14 min

Low-code rose up. Throughout the last decade, the software industry has witnessed the hugely impactful growth of low-code technologies designed to provide software application development engineers with accelerators and automations to make their lives easier.

In an era when ‘automations’ (plural) is still listed as a spelling error on most word processing applications, low-code now exists as a fundamental and distinct capability in the enterprise technology firmament. Close cousins to the specific discipline of Robotic Process Automation (RPA), dedicated low-code platforms now span capabilities encompassing document analysis, extraction and the ongoing data management tasks that result from those processes.

Clearly not the same as no-code (the clue is in the name) platforms that provide even higher-level abstraction to assemble application functions through drag-and-drop interfaces or other simplification mechanisms, low-code has now started to take on something of a ‘next big thing’ status among all tech vendors of any size. Alongside generative AI functions (and sometimes dovetailed with them), low-code is now a new competency for ERP vendors, CRM specialists, database companies and even game developers who all seek to make programmers’ lives easier and entice them to use their platform, or to use it more extensively and prolifically.

Techzine spoke to a select handful of vendors who are now driving important developments in this space to find out how we got here, where we stand today and what factors will influence where we go next. 

The Appian way

Leading much of the narrative in the low-code purist space is Appian. Hosting one of the bigger developer/user conferences in this space and now even elevating itself away from the low-code term that the company initially went to IPO status on, Appian senior vice president of product strategy Malcolm Ross suggests that low-code has now become commoditised as a kind of utility substrate essential for all software application development. 

“Low-code is a lot like cloud computing in the sense that it makes products as easy and efficient to use as possible,” said Ross, speaking to assembled media at his firm’s annual Appian World convention in San Diego this May 2023. “The future for low-code lies in the application of generative AI functions to provide developers with a means of creating complex expressions [in the mathematical sense, via software code as a syntactic entity] using Natural Language Processing (NLP) with the security of code checking mechanisms, a function inherent to the Appian Platform,” said Ross, whose team have been busy integrating OpenAI into the new Appian AI Skills Designer and ‘teaching it’ Appian’s SAIL declarative expression language.

Appian AI Skills Designer enables developers at all levels to operationalise AI and automate repetitive tasks, freeing up their workforce and eliminating the risk of human error in data classification and extraction. The no-code design allows developers to quickly incorporate AI to optimise business functions while leveraging the Appian Platform’s native AI/ML services to provide an integration of AI capabilities automatically. The Appian Platform provides three out-of-the-box native AI Skills for content processing: document classification, email classification and document extraction.

On the surface, Appian (and the industry at large) appears to have helped commoditise the term low-code to a point where it becomes part of the lower substrate of all platform development. Magical analyst house Gartner recently suggested that 80% of IT products and services will be built by non-developers by 2024. But today, not only has the term low-code been partially retired (with only occasionally affectionate references made), but AI has also been integrated into its operational function set from ground zero, so what else do we need to think about here?

DevOps done right

“Low-code operations automate and abstract away complexity, democratizing DevOps by putting container management and provisioning skills in the hands of more people, such as IT system administrators and software developers,” says Hans de Visser, chief product officer Mendix.

De Visser and other executives also see this shift to low-code operations as a chance to streamline core DevOps tasks. “Low-code (Ops) operations presents an opportunity for DevOps to become more economically efficient, seamlessly balancing risk mitigation with the business imperative to rapidly scale digital solutions for new business use cases,” de Visser said.

When the enchanting necromancers at Gartner aren’t casting spells around their wizardly quadrants, they are helping to solidify de facto industry terminologies As such we now see references to Low-Code Development Platforms (LCDPs) as the newest tech term du jour in this space. Gartner suggests that the adoption of LCDPs as enterprises’ preferred strategic development platform continues to rise. The analysts say that low-code’s speed of delivery at scale was largely validated during the pandemic – and, that it is evident that traditional development is no longer viable as the primary means of meeting demand in a digital-first world. “With current modernisation efforts already underway, digital demand in the enterprise will only continue to outstrip the ability to supply it,” said Tim Srock, Mendix CEO. 

