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On my 12th birthday I got my first computer: an Amiga 500. And at 17, I founded my first company, making software that helped photographers serve their customers. As I reflect on my decades of coding, I’m reminded that low-code technology started with tools enabling users to build custom reports and applications with very little coding.
When I started coding, low-code was somewhat analogous to the position artificial intelligence holds today: exciting, much hyped and poorly understood. In 2014, it was generating buzzy news items: “Some firms are turning to new, ‘low-code’ application platforms that accelerate app delivery by dramatically reducing the amount of hand-coding required,” declared Forrester.
Now, after almost a decade of growing adoption, low-code — and increasingly also no-code — tools are becoming mainstream.
The worldwide market for low-code tools ballooned almost 23% in the last year, and these days, 41% of non-IT employees are building or customizing applications, according to Gartner. Gartner also predicts that by 2024, three-quarters of large enterprises will be using at least four low-code tools, and low-code technology is likely to be responsible for upwards of 65% of total application development. Gartner further forecasted that half of all new low-code clients will be business buyers that are outside the IT organization by year-end 2025.
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This explosive growth makes sense. Nowadays, the business world is driven by the idea that every organization must digitally transform its operations to keep up with rapid market change. “Adapt or die” is a common refrain. Since most organizations don’t have the developer manpower in place to conduct such digital transformation using solely the labor of the IT department, the help of other business professionals is required. No-code and low-code tools allow companies to recruit new participants in the digital transformation effort, enabling firms to advance their progress quickly and cost-effectively.
The rise of the business technologist
Indeed, low-code options have created a new persona in the workplace: the business technologist or business user, also known as “citizen developer,” who can helpfully participate in the application development process. The tools are constantly becoming simpler to use and more intuitive. Users are assisted by excellent training within the tools themselves and a growing library of online resources with business-focused pre-built components such as tutorials, use cases and how-to videos. Business users who can’t write a single line of code in a programming language, such as C++ or Python, used by professional software developers are able to independently create the bulk of their useful applications using low-code and no-code tools.
As of now, the IT department still does the heavy lifting of application development, but as this market evolves, business users will increasingly be able to create applications end-to-end with relatively little intervention from developers. This shift will allow developers to focus on maintaining large-scale strategic projects, while monitoring the long tail of the applications being built by business technologists. Recently, developer responsibilities have shifted toward maintaining core systems, upholding best practices of application development, ensuring standards compliance, data governance, and security, and acting as enablers to the newly minted low-code application creators in diverse business departments.
In their next evolution, these tools will be tailored to the specific needs of different business users, with pre-built content and components for business users making it possible for employees in technical areas to develop customized applications quickly. A customer service professional, for instance, may need an application for onboarding customers. Being able to create the applications themselves using tools that can be customized for this purpose will allow them to vastly accelerate the onboarding workflow and the resulting integration of new customers.
Low-code meets AI
Looking even further ahead, it’s likely that artificial intelligence (AI) will be brought more heavily into the equation, enabling software development processes that are more proactively guided and written by other software. This would allow business users to create new applications using text prompts with the assistance of the application development tool. Think of the auto-complete function in a Google search bar, but for code. Already there are signs of this, as with GitHub Copilot that builds on the GPT-3, the large language neural network from OpenAI. These are first-generation AI capabilities and will only grow more sophisticated over the next several years.
While this prospect may cause anxiety among professional developers, the shift promises to create new opportunities within IT, rather than eliminate old ones. Software developers can become adept at enabling this evolution by learning how to provide the right prompts to an AI tool to generate the code that a no-code application developer will need. The most in-demand developers in coming years may well be those who can write elegant and efficient prompts, more so than those who are proficient in programming languages.
The evolution toward increasingly easy-to-use application-creation tools is not only an opportunity for developers to build new strengths; it could also be a massive boon to their business colleagues and the business goals they serve. Businesses gain agility by using no- and low-code tools. Agility is the ability to respond quickly to change, and it is enhanced when business units can customize and maintain their applications themselves to stay immediately responsive to that change.
One of the most important questions for any IT project, including those using low-code development, is: Who is going to maintain it? A poorly maintained application ties a poor customer experience to a brand, an outcome far more likely to occur when application creation and maintenance is outsourced and when a resource-strapped IT department is solely responsible for all maintenance. These tools are adapting and providing capabilities for enterprise monitoring and governance of low-code apps.
Low-code/no-code’s next decade
While the next decade is likely to bring an expansion of the role that business users have in application creation and maintenance, it’s important to note that the IT team is now — and always will be — the enabler for driving this innovation. It’s their job to figure out how to get the business users the tools they need to be as productive as possible, and the guidance to use them appropriately. This shift will happen through collaboration, with IT doing both the facilitation and the backend work that allows business users to best apply their skills and strategies via targeted applications.
The next 10 years of no-code and low-code development are likely to bring just as much change as the last 10, if not more. There has long been a functional and cultural boundary between IT and business users. The rapid advancement of low-code and no-code tools with an assist from AI is breaking this down and enabling a more collaborative environment. It’s possible that over the next several years boundaries will not only blur but in some instances begin to vanish. That should be a plus for productivity and a boost to digital transformation efforts.
And while that kind of rapid change can present challenges to individuals and businesses, these rapidly evolving tools offer mostly good news. With their help, business users can work more effectively and quickly, IT teams can focus on promoting business growth in high-value ways and companies can better succeed as the future comes at them fast.
Juergen Mueller is chief technology officer and executive board member at SAP SE.
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