Low-code development becoming business skill ‘table stakes’

A shortage of software developers and IT workers in general is forcing businesses to turn to “citizen developers” within their organizations to create business applications supporting digital transformation efforts.

Finding workers with software development skills, or training them in-house, is becoming a priority, according to John Bratincevic, a senior analyst at Forrester. When speaking with business clients, he says, the most common question he gets is how they can stand up and scale a citizen development strategy.

What makes citizen development possible is a raft of low-code and no-code development platforms, which enable business users with little to no coding experience to develop apps based on business needs. Companies are leveraging these platforms to create “hundreds or thousands of citizen developers in their organizations. They want to know how to nurture people, so they become really skilled in low-code,” Bratincevic said. 

“In my opinion, where this is all going is low-code development will just be table stakes for the business worker — just like personal productivity tools,” he added. 

Low-code on the rise

A January survey by research firm IDC of 380 enterprises showed that 49% of respondents are purchasing low-code or no-code platforms to move innovation in-house. The second-largest reason for purchasing the software tools (39%) was “pandemic-related needs.”

In 2021, the global market for low-code development technology hit $13.8 billion in revenue. And the adoption of low-code software development platforms is growing by more than 20% a year, according to research firm Gartner. By 2023, low-code development is expected to be adopted by more than half of all medium- to large-sized companies.

Low-code development tools abstract away the more commonly used code base and replace it with a graphical user interface or visual “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) interface to build an application. The technology enables employees who may not have a technical background to become citizen developers, expanding opportunities beyond the traditional hiring pool or day-to-day workflow. Additionally, low-code tools allow traditional developers to focus on more challenging tasks while others handle simpler development jobs with low-code technology.

team working on a project Thinkstock

While there are dozens of companies offering low-code and no-code toolsets, leaders in the marketplace are OutSystems, Mendix, Microsoft, Salesforce, and ServiceNow, according to Gartner. Platforms sold by Appian, Oracle, and Pega are considered “challengers” to those leaders.

Business units understand business application needs

Cloud computing software provider ServiceNow said that more than 80% of its customer base now uses its low-code solution, App Engine. And App Engine’s active developer base grows by 47% every month, the company said.

Marcus Torres, general manager of the App Engine Business at ServiceNow, said the ability to create business applications with low-code and no-code tools is becoming an expected skill set for businesses. Much of that is because the business side of the house understands the application needs of a company better than an IT shop.

The millennials and younger workers that make up the majority of today’s workforce are far more comfortable with technology, including software development, than older workers. “They understand there is an app that provides some utility for them,” Torres said. “With these [low-code] platforms, people typically try it out, get some initial success, and then try to do more.”

Torres has seen groups ranging from facilities teams to human resources departments develop applications, with the development work done by people who typically don’t have technology pedigree.

For example, employees of ServiceNow’s cafeteria team created a food menu application using App Engine’s low-code tools. After the menu went live, employees asked if they’d be able to order their food through the app, so the facilities team expanded app to include food orders using the same tool sets. Then, of course, the app needed to include a payment system to purchase the orders, so it evolved further.

app engine studio and app engine templates ServiceNow

ServiceNow’s App Engine graphical interface (click image to enlarge it)

“They [employees] typically start with a form-based app, then find they want to do more,” Torres said.

One of ServiceNow’s clients, Deloitte UK, created a portal using App Engine for everything employees need to do their job. Within the portal is a “MyOnboarding” app that digitized the onboarding process, including previously paper forms that were printed, scanned, then emailed. Employees can also use the portal to find upcoming holidays and book meeting rooms. Human resources is a major user of low-code development tools, according to Sarah Pfuhl, vice president of Global Talent Development at ServiceNow.

HR is a hotbed for citizen development because business needs there are constantly evolving — particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic and the rise of remote work. In fact, Pfuhl’s department’s most used application was created by an HR employee who simply saw a pain point and found a fix for it.

Prior to creating an online hub for learning and development (L&D), Pfuhl’s HR team would email back and forth with employees seeking education opportunities. The process was arduous, time consuming, and not scalable as the company grew.

The HR team was able to use low-code to build a new L&D hub that centralized all training programs in less than one month to better engage the company’s 17,000 employees worldwide. They were then able to add in a learning program nomination process in under a week with those same tools.

“This woman was not a developer, and she only started doing HR a few years ago,” Pfuhl said. “She created the L&D hub all using low-code in a week. Then she went to our digital technology team to make sure it was within our business’ governance and went to the business to make sure made it correctly for them.”

“As soon as she could show what the product would become and what it could do for people, everyone jumped on board,” Pfuhl continued. Since launching in February, the L&D hub has been used by 3,500 unique users over the last one month.

“There’s just no way would have had that engagement level without that hub,” Pfuhl said. “I do think [low-code is] the wave of the future. Just like all other digital transformations, HR will have to embrace this as well.

“I think we know what our people want. We do a lot of listening,” she continued. “If a company is doing right, it’s because you’re doing what employees are telling you they need. They want workflow. They want it to be easy to use. You want it iPhone easy.”

Keeping citizen developers from going rogue

Critical to launching any new app created by a citizen developer is governance, Pfuhl pointed out. You can’t just launch an app; once it’s built, the business side should always consult with the IT side to ensure it fits within corporate guidelines.

“I have to tell you, from now on I’m looking for that product mindset in my team, because I think this is going to become the future,” Pfuhl said.

Schneider Electric, a digital automation and energy management provider with about 130,000 employees worldwide, has had a citizen development program for the past seven years.

Abha Dogra, senior vice president of Digital Technology and North America CIO at Schneider Electric, said governance and management to avoid app sprawl are key to a successful low-code, no-code strategy for development.

app engine management center ServiceNow

ServiceNow’s App Engine app management center (click image to enlarge it)

Otherwise, business applications created outside of the traditional development process can expose an enterprise to vulnerabilities, such as cyber security attacks, and the creation of non-scalable digital assets. It can also increase a company’s “technical debt,” or the cost of additional development that comes from choosing an easy solution over a more thorough approach.

“Your use cases typically start with a small problem, but incrementally they become bigger and require a full-blown software application with hardening development, and proper testing with checks and balances for threat modeling. It’s a very thin line when suddenly a small use case, which was perfect for low-code/no-code, suddenly enters into the space of a full-blown application,” Dogra said.

“So, while there’s a need for every enterprise to have a low-code/no-code platform, the launch and the introduction of it for citizen developers should be well thought out and have a well-governed mechanism behind it,” Dogra added.

ServiceNow’s Torres agreed with Dogra, saying that while IT departments have always had to contend with “shadow IT,” low-code and no-code tools have exacerbated the need for carefully planned governance.

ServiceNow’s platform allows users to create a Center of Excellence for governance and rules around development against which every application created can be checked.

“People who don’t do software for a living don’t understand that the highest cost is not associated with building apps but maintaining them. In the past, you’d see departments build an app and then say, ‘Here you go, IT. It’s yours now,’” Torres said. “IT’s like, ‘Whoa. One, I never knew about this application; two, I’m not staffed for it; and three, what is it?’”

“It’s not because IT doesn’t want to partner [with citizen developers] and help. It’s because ultimately, they’re responsible for the security of systems and data throughout the company,” Torres said. “They don’t want this app sprawl… where they turn around and there are 10,000 apps they don’t know about.”

Ultimately, citizen development programs should offer IT visibility into any application that’s created prior to it going live, which also ensures the software stays within an organization’s security and regulatory guardrails.

“That’s how you do things at scale and how you ensure there’s no issue that could be a security or compliance issue,” Torres said.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

Business And General