Speaking to press in a statement made earlier this year, Mendix’s de Visser also pointed out a key progression trend in this space towards mission-critical processes. He thinks we have moved from low-code being used to automate simple workflows, to a point where now we see organisations using low-code to create extensive, state-of-the-art microservices infrastructures that control the organisation’s most important processes. 

Don’t go too high on abstraction

“It’s no surprise that lowering the amount of code that developers need to write and maintain can significantly help with their overall productivity. However, the question remains – what’s the best path to lower these barriers? I believe that the future of low-code is more about the ‘right amount of code’ versus no code at all, and I think that we will see more developers embrace a serverless offering in the years to come,” said Briana Frank, vice president of product & design for IBM Cloud.

Mat Rule, founder and CEO of low-code platform provider Toca.io, agrees with Frank. He suggests that developers need the flexibility to code solutions when necessary and says that a lack of customisability makes it harder to set rails around governance and risk mandated by the business. 

“Ultimately, this makes it harder to shape, mobilise, harmonise and recombine different elements into something new. Every business is different, so some amount of coding will be advantageous for the foreseeable future, which is why low code is such a great option. It gives you the shortcuts to get things done faster, while still ensuring high coders can also use the platform to innovate. No code platforms don’t give that flexibility – you end up needing two platforms, one for the easy stuff and one for the clever stuff,” said Rule.

In parallel, IBM’s Frank says that there are several reasons that developers are moving away from no-code offerings. This may be because some developers start ‘too high in the abstraction level’ with a no-code solution, only to realise that it does not give them enough flexibility and functionality. 

“When this happens, many of them move down an abstraction level and write very little code. They rely on a serverless platform to handle that for them. Alternatively, developers might be too low in the abstraction level with a low-code solution and then they find themselves writing hundreds or thousands of lines of code that manage servers, runtime environments or networking. In this case, they will likely move up the abstraction level and let a serverless platform manage this process for them,” suggests Frank.

She feels that overall, this last process frees developers up to concentrate on customer-facing functionality and innovation, while the serverless platform option ensures that application resiliency, performance, security and compliance are all being managed. 

Francis Carden, vice president, of intelligent automation and robotics at Pegasystems is also of strong opinion on these matters. He asserts that while not everyone agrees, one of the fundamental and continual accelerators of low-code is the recognition at last, that we really can have IT and the business aligned. By this statement, he means that we can now move on from building everything ‘tech’ in coded silos and then spending decades post ‘go-live’ in this business/IT ‘legacy’ updating/patching hell.

“With generative AI, this goes even further in proving code need not be in our long-term future when it comes to business applications and automation,” said Carden. “Sure, we are seeing we can use AI to generate code and even use it to find/fix bugs but that doesn’t move us from repeating this legacy past. When the business function, in collaboration with IT, can use generative AI and apply it to low code models, not only do we get something that is generated and maintainable, but is easy to understand and repeatable.”

Carden further states that by combining these two technologies, businesses now have the opportunity to see a ‘velocity increase’ in their ability to innovate. For his money, that is the most exciting part of all this. “We believe that what we’ll see as a result is that the rapid development of generative AI technology will make the lower-end low-code providers more of a commodity, while the higher-end enterprise-grade solutions that create and deliver real value are the ones who will benefit,” he added.

Is this a low-code inflexion point?

Taking stock of where we have got to in this sector of the enterprise technology space, many would argue that we’re approaching – or we’re already at – a significant inflexion or tipping point for low-code software as a whole. 

