What is low code?

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What is low code?

We speak to low code firm Outsystems about the growing sector, which many predict is going to revolutionise how businesses operate

The short answer is that low code is about automating certain elements of software programming and visualising them to the extent non-coders can get involved in the process.

It might not sound like it, but it’s predicted the effects of low code platforms on IT, business, and wider society, is going to be seismic.

In a recent report on low code, Gartner claimed “By 2024, three-quarters of large enterprises will be using at least four low-code development tools for both IT application development and citizen development initiatives. By 2024, low-code application development will be responsible for more than 65% of application development activity.”

Low code platform provider OutSystems earlier this month attracted 2000 people to its conference in Amsterdam, where a series of talks and business tracks explored what it is, how it’s being used now, and how they think it’s going to transform how business run, from the very small all the way up to enterprise level.

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OutSystems is also launching a low code ‘school’ later in November, in order to ‘certify professionals with OutSystems technology to increase career opportunities and expand the current growing ecosystem.’

We asked OutSystems Garry Larner (Regional Director, Financial Services and Insurance) and Rui Pereira (Vice President, Digital Transformation) what all the fuss is about with low code.

Give us a brief history of the emergence of low code and what’s driving its adoption now.

Garry Larner: It’s only in the last three years really taken off. Prior to that it was more early adopters and pioneers, but now it’s moving much more into the mainstream.  The rationale behind it remains the same – people are becoming increasingly frustrated with how long it’s taking to deliver digital projects, specifically when it comes to web and mobile. 

Projects are taking longer to deliver, they’re costing too much money and talent is scarce. Finding top talent now, especially when it comes to UI, UX, or native mobile developers is tough. What we do is compress project delivery, so what would take 12 months we condense to three months, which is a magnitude of four times faster. 

Rui Pereira: My daily life is talking with companies all over Europe and the US, and they all struggle with the same thing – the inability to recruit and retain technical talent.

We think we can accelerate the way you build systems. The business side of an organisation thinks this is fantastic because traditional IT tends to be a little bit slow. And on the IT side we say, you don’t necessarily need to have those computer science guys there who have invested their whole lives in doing Java or C+, or whatever language. We think we have a better way to do it.

We have different types of people that have never coded in their life who can create sleek, very powerful applications without being nerds or computer science guys. And that certainly resonates on the business side. On the IT side, it’s a process, because for the last twenty years we have all depended on developers. So it’s for IT to understand that there might be a different way.

I’d like to nail down how low code differs from standard software development though. To the laymen it sounds almost like what Squarespace or Wix is to website development. Is that fair, and what’s the process to begin adopting it? Are there drag and drop designs replacing hard coding?

 GL: There are a series of patterns and templates, but I break it down in terms of talent. What type of people would you need to employ to replicated what we offer? You’d need a UI/UX developer, a back end developer, you would need someone that understands dev ops and continuous integration – there’s probably seven different job roles that we bring onto the platform. 

RP: Business today can grab our platform through a few tools that we call builders, and without knowing anything about programming they can build their first applications. Now this doesn’t mean that they are now capable of doing fully fledged enterprise grade applications. But they can do a few things, one is they can prototype a lot of ideas that they have. They can also deploy for small groups or departments to play around with applications, so that IT doesn’t have to have those types of demands on the back log.

A lot of our readers would be able to get behind the idea of making software development more accessible and simpler, but might be struggling to visualise what that means in reality.

RP: We don’t provide the users with an open, generic tool for them to build whatever the want. We provide a collection of very specific tools, each tool focusses on a particular use case. So it’s super optimised for you to build a workflow type application in a few clicks. Whereas in an open platform, you can do whatever you want, but you have to build the foundations.

It is a journey, companies are not used to this but the most innovative companies will be the first ones to adopt. For firms that see IT as a means to an end, low code is a massive opportunity to remove barriers within a company. If you are in a company where there is a very old established IT group, it’s way harder. But they will eventually get there.

We’ve probably all heard of instances where the constraints of an IT department dictate business decisions.

RP: Well this is a new era. IT never wants to lose control. But what they don’t realise is their users will just go online, log in free of charge for anything they like and do their jobs there. We are all able to find what we want online and do our jobs on software housed outside the organisation, so IT might as well embrace this new world, regain control, and delegate the ability to produce apps to the business side.

Do more traditional coders see low code as a threat to their jobs then?

GL: You’re always going to get your sceptics, and you’re always going to get your guys that are frightened of change. But think about this for a moment – IT is the industry that has the least amount of automation. That’s where low code comes in.

You’re always going to get people that are sceptical about it and don’t like it, but actually what we’re finding is that it’s a massive job creator.

So it might be the case in the future where if a firm is large enough and has a low code platform deployed, there’d be an expectation that everyone should be proficient in it, like there’s an expectation they are proficient in word processing software…

GL: We’re already seeing the transition to different skills. Where automation has come into companies and people are losing their jobs or being repurposed, there’s a great opportunity there. We don’t need so many call centre staff for instance, so let’s re-skill them to do development. I think you’re right, in five years time this will be the standard way of operating. Companies will look back and say ‘why didn’t we do this sooner?’

Three years ago, would Nationwide Building Society have imagined coming to a low code platform to build their front end channel for their business savings customers, with £3.5 billion under management? People would have said you’re crazy. But it’s becoming the norm, we are challenging the status quo.

So to use the Squarespace/Wix analogy again, what they did was allow people or firms, who were never going to be able to get fully fledged website developers on the books, to produce websites easily. A company like Nationwide would presumably have all the resources in the world to throw at hard coders to make absolutely anything bespoke. Why do they use low code?

GL: The challenge remains the same. Businesses continue to evolve, markets continue to evolve. To keep pace with change and the challenger banks, the neo banks, and the disruptors, you need to have an edge. You need to be able to innovate and change at pace. When you’ve got years of legacy technical debt, it’s very difficult to do that.

So agility is a key pillar to low code, the ability to quickly develop and launch software without ripping out everything the business is currently built on?

GL: Absolutely – speed, agility, talent. What we’re finding is that if you have 20 years of legacy debt, we’ve had customers say a complete rip and replace of the core banking system is going to cost is £50 million and take years and years to do. So let’s come up with a hybrid model – keep the legacy, make it a systems record, and let’s put on top of that the platform that gives us the speed and the agility.

What are the main sectors using or looking into low code at the moment?

GL: Financial services is the biggest sector. We’re doing work with government, we’re doing work with retail, and business services is a big opportunity. And we’re working with some big SIs (Systems Integrators), who are taking up BPO contracts and have to continue to show innovation.

It’s a really good time, it’s a rocket ship. If you look at the size of the market and the amount of people that are adopting it – Toyota, and Vopak, a 400 year old business with 1.4 billion revenue – It’s really exciting times.

How much of a societal and business change is this going to have in a decade?

RP: Like databases are a commodity now, and once we used physical files, I think in a few years low code will be a platform that every company needs to have. We won’t question it. There might be very specific cases where you need to use Java or C+, just like there might be very specific cases you use a physical file.

GL: I really believe that this will be the norm. The normal way of developing software and developing applications. Once you start including AI and machine learning into the mix, I think we’ll look back and say ‘why on earth were we doing hand coding five years ago? How silly was that?’ It’ll be a lot more inclusive as well, you’re not going to have to have a computer science degree, you won’t have to do a full on coding course, it’s going to be a lot more intuitive.

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