Digital transformation is driving higher demand for low-code/no-code tools. As more business tasks and processes are translated into software, the pace of business is accelerating further. Without low-code and no-code development, organizations are going to find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with their competitors.

“If we look at basic issues companies have now, what we often hear is, ‘I can’t build applications fast enough and by the time I build them the specs have changed,’ ” said Rob Koplowitz, VP and principal analyst at Forrester

Clearly, Agile, DevOps, and CI/CD have all helped accelerate software development and deployment. Low-code and no-code tools provide additional assistance for both developers and “citizen developers.” 

Who are citizen developers?
A citizen developer is a power user working in a line of business who is capable of using no-code tools. It’s the same type of individual who was most likely to take advantage of Rapid Application Development (RAD) tools 

RELATED ARTICLE: Low-code/no-code: Not your dad’s RAD

The Gartner IT glossary defines a citizen developer as “a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT.  In the past, end-user application development has typically been limited to single-user or workgroup solutions built with tools like Microsoft Excel and Access. However, today, end users can build departmental, enterprise and even public applications using shared services, fourth-generation language (4GL)-style development platforms and cloud computing services.”

The definition stresses an important point: Governance, since the barrier to SaaS use is low. 

“Citizen developers are end users whose full-time job is not development but they’re able to contribute in some way by building apps for their own use or for the team or for their department,” said Jason Wong, VP analyst at Gartner. “We are seeing more interest from the client base around low-code and we are seeing success in a variety of large, international companies to small companies.”

The right tool for the right job
The best way to ensure finest-grain control over an application is to write the code from scratch. Some developers dismiss low-code and no-code tools on the same basis they dismissed RAD tools in the past. Their sentiment tends to be, real developers code. 

“When professional developers say, ‘I’ll never use that tool, I need more power and flexibility,’ we sometimes refer to that as ‘developer machismo,’ ” said Forrester’s Koplowitz. “A lot of developer machismo is what killed Lotus Notes. It’s not a real development tool. We’ll never use it. But that’s falling by the wayside because we simply can’t train enough professional developers to do it the old-fashioned way. We’re going to have to do it faster, easier and better.”

Forrester recognizes three types of developers: professional developers who will not use low-code or no-code tools, professional developers who will use low-code or no-code tools, and business developers (aka citizen developers). The distinction reflects two spectra: the level of coding expertise and a willingness to use low-code or no-code tools. The three classes are not mutually exclusive; in fact, most organizations need all three.

“When it comes to low-code tools, I think organizations are proceeding with healthy caution, particularly in IT, but the business units and small, medium-sized businesses certainly look to low-code tools as a way to even the playing field with larger competitors and as a way to get more efficiency and productivity out of their [organization’s] development efforts,” said Gartner’s Wong. 

That’s not to say that low-code or no-code tools solve all problems themselves; they’re not designed to do that. They’re designed to alleviate burdens where burdens can be alleviated so organizations have the luxury of using deep development expertise where it’s needed most.

Justin Rodenbostel, executive director at digital transformation agency SPR, said his firm sees obvious low-code/no-code appeal in environments where digital transformation is a goal and quick wins are needed to generate momentum for change. The tools also provide a quick means of validating a proof of concept.

It’s a way to show off what’s possible in terms of modern software engineering and break the cycle of bureaucratic hurdles that slow time to market,” said Rodenbostel. 

Low-code/no-code tools may not be the best option for providing unique user experiences that aren’t available anywhere else if one simply uses out-of-the-box capabilities. 

“Low-code/no-code solutions are great at what they’re good at, but once you step outside that and you need to do something custom, customizing these solutions usually comes at a high price,” said Rodenbostel. “You have to be really cognizant of when these tools are actually the wrong tool and when to reinvest in something custom. They’re great for quick wins, but not always great as a run-your-business-over-the-long-term platform.”

How to succeed with low-code/no-code
Professional developers can’t write application code in a vacuum and simply hope for the best results in production. They have to consider the ecosystem in which the code will run, which fueled the DevOps movement. Citizen developers aren’t trained to think in the same way. Their approach to application development tends to focus on the problem at hand, such as simplifying a task or workflow.

