Chris Weston
Chris Weston (Principal, European Client Advisory)
Marc Dowd (Principal, European Client Advisory)

Have you ever heard people say that the computers used to get people to the moon are way less powerful than what is in your smartphone? It’s true. In fact, they are less powerful than what’s in your washing machine, assuming you bought it in the past few years. We’ve all seen how technology has increased in capability and complexity as much as it has decreased in physical size. The code for the Apollo 11 Guidance Computer was even released onto GitHub recently so that we can marvel at the engineering that went into that stupendous project. But, if you take a look at that code, it’s not at all easy to read. When you have 64k of memory to play with (an amount that is so inconceivably small to most people now it is not even worth trying to describe it) your code must be “close to the machine”. This means it does not need much translation to turn it into true computer language.

As time went by, computers became more powerful, more capable of that translation, and more human-readable programming languages were designed. Back in the early 1980s, someone came up with the idea of Fourth Generation Languages (4GL). This concept is a computer language that is so far from “the machine” as to be highly understandable by humans. The tools often generate secondary code in a more common programming language (such as C++) that is in turn translated into the machine’s own language. In this way, so the idea goes, we can develop software faster, at higher quality, without needing all those tricky skills that the early programmers required.

The Opportunity

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”.

Low code developer population vs part time developers
Source: IDC

For some, this is to be encouraged. We have a genuine skills gap in many organisations. Hiring full-time developers is expensive if you can find them, and we lose a lot of “know-how” if they leave us, regardless of how well we manage our knowledge bases and source code. In addition, software is often developed based on dubiously interpreted requirements, which leads to costly reworking to align it with the real requirements, even in an agile world. So, getting the real end users involved in the actual production of software can be a definite bonus in many ways.

It is Not all Plain Sailing

However, for others there are many concerns. Software development is a discipline that has grown over decades, and quite apart from the technical skills needed there are a lot of important governance customs and practice that “part time” developers may not understand or implement. Things like structured testing, version control, security, and a long-term support strategy should be part of every development programme, no matter what tools you use to create the software.

The use and abuse of data is also a key consideration. You must ensure that the data that is used by these new applications is up to date, relevant, and is not a potential security or privacy risk if exposed through one of these tools. Another factor to consider is that applications that consume company data but are poorly written can mislead the user and potentially cause decisions to be made based on flawed information with significant cost. Other issues, such as accessibility, compliance with company policies, and regulation, also need to be managed. You can see why some regard the idea of an army of “amateur” developers with horror.

To achieve the many benefits of low- and no-code tools while mitigating these risks, the governance issues must be tackled, and the team to deal with this is, of course, IT. Governance, including tools, resources, and support for these activities converts part-time developers into genuine “citizen developers”. If the CIO doesn’t provide this support, in my experience the part-time developers will do their work anyway, and the IT team will end up mopping up the mess.

Conclusion

Before embarking on any implementation of low- or no-code tools in your business, make sure you have ticked these boxes through the IT team and understood the support requirement in future.

  • Security
  • Application supportability
  • Training
  • Data appreciation and management

We will be discussing the use of low- and no-code and how best to go about incorporating this into your environment in our IDC Digital Leadership Community session on July 16 at 4pm BST / 5pm CEST. Join us and hear from your peers about how they are approaching this growing opportunity by emailing me at cweston@idc.com, or connect with me on Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrisjweston/.

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