "low-code paradigms are platforms, but they are increasingly becoming capabilities in SaaS systems such as CRM, ERP, e-commerce, enterprise search, and CMS that enable greater configuration and customization."

Low-code/no-code platforms have enabled Schneider Electric to greatly increase digital talent in non-IT functions by enabling citizen developers, says Abha Dogra, senior vice president of digital technology and CIO. In particular, the approach has helped the company conserve budget by reducing the need for professional developers for custom applications, improve the business relevance of custom applications by empowering citizen developers, and increase the velocity of custom app development using a broad collection of technologies, she says.

Please read: GitOps: The next step in cloud-native development

There are four considerations Sacolick believes organizations should address before implementing low-code/no-code platforms:

  1. Are there people in a business unit ready to roll up their sleeves and use the platforms to build out a workflow they need?
  2. Are there managers who are supportive of their people using their time to do this?
  3. Do they have peers who would be willing to use the new technologies?
  4. Will there be support from IT?

"These are four important points,'' he says. "If you're missing two of those, the answer is no, [the organization is] not ready" for low-code or no-code solutions.

Building new features with reduced staff

As a startup, Lendr, which provides merchant cash advances to small and midsize businesses and invoice factoring services, did not have the budget to hire developers. Software development was done on a contract basis, and even when it was eventually brought in-house, "our throughput and value to the business wasn't as efficient as we wanted it to be,'' says Nick Mates, tech lead and project coordinator. "We couldn't deliver new features and functionality to customers as quickly as the business wanted us to move."

Lendr decided to try a low-code approach and went with OutSystems, a platform that offered full customizability, he says. It also enabled the company to "own the UI in a branded ecosystem, have the ability to export our code as C sharp if we ever decided to move away from a low-code solution," and handle robust integrations, Mates says.

Being in the financial services space, Lendr aggregates a lot of data from third parties and uses it to make decisions and develop a context for the business, so having robust integration capabilities is very important, he says.

Development speed is increasingly inherent to low-code platforms, and that was an important criterion as well. Lendr started doing low-code development in 2019, and the platform is mainly used by the development team. However, there are instances where business users will develop something specific that they need, he says.

During the pandemic, Lendr cut 80 percent of its staff, and the platform became a blessing in terms of mitigating the staffing shortage.

Like Harper, Mates says a core tenet of low-code is the ability to provide value to the business faster. "We're able to deliver new features and functionality to the business much faster with fewer staff, and we haven't seen any limitations in what we can build with low-code."

For example, developers have streamlined the entire loan submission and qualification process using low-code, including components such as credit and background checks and bank analysis. "Before we implemented this in low-code, it was very manual and disjointed," Mates says. Lendr has now reduced the average time from when a customer applies for a loan to approval from 8 hours to 80 minutes, he says.

Please read: DevSecOps: What it is and where it's going

"We're just more efficient in the organization as a whole because of the technology we've built in low-code," he says.

The technology has become core to Lendr's technical infrastructure, Mates says. The company has gone from using low code for 5 percent of its development to about 85 percent, "and we don't intend to revert back to traditional code."

IT still needs to play a role

Low-code platforms should be intuitive for onboarding to be successful, says Sacolick. "There needs to be a two-way evaluation, not just around the platform but people and the use cases being done."

He says he looks at low-code platforms often, and "if I can't figure out a platform in 1 hour of sitting, I'm done."

There also needs to be IT governance with training, testing, and documentation as well as the ability to roll something back if necessary. "A citizen developer doesn't know any of those disciplines, so a governance group needs to provide guidance, knowledge, and training and some technology around how low-code should operate once they have the keys to the castle," Sacolick says.

Officials say security is another obligatory responsibility for developers, even low-code developers. If you use one of these platforms, you need to be aware of potential security issues in them and, if any arise, ensure they are updated by IT or notify customers. It may be that, at least in some cases, the app update comes from the low-code vendor and end customers don't need to take action, but for the benefit of your own customers, you need to be on top of any such developments.

There is a learning curve for non-tech employees to adopt a no-code/low-code platform, agrees Dogra. So IT "has a significant role to play in the scalable and effective adoption of the platform," she says.

It is also important to provide clear guidelines and upfront criteria on the use cases that are more apt for a no-code/low-code platform development versus developing on full-stack software development. "We experience this trajectory as well, and over time, we have defined a very clear operating model for adoption of the platform including lifecycle management of the applications,'' Dogra says.

Lendr's business users tend to use low-code for "less strategic initiatives," Mates says. For example, the company's sales manager is building his own reporting suite. While he says it's good that the manager can build features himself and not have to go back and forth with the tech team, the learning curve with low-code is longer for someone who doesn't come from a tech background because they're not familiar with how a SQL query works.

"Even though low-code provides that in a visual way when joining data and providing filters … there's still just a different mindset than an operational business user uses on a day-to-day basis."

But like Harper, Mates comes from a non-technical background and ended up being the sole developer for his company's low-code platform for a year. "The platform is intuitive, but I do think you need to have a process-oriented person to be able to develop in low-code," he says.

Another issue, Mates says, was "some friction from our traditional developers that low-code wasn't real development." Initially, there wasn't much buy-in for low-code from the developers, "and that's something we struggled with." But after seeing how quickly Mates was able to build code "and the fact that you can build full-fledged apps, that concern waned over time."

What's next for low-code/no-code

As Velco continues to ride the low-code wave, it plans to soon unveil a new app for thermal ratings of its transmission system, which was developed using a low-code method in seven months. That may seem like a long time, but Harper explains that "because we are rebuilding the application from an unsupported system, there's a lot of validation to determine if the new user interface meets our internal customers' expectations and all the calculations required for the application match the old system."

While Velco plans to expand its app development team next year, Harper knows it's not a guarantee the company will find IT professionals right away.

As far as Mates is concerned, software developers want to provide value and help people do their jobs better. "If a tool can help with that, there's no reason not to buy into it," he says. And with the tech shortage not looking like it will dissipate anytime soon, "we can get back to an equilibrium if there isn't as much of a need for developers."

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.