“Our position on citizen development is that they should be free to build the apps that they want to build. [However,] there needs to be a community of these citizen developers that shares knowledge, that shares what’s already built, that helps citizen developers support one another, that helps in applying some level of self-governance so all these things don’t fall back into IT’s lap,” said Gartner’s Wong. “Set up the citizen development environment and the policies in such a way that provides citizen developers with freedom once they get the basic training.”

By a comparison, simply providing a login and telling citizen developers to build whatever they want without any governance or training isn’t a sound strategy from an organizational perspective. 

“When I tell [an audience] you’re going to have to build a whole bunch more software and you’re going to have to do it in the context of customer journeys and digital transformation, you’re probably going to have to standardize on this stuff because [you’re going to want] a single way of training people how to develop [applications] using the tools, a single way of accessing assets, a single way of controlling governance because what looks like your whole process today will begin to span broader processes,” said Forrester’s Koplowitz. “There’s certainly the mindset of just give me a cheap tool, let me use it and let it grow virally, which is fine from an experimental perspective, but ultimately you have to think of these things in terms of standards. Standards are going to be your friend in digital transformation because digital transformation touches so much of your organization.”

A portfolio view across software development projects regardless of who’s building them and what tools they’re using is also advantageous.

“If your low-code/no-code solution has a chance to morph into an additional or duplicate system of record, you have a problem on your hands,” said SPR’s Rodenbostel. “The idea that a business unit can bring their own product to market sounds great on paper but there should be the overarching perspective of how it fits into the rest of the ecosystem to avoid some of the problems that RAD created in the past. There still needs to be collaboration with IT to make sure that the solutions being built can be easily maintained.”

There’s also the question of what “success” means because success at one level may create challenges at another level. For example, if a citizen developer built something that later became a business-critical app used by a much larger community or across departments or divisions, a project hand-off to IT may be wise. Similarly, if the functionality of a citizen developer app evolved to the point of needing to access customer data in the CRM via an API, it may be that the professional development team has to open up the API. Alternatively, a citizen developer may need IT’s help building a capability that can’t be accomplished in a no-code tool.

“There are citizen developers that will do fairly sophisticated things because they come from a technical background, so it kind of varies, but the IT organization has to work with the business to define those boundaries and what those feelings are when it comes to business-criticality and application complexity,” said Gartner’s Wong.  “You have to understand who your citizen developers are going to be, what is the range of apps they’re going to build and how are you going to set up the community so they’re self-supporting and at what point should IT step in and take over those apps if it becomes too much for the citizen developer to handle. When an app becomes too complex and when it requires too much testing then you ought to think about moving it to more of a professional developer-owned application.”

Citizen development initiatives are meant to remove some of the burden from IT so professional developers aren’t tasked with a backlog of apps that the business wants and needs. Apparently, some of Gartner’s clients are concerned that apps built by citizen developers will eventually burden IT with the app’s ongoing maintenance. To proactively manage the situation, some organizations are creating positions that oversee citizen development.

“Some companies have a manager or director of citizen development or a manager or low-code tools to oversee all the activity that’s going on to make sure that there is a mutual understanding between the business and IT of what’s happening, share best practices within different teams and groups and be a facilitator of that community,” said Wong. “That ultimately takes burden away from the IT organization and allows them to focus on some of the more strategic applications.”

 The road ahead
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects software development jobs to grow by 24% between 2016 and 2026, which is 3.5 times the 7% projected for all jobs. Oft-cited numbers from 2013 projected 1.4 million developer jobs and only 400,000 developers to fill them by 2020. Naturally, the numbers have helped fuel the momentum of low-code and no-code tools.

“Just because Fred and Sally built a bunch of great applications doesn’t mean the rest of the organization is interested in that, so there’s a lot of work to be done between now and when we embrace low-code tools like we embrace Excel today,” said Forrester’s Koplowitz. “There’s a whole other aspect of this that says a company becoming a software company operates differently. A company adopting a software-first mindset has cultural change management challenges.”

