It’s not a new idea. The use of rapid application development tools, application service providers, and drag-and-drop visual frameworks that got you 80% of the way to an application, have been tossed around for at least the past 10 to 15 years.

The thinking was, if you could give line-of-business workers and other stakeholders the ability to create apps that serve their needs, they wouldn’t have to bog down developers—who were working on much more important jobs for the business—with creating a new automated workflow to get a vacation request approved. Thus, the concept of the “citizen developer” was born, and tools like Visual Basic and Microsoft Access were the first tools of the new trade.

Today, the low-code application platform landscape has several elements to it. In fact, Forrester Research identifies a number of segments in this growing market, which it says will reach US$15.4 billion in revenue by 2020. The five market segments it has identified are general-purpose platforms, and platforms for process, database, request handling and mobile applications.

(Related: Five reasons low-code development is no longer optional)

There are, of course, many questions that need to be answered before a company acquires a low-code solution: Why now? What is the strategic advantage? How do you even define who a “developer” is?

One of the key factors driving the low-code market is speed. Low-code solutions “let the person closest to the problem solve the problem,” said Frank Zamani, founder and CEO of business process PaaS provider Caspio. “You can respond to user feedback more quickly, and the business community can now take advantage of iterations that have advanced science for years. It’s a more scientific approach to the application.”

Millennials expect more
Dave Landa, COO of Kintone, a no-code solution developed as a teamwork product by Japanese company Cybozu, sees a societal shift as a main driver behind these types of tools. “More and more younger managers, more of the millennials, are getting into the workforce; they’re expecting these consumer-type services,” he said. “They want something that works quickly and easily. If their company doesn’t give them something that works for them, they’ll go out and find something that meets their needs. That’s the shadow IT portion. This leads into the citizen developer: ‘There’s nothing out here that works for me; I’ll figure out how to build it.’ The more we can support these folks with a low-code or no-code platform, the more these apps will be built.”

It’s important, then, for organizations to become advocates of these kinds of solutions, rather than adversaries. “The vast majority of our actual clients in large enterprises are coming from younger managers overseeing a business unit or operation where they can’t find the solution that’s perfect for them off the shelf, and IT isn’t helping them find something quickly, and they go out and find it,” Landa continued. “They use a little bit of our services and quickly create and deploy a business solution. Obviously, the business process folks or IT people have to touch it for integrations with other services, but it’s being driven by younger managers who believe they can get it done more quickly and efficiently than someone else, because I know my business.”

One of the early barriers to low-code solution adoption was the fear in IT that control would be handed over to non-technical people, and professional developers feared these tools would take work away from them.

“IT developers don’t like having to add a field or rerun a report with different filtering. It’s just not a great use of their time,” said Karen Devine, vice president of marketing at Quickbase. “To give that last mile over to the business users, and even have the business owners take more ownership. They know the process best and know how to optimize it. It’s really IT empowering them with the technology. I don’t believe we’ll ever have enough developers in the world—deep coders that can do both the really complex things that I don’t see a shortage of demand for, and still serve the easy stuff. It’s not leveraging their skills in the best way.”

Derek Roos, CEO at low-code tool provider Mendix, said developers who think these solutions will take away their jobs are missing the point.

“We never wanted to replace developers with business people. Our idea is collaboration,” he said. “You bring the stakeholders together in the creative process, and in the development process and enabling that collaboration is a low-code or visual approach that provides a common language.”

That approach, Roos said, is not what people think about when discussing low-code tools. “They think of end-user enablement, and that gets IT nervous.”

Three types of developers
Roos looks at different types of developers. First is the professional developer on the IT side. Next is the scripter or business-unit-level IT person. Finally, you have the power-user administration, or what is called the “citizen developer.”

“Project success rates are stuck. More than 50% still run over time and budget,” Roos pointed out. “Making [professional] developers more productive is not the answer. It’s in the collaboration.”

The future is not so much developer productivity as it is enterprise productivity, said Michael Beckley, CTO of Appian. Low-code platforms provide a way for this new breed of citizen developer to socialize or discover existing apps.

“Back when we were kids, it was a form and a database, and you were off and running,” he said. “That was the promise of the PC. Jobs and Woz [Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak] said we’d all be creators with the Apple II. So what’s different? We could be writing BASIC on Apple IIs. Why don’t they work? Why not use 4GLs, which created visual models for creating apps? The code required to put things into production is the barrier.”

Another element fueling low-code platforms is the cloud, which make today’s low-code solutions more robust than the earlier generation of tools. Cloud-based low-code platforms “are able to predict, and personalize, and be secure,” Beckley said. “Most citizen developers are lost” with having to create those personalizations and security features themselves.

“The cloud creates another level of efficiency from an agility and building standpoint but also from a deployment standpoint,” Kintone’s Landa said. “The drag-and-drop stuff, templates in a library you can quickly pull up and update, an Excel spreadsheet conversion tool, all rolled into a centralized cloud app, and add on some of the other services, like a process management tool and a powerful notification engine…it’s totally configurable.”

The recognition of the economics and efficiency of the cloud are important drivers, but people “still have to pay attention to data security,” Landa said.

“For process automation and data management, the market is believing in it,” Caspio’s Zamani said. “The cloud is gaining more recognition and trust, and people are asking, ‘What tools are available if I move my data to the cloud?’ ”

Where does it go from here?
Security is one area these low-code solutions need to work on, and so is compliance, according to Zamani. “The needs in privacy and security, because of things like HIPAA, will continue to rise.” So will the need for third-party tools and services integrations.

Quickbase spun out from Intuit, where it served as the low-code solution for building apps on top of Intuit’s QuickBooks small-business accounting solution, Quickbase’s Devine said, so they have the small-business aspect covered. It’s building out the enterprise features where work is being done.

