Marc Dowd
Marc Dowd (Principal, European Client Advisory)

One of the ongoing themes of the IT industry is the shortage of developers: it’s been a concern for the length of the industry itself. However, IDC recently found the gap between demand and supply of IT professionals is threatening the implementation of digital transformation (DX) across Europe. It represents, on average, a delay of 8.1 months for DX projects. Skills development and matching is becoming a bottleneck, if not the main bottleneck, for successful business and digital transformation.

IDC’s EMEA Accelerated App Delivery Survey finds that over 50% of European organisations are looking to expand their internal software development capabilities, exploit and build co-creation models (across customer, supplier, industry platforms), and expand their developer ecosystems.

This has led to the emergence of the low-code/no-code movement, where software projects are driven by and staffed by business teams who are not professional software developers.

It’s a growing trend: one survey last year suggested that low code/no code will be a priority for nearly all (96%) IT decision makers for two reasons: a lack of software engineers and new pressure on businesses, partly due to COVID-19.

Given the growing interest in the phenomenon, the latest IDC Digital Leadership Community (DLC) gathering of CIOs looked at how their companies were coping and what levels of involvement in these tools and methods they were seeing.

New Generation of Tools

Introducing the debate, IDC’s Marc Dowd said he’d had some experience in an early form of the low-code movement when he worked on fourth-generation languages on AS/400 IBM machines — an initiative that died an early death partly because it was something still aimed at developers and partly because it only got him 80% there.

But he explained that things have now changed and there are something like 40 or 50 different low-code/no-code tools available. “It’s now got to a level of sophistication so that anyone can do it: you no longer have to play the frustrating and time-consuming game of transferring ideas into software via intermediaries.”

This growing interest in low-code/no-code platforms (although “citizen development” was the phrase favoured by many of the speakers) was endorsed by quite a few participants in the meeting, all of whom stressed the boosts to productivity that they had gained from using these methods. One speaker said, “I like the way that we can develop so fast, it’s proven to be the right platform.”

More Than Dragging Boxes

The previous speaker was scathing about those who were sceptical about the low-code/no-code phenomenon: “Citizen development is a bit more than just dragging boxes. It speeds things up because we don’t have to give every request to developers.”

Another told of how he’d managed to speed up the processes: “We use low code, we provide the platforms, we provide the training and the knowledge and explain what is permitted. It’s got us out of a bottleneck.”

However, the same DLC member pointed out that there were still governance issues (although partly because there were strict laws in the host country) and this remains a hurdle to be overcome.

There was some agreement here too. “There is a problem with governance,” said another speaker. “We don’t allow low code/no code to be connected to corporate data without following the process. If it’s something that’s being connected to our crown jewels, we can and must intervene.”

Spreading the Word

One member spoke of the need to spread the message: “It’s important to assimilate the ability that low code brings. We go to universities and show them that it’s the best way to work. We now have a multinational team working on it.”

Where can this methodology be best applied? This speaker said he’d seen it used to good effect in smart cities. The diversity of applications in use with the speakers’ organisations showed it could be applied to anything.

Given all this activity, Dowd asked a very pertinent question: Why do we need an IT department? He then followed up by referring to the use of app stores and querying whether they were being used internally and could replace IT development.

Even the CIOs who were avid users of low-code/no-code development found this a step too far, recognising there was a limit: “If it goes across multiple departments, I would rather move it from the citizen space to the development team.”

While there was a definite space for low code/no code, there was a need to have a proper support model, he continued. He also said that business users should really concentrate on the business case rather than getting too involved in coding issues: “The business user should focus on the business, not on development.”

Collaboration Rather Than Isolation

This was a view supported by another speaker who emphasised the need for more collaboration across departments as a way to improve the process.

The general feeling in the discussion was positive. There were several participants whose interest had been piqued by the debate. “I’m keen to explore more about it,” said one. “We’ve reached the time of our life when the IT department has moved from helping the business to being the business. Something like low code/no code is going to drive development costs down.”

Conclusions and Key Learning

As several participants said, it’s still early days, but it’s clear that the impetus is there to open up and harness the power of citizen development with numerous positive experiences.

There was advice on how to kick things off if you’ve not started yet. “It’s important to set up the framework and a governance policy: start small and build from there,” said one experienced speaker.

Growing the momentum with enthusiastic subject matter experts acting as ambassadors is especially true for this sort of change. However, the understanding must be there that this is an addition to, not a replacement of, professional development practices and that security, compliance and testing are still very much on the agenda.

The limits of citizen developer projects must be understood and can be usefully framed as MPVs that either meet a simple need or show the viability of more formal development.

If you would like more details of the call, please check out the interactive whiteboard where IDC research and the mind map of this and previous meetings is shared with DLC members.

If you are not yet a member, maybe you would like to consider joining this free community. IDC hosts hour-long peer-led DLC discussions every two weeks and if you are a digital leader, you are very welcome to take part in the topics that interest you.

Today, those 4GLs have reappeared as “low-code and “no-code” tools such as OutSystems, Mendix, and Microsoft PowerApps to mention a few of the many tools available. They have gained more traction in the past few years, leading to the rise of something called the “citizen developer”. This is an employee who creates applications for use by themselves or others but whose job is not as a full-time developer in the IT team. At IDC, we have forecast that the number of low- or no-code developers will rise significantly in the next few years, and a good proportion of those will be “citizen developers”.

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