There’s an increasing number of educational programs for children and adults teach coding for professional or personal development purposes.

“Even business degrees have [a coding] class, so the chances you’re going to have somebody in a business role write a little code are higher than ever,” said SPR’s Rodenbostel. “Everybody is better served by working in an environment where there are tons of collaboration between the business and IT. I think if you want to go down the low-code/no-code route, bring someone in IT so you don’t go off the rails so you know when to say when.”

AI and machine learning are already influencing the direction of tools since they’re model-driven and collect a lot of data about how users are constructing processes, building UIs and connecting to different systems.

“They’re going to use that information and provide more suggestions and more AI-augmented development which will enable both professional developers and citizen developers to build higher quality apps,” said Gartner’s Wong. “[The users of these tools] will also be able to build apps quicker because the tools will give you suggestions.”

One helpful AI technique is natural language processing, which, when available, replaces visual commands such as dragging and dropping as well as pointing and clicking.

Low-code versus no-code

Should organizations adopt low-code tools or no-code tools? The answer tends to have less to do with the tools and more about who will use them and for what purpose. According to Forrester, there are some developers who build everything from scratch, developers who use low-code tools, and business users who use the easiest of low-code tools, which are marketed as “no-code.” 

It should be noted that neither Forrester nor Gartner recognize no-code tools as a class distinct from low-code tools. Both consider low-code tools to encompass a spectrum ranging from visual tools to tools that require coding expertise. According to Rob Koplowitz, VP and principal analyst at Forrester, low-code is a more accurate description since the tools tend to require some professional development support to get them deployed. 

“There’s always this escape hatch out that you can write some script or write some module in Java or .NET or JavaScript and plug it back into the tool, so these no-code tools say they’re no code, but there’s always some way to get out and create something customized that plugs back in,” said Jason Wong, VP analyst at Gartner. “Yes, of course, there’s code somewhere but the person building the app doesn’t care if the code is .NET, Java or some new language. A lot of times, it’s also tied to specific types of application use cases, so it’s already pre-built to work with SharePoint, Salesforce or SAP. A lot of times no-code is about ease of use and faster time to market.”

Suresh Sambandam, CEO of no-code tool provider KiSSFLOW, draws a somewhat different distinction. In his view, software providers including ISVs build software from scratch while companies whose core competency is something else (retail, insurance, healthcare) are ripe for low-code and no-code tools.

“When you try to do the entire SDLC [software development life cycle] for a simple process, it becomes prohibitive to do this automation and to go from manual to digital transformation,” said Sambandam “The coding effort may be two to three days, but the SDLC process is going to take  two to three weeks. The same process can be done on a no-code platform in less than 30 minutes.”

Following are some of the characteristics of low-code and no-code tools:

Low-Code No-Code
Target Audience
  • Professional developers
  • Non-developers with business domain knowledge who have a deep understanding of related processes and tasks
Benefits (may vary depending on the vendor)
  • Faster time to market
  • Can be supplemented with custom code easily
  • Visibility into application development
  • May connect to enterprise assets
  • May include built-in compliance and certifications
  • Speed
  • Don’t have to wait for developers
  • Visibility into application development
  • May connect to enterprise assets
  • May include built-in compliance and certifications
Use cases
  • POCs, prototyping
  • Applications that don’t require complete custom coding
  • Applications previously built with RAD tools that need greater functionality and scalability
  • Potentially complex, mission-critical applications
  • Tasks, processes, applications that don’t require custom coding
  • Applications previously built with RAD tools
Potential drawbacks (may vary depending on the vendor)
  • Scalability, functional limitations without coding
  • UI limitations without coding
  • Security
  • May not be viable for very complex applications
  • Scalability, functional limitations, UI limitations
  • Security
  • Likely not good for very complex applications
Vendor type
  • Low-code platform or tool vendor
  • Traditional development tool vendor
  • No-code platform or tool vendor
  • Traditional development tool vendor
Best practice tips
  • Have good governance in place
  • TCO versus traditional development may vary
  • Have good governance in place
  • TCO versus traditional development may vary