“We take an extreme position on the way to win is to abstract as much of the complexity as possible because the more that IT can then trust that the business user can build on their own, that leverages IT the best,” she said. “Other players that come from the code side are adding ease, but it’s hard to get simple. So our road map in the next year or so is how can we get even better at governance and controls. Historically, that wasn’t a big deal in our customer base.”

And IT is getting on board with low-code tools as well. “IT realizes they’re talking to a more sophisticated customer” in the millennial managers moving into decision-making positions at organizations, Devine said. “IT was saying no, no, no, but it just happened” that new technology found its way into the back door—just as phones and other new technology has—in the “shadow IT realm.”

As low-code picks up steam, Devine said, “It does feel like it was a ‘no, no, no, never, never, never… well, OK’ kind of switch.”

Introducing ‘citizen integrators’
The rise of the Internet of Things and connected devices is making Big Data more important than ever. With Big Data and the integration of business solutions such as Salesforce, developers can now make sense of and gain insight from previously inaccessible data, according to Craig Stewart, vice president of product management for SnapLogic.

“This is the moment when the connected world is taking hold, when with Big Data it becomes possible to deal with the previously unmanageable sources of data that are being generated—including the exhaust of IoT, connected devices, logs and so on,” he said. “We now have an infrastructure to be able to gather and make sense of it all, with analytics capable of deriving valuable information from it, and with the accessibility of new forward-looking analytics provided by data science and machine learning.”

However, with this new explosion of sources and increased value of Big Data, there are not enough people to help sort through all of the data. According to Stewart, there needs to be people in an organization that can make data available in a usable and consumable format. He called it the rise of the citizen integrator. Similarly to citizen developers (business users who have begun to create and develop applications with low-code solutions), a citizen integrator is a line-of-business user who can derive value out of the data they are working with, without having to get to know an application at the API level.

The problem is there aren’t enough tools for line-of-business users to be able to understand and manipulate data without having in-depth knowledge about the application.

“It is a pyramid of professional capabilities, with the much sought-after ‘data scientist’ at the top of the pyramid, a rare resource,” said Stewart. “If we can enable people lower down the pyramid with these skills by providing a platform with intelligent defaults and built-in capabilities to help enable those users, there is a much greater opportunity for citizen integrators to play an important role in enterprises.”

While there are strides being made to make data more accessible and visible to users, it isn’t enough, according to Stewart. “The citizen integrator is definitely our target. We are trying to enable them to actually be able to consume and build this data without them having to have the complex knowledge of the application or of the IT technology,” he said.

“One of the challenges that we all face in trying to achieve this is that nobody wants Microsoft Office’s Clippy on their screen again, but they do want a system that provides assistance more intelligently to the user.”

How to reach the elusive citizen developer
Al Hilwa is an analyst with IDC who wrote the report, “The Evolving State of PaaS, Part 1: Model-Driven PaaS for the Elusive Citizen Developer.” I had a chance to discuss with him the state of these platforms and what low-code solutions can mean for an organization.

SD Times: Is there such as thing as a citizen developer?
Hilwa: There is an explosion of people trying to pick up the programming, which helps this movement. But generally, business users who discover an aptitude for app building tend to make a permanent shift to professional development over time. On the other hand, all knowledge workers are using more data science and coding type activities in the mainstream work cycle than before, and many more are increasingly engaged in digital transformation as stakeholders in agile teams or business product managers.

I think the key issue with citizen development is their aptitude for constructing and managing such apps on a life-cycle basis. Training is required…but for complex shared apps, a keen sense of user requirement and design and some level of skill on how concurrent access to shared data can be developed in an app is typically needed. The most important point is that after apps are developed, they need to be maintained and evolved. I think there is a huge category of apps that are presentational or compositional in nature, and this is where citizen developers will be most engaged.

Does this change how we define who is a “developer”?
There have always been different types of developers. I think the notion of developer has always been broad enough to encompass low-code solutions. We used to call these RAD or even CASE tools a long time ago, and often they needed developer skills to really use anyway. In more recent decades we saw the emergence of what was known for a time as “PC database apps,” which required less rigorous skills to build apps. Some of these solutions continue today, like FileMaker and Microsoft Access, and there are many apps that are written with them. However, the level of sophistication of what can be done graphically with modern low-code solutions has increased considerably, and they are reaching more into analysts who have not been trained in coding before.

But, as I point out in my report, coding is only a small piece of the app “production” effort. There is the upfront requirements and design work and the lifetime of maintenance and evolution. This is especially so in our lean/agile world where an app is often just an MVP for something that will be iterated on continually… So basically, to the extent they are successful, anyone responsible for building low-code apps will have to make a career commitment to the activity in the long run. So yes, they are effectively part of the world of developers.

In the past, companies needed a liaison between the non-technical business side and the non-business-savvy development teams: the business analyst. Does the idea of a citizen developer replace the role of business analyst?
I think the business analyst is one role that is being folded into this. As business shifts to more digital products or more software ingredient in all products, then all business becomes about the production of software or at least partially software-based products. In many ways, the buying side of IT begins to look indistinguishable from the supplying side of IT. Every company becomes in some way a tech vendor.

One of the drivers is the perceived need for speed. Will this add to an organization’s agility and responsiveness, or will it be a step back at first?
I think organizations have to make a commitment to allocating resources to the activity of building such apps. Employees with the right skills and aptitude have to be hired or tapped and re-allocated to this activity. I think it is an approach to business agility where there is a need for a certain class of user-centric apps. These are often mobile productivity solutions and/or internal automation of workflows and processes in need of formalization due to business growth. It just may be too prohibitively expensive to hire skilled coders who are increasingly working in new hubs of the digital economy.

Christina Mulligan contributed to this story.