Programming won’t go away but extensibility is a worthwhile substitute for many tasks

This is a guest blogpost by Claus Jepsen, CTO, Unit4

Programming has made more farewells than Frank Sinatra, but the difference being that “Old Blue Eyes” eventually played one final concert, whereas programming isn’t going to go away.

Year after year, pundits float a new meme: low-code/no-code systems will mean the end of the need to hand code or (the latest universal panacea) ChatGPT will become all-powerful and obviate the need for software engineers. Let’s be clear: there is no prospect whatsoever that at some point in the future we won’t need to code. Indeed, quite the reverse is true. But what is also true is that we have come a long way in reducing bespoke coding and replacing that with software extensibility.

We will always need software, but we don’t always need to write it. Software extensibility provides the tools for third parties, such as vendor channel partners, to add to programs in a fast and elegant way. It’s not new but it is certainly coming of age, as the uber-trend for many years now has been away from customers generating unique custom code and towards a more building-block approach. Low-code programs are useful for junior programmers or others needing to build fairly simple software or test code, and AI-assisted code will effectively remove some grunt work for programmers, leaving space for them to weave their magic on top. But in ERP especially, extensibility is the key to creating the integration glue and extra features or vertical industry smarts that customers often need.

A lesson from ERP history 

To better frame what has been happening, consider the history of ERP. When demand swelled in the late 1990s, in part for fear of consequences of the Millennium Bug, many companies perceived that they needed bespoke programming to cater for their unique needs. This led to a related boom in consulting services, very drawn-out installations and complex maintenance needs to turn what were effectively monolithic slabs of software into something closer to customers’ ideas of what they needed to run their operations.

Fast-forward to today and few companies want to recruit an army of programmers. The trend, hastened by cloud services with built-in best practices, is to use minimal bespoke programming and instead focus on extensibility to integrate the ERP with third-party systems, or to attach extras such as industry-specific add-ons. The dawning realization is that few industry processes are truly unique, and it is a wiser investment to focus on making differentiated products or services rather than exclusive processes.

Time to demand extensibility

Today, CIOs and CTOs need to demand extensibility and reject attempts to lock them into proprietary systems that work well for vendors but horribly for buyers. Instead, they should seek out ERP systems that can easily integrate with other software, without the need to code in the vendor’s preferred language or to spend heavily on extra modules.

Extension packs should be freely distributed to partners and other third parties, as well as customers, to liberate creativity and help customers gain the benefits of a ‘hive mind’ – in much the same way that open-source software provides a smorgasbord of programs.

Once you start with extensibility, the only real gating factor is human imagination. We’ve seen partners craft automatic Outlook calendar scheduling, log workflow completions on our Wanda digital assistant, sync Jira project management timesheets and automate credit checking for purchase orders. Combine this menu of software add-ons with a microservices architecture and out-of-the-box industry best practices, and customers see vast benefits, time-to-market acceleration, and cost savings.

The instant age

We live in a time of instant gratification. People want to move fast and not wait months to adapt systems to work in the way they want them to. We can only achieve this by fostering ecosystems, so we do not squander our time reinventing the wheel and repeating functionality on a one-off basis.

Salesforce scored a marketing hit with its ‘No Software’ logo and the low-code/no-code movement has made a splash too. But the fact is that we still need coders who can create unique programs and understand data models to avoid architectural issues, such as those caused by downstream dependencies.

Think of programming like a car. As an everyday driver you may not know much about how the engine under the hood works and very likely don’t know how to fix it when the car refuses to run. When things go wrong in a car or in software, you need an engineer to understand internal complexity and dependencies.

Like Isaac Newton and countless others, we see further when standing on the shoulders of giants, so working with partners and established libraries of code makes sense. At a time when programmers are so in demand, we need to make the best possible use of our available resources. So, take advantage of low-code/no-code today and even ChatGPT when (don’t hold your breath) they can finally parse 1,000-page RFPs and software specifications and spit out code accordingly. But don’t forget the ready-made programs and integrations that are at your fingertips already and provide the functionality, convenience, and speed that all organisations need today.

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