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Why low code/no code opens doors but no panacea for skills shortages

Citizen development is not without risk but it has a bright future in the enterprise, especially as a way to handle skills gaps

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Can low code/no code ease developer skills shortages?

Ever since organisations started pushing employees to "program" macros into Excel, the idea of "citizen developers" has taken root. On one level, there’s a lot of sense in it - why force software tools and processes onto employees across multiple departments, assuming they all work the same way? Software has always needed tweaking and where possible can be manipulated to be more relevant to certain tasks. As the old saying suggests, there really is no one size fits all when it comes to application development, but that hasn’t stopped the industry from trying.

So, the idea that employees can take some sort of control over the tools and services they use is an interesting one. A lot has already been made of low code/no code application development, or citizen development, but has the hype been misplaced? It is the sort of thing that gets developers rolling their eyes. The suggestion that low code/no code can empower employees to deliver quick apps has some merit but it’s not the full story.

As Joost De Bot, vice president and general manager EMEA at data integration specialist Jitterbit says, there has been a good deal of hype in recent years for low-code application platforms (LCAPs), allowing non-programmers and business technologists to build apps without requiring IT input.

“Lately, companies have hit a bump in the road,” says De Bot. “Although anyone can now make an enterprise app, delivering value to the business is a different story.”

It’s very typical of the ebb and flow of technology trends, this initial excitement tempered with a dose of reality. For Gareth Cummins, digital practice lead at Embracent, a digital and data transformation consultancy, this is par for the course and he is keen to stress the importance of being business and not necessarily technology-led.

Citizen development - empowering key business users to rapidly build and deploy solutions - is powerful but the risks of mismanagement are also complex and can have significant repercussions,” he says. “Adoption of any solution needs a level of governance. Data and security are two of the biggest risks. All solutions need to be assessed and incorporated into the policies and procedures of an organisation to protect the enterprise from reputational damage and external threats.”

Cummins adds that rampant, uncontrolled development can happen without basic controls in place, although this is never anyone’s aim with citizen development. Instead, he urges organisations to start small, to prove the concept.

“Implement basic processes and controls for the development and deployment of code/solutions,” suggests Cummins. “Businesses should ensure that solutions adhere to enterprise policies. With the right guardrails, there’s no reason why benefits can’t be realised, and solutions expanded across the enterprise, in a way that drives flexibility without creating risk.”

Zombie apps

De Bot is more critical. He says that LCAPs are anything but low code and are definitely not snag-free. “Failure to integrate can result in free-floating zombie apps - no longer in use, maintained or delivering any value,” he says, adding that it makes sense for organisations to use pre-integrated low-code platforms, where essential apps come automatically fully integrated and connected. This level of plug and play, he suggests, limits the risk for citizen developers.

That may well be the case but as Varsha Mehta, senior market research specialist at Gartner said recently, organisations are increasingly turning to low-code development technologies to fulfil growing demands for speedy application delivery and highly customised automation workflows. To do this, they are “equipping both professional IT developers and non-IT people with diverse low-code tools to enable organisations to reach the level of digital competency and speed of delivery required for the modern agile environment.”

It mirrors the thinking behind Spotify’s shift towards citizen development, a conscious move away from its more traditional code-based approach to be more agile and quicker to market. According to the company, after initially creating a robotic process automation (RPA) centre of excellence to focus on RPA coding, IT governance, development, security and creating a service centre, it was attracted by the idea of broadening its development capabilities. That meant a shift to a platform (in this case UiPath) that would allow accounting and other departments to develop their own automations.

The aim was to enable more focused automation capabilities but also ease the burden on its hard-pressed development team. By removing constraints on development output, the business felt it would be able to evolve quickly, be more agile and proactive in delivering services.

Automation-first mindset

According to Sidney Madison Prescott, now Spotify's former global intelligent automation leader, the shift in thinking saw the business initially upskill its accountants “to build their own automations alongside the more robust, end-to-end automation of the Centre of Excellence developers.”

Manish Patel, vice president sales engineering at UiPath, says this is typical of what the company is seeing in the market. There is, he says, “a lot of traction for low-code and no-code development with customers that are taking an automation-first mindset.”

He references another customer, Ikano Bank in Sweden, as another example of how an organisation has built an internal team - in this case, 40 citizen developers - to “help scale automation quickly across its seven branches in different countries”.

Low-code tools do allow you to use internal personnel who have a certain affinity for structured thinking, without having to engage hardcore developers, engineers or programmers
Claus Jepsen, Unit4

Of course, key to this is training. Although Embracent's Cummins says that filling skills shortages isn’t a primary outcome for low-code/no-code, it is without doubt one of the benefits, especially if it frees-up or speeds-up tasks for accomplished development teams. As one of the market leaders, according to Gartner, Microsoft claims it has over seven million monthly users of its Power Apps Platform, with customer Accenture claiming its staff now spend “42% less time performing data management activities,” freeing them up to “achieve business outcomes faster.”

Most of the large enterprise software vendors have taken note and adopted some form of low-code/no-code development provision. Salesforce, ServiceNow and big ERP players such as Oracle and SAP have all enabled low-code development. For another major ERP vendor, Unit4, this has meant enriching workflows with tools and data that meet the specific requirements of customers. The advantage here is speed above and beyond the core application, something that would normally take time to deliver.

“Low-code tools help to scale ERP functionality,” says Claus Jepsen, CTO at Unit4. “It means that when an organisation comes to transform the ERP, it can leave the core system in a more standardised form, then create extensions, integrations and customisations using these tools outside the core without impacting it. This makes it much easier to get faster returns on ERP transformation, because companies don’t have to wait for specific extensions to be built into the core system.”

Muddy waters

Given the potential complexity of ERP integrations this could, if left to run freely, surely muddy the waters. A team of citizen developers let loose on core ERP applications doesn’t feel like a great idea, so is it having an impact on skills at least?

“I wouldn’t go as far as saying it will create an army of citizen developers,” says Jepsen, “but these low-code tools do allow you to use internal personnel who have a certain affinity for structured thinking, without having to engage hardcore developers, engineers or programmers. It does help with the skills shortage in this sense, as highly technical developers are difficult to recruit, as well as being expensive. If a company can provide training and supervision to its people with the right aptitude, it will have a ready-made pool of internal resources to use efficiently.”

Low-code/no-code isn’t a panacea for solving the developer skills shortage but it’s certainly part of the overall solution to do so. The drive for automation is central to this. As Misa Singh, analyst at GlobalData, suggests, low code is recognised as a connected toolset to implement automation programs more successfully in the face of escalating prices, skill shortages, and changing consumer expectations. Low-code architecture using prebuilt templates, API-microservices, and workflow automation allows firms to address the present skill shortage and offset deploying expensive IT resources.

Fair enough but as Cummins adds, this has to come with a few caveats, the important one being: don’t over-complicate things that don’t need over-complicating. While speed is important to organisations and a benefit of citizen development, scale is less so. But what about innovation? All those extra minds with newly acquired development skills have to be beneficial surely? At the end of the day, it really comes down to making things work better for less.

“When driven and supported through the IT function, citizen developers can be more widespread across the business,” says Cummins. “They enable and empower people who genuinely understand the business challenges to take action without being bogged down in ‘traditional’ IT.  It’s not necessarily innovation but ‘speed with purpose’ shouldn’t be underestimated. Most business teams don’t want or need something truly differentiating – they just want things to work well, quickly and efficiently.”

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