That’s exactly what’s happening according to Andrew Haire in his role as VP of product marketing at OutSystems. He suggests that, in the early years, the technology industry as a whole spent a lot of time evangelising low-code and trying to explain to IT leaders to clarify how it could benefit them by speeding up application development and empowering their existing IT staff. But more recently, Haire insists that it’s clear something has changed. When he and his team talk to enterprise application leaders now, they more openly and obviously recognise the benefits of low-code and they’re starting to allocate more and more of their application portfolio to low-code initiatives. 

“As the number of applications enterprises are developing continues to grow, there is an inflexion point when the rate of innovation is beginning to outpace enterprises’ ability to develop applications using traditional methods,” explained Haire. “It is at this point that enterprises are switching to low-code to save time and money. I think the biggest reason for the growth here is the exponential increase in the number of enterprise applications that need to be built or refactored in order to create meaningful differentiation and respond quickly to customers’ changing needs. In most cases, these are mission-critical enterprise-grade applications like banking apps, claims management or life-saving healthcare platforms.”

This focus on mission-critical apps is creating a shift within the low-code space, because for most low-code tools, productivity gains come at the cost of features and the quality of the user experience. This is why high-performance low-code is becoming even more critical. According to OutSystems, traditional low-code platforms offer speed but lack the power and sophistication required for building enterprise applications. 

“High-performance low-code is designed for building any application in your backlog, including and especially mission-critical applications. A [worthy] low-code platform empowers IT professionals to build strategic apps that deliver competitive differentiation. While delivering the productivity gains typical of low-code, high-performance low-code is not limited in the sophistication of the apps it’s capable of building,” said Haire.

Did we mention high performance?

He further states that high-performance low-code (a term that OutSystems spokespeople are clearly tasked with repeating as many times as possible) platforms help developers quickly build applications that extend systems of record, transform complex internal business processes, rewrite critical core business systems and create world-class mobile and web apps that drive customer satisfaction and revenue growth. 

“This is a no-turning-back moment in the industry — the rapidly expanding customer needs for custom development perfectly align with the rapid maturing of the low-code market, especially with the emergence of high-performance low-code. We expect to see the category continue to grow as more and more IT leaders expand their low-code practices to augment (and in some cases replace) traditional development,” said Haire.

Speaking to real world users of these kinds of technologies, Ingo Paas, CIO & CDO at Swedish rail shipping form Green Cargo has some firm views on what will drive low-code in business next. He believes that we will see a growing trend towards composable enterprises. 

“My assumption is that many traditional and even digital companies will try to become digital composable companies,” said Paas. “However, currently too many make investments in technology without ever really having any understanding of how to bring it all together. They have spent money and built digital legacies that don’t work well together, or at all. Having invested in these legacy technologies and become accustomed to working with them, they are reticent to try new approaches, yet it is precisely the maintenance of these legacy technologies that is draining their IT budgets and draining their IT teams’ time instead of using it to innovate.” 

Paas expands upon his point and says that technology is advancing at lightning pace and companies need to embrace technological change that allows them to free up their own IT staff and allow them to focus on improving the business model and on the customer experience. “I strongly advise leveraging digital foundational platform strategies with enterprise low-code as core capability. More generally, organisations need to opt for a different perspective and become digital composable enterprises. They need to accept that this is the next step of digitalisation,” he concluded.

Low-code for every engineer

We think of low-code as an entity for software application development specialists and related engineering professionals, but as we have noted in passing above, we should not just think of low-code for programmers in isolation i.e. there’s a solid message here for the rest of the (Ops) operations crew and the wider tech team at large. This is the view of Mark Troester in his capacity as VP of business & technology strategy at Progress.

“From a DevOps perspective, as with other technical disciplines, the notion and relevance of low-code must account for different use cases and job role requirements,” heeded Troester. “What is more important than drag-and-drop capabilities, is the ability to determine how to achieve productivity drivers – speed, simplicity, democratisation etc. 

Troester’s comments are backed up by his colleague, the gloriously named Angel Tsvetkov, who sits as principal product manager at Progress. We know that one of the biggest challenges organisations face is the dependency on IT and development resources for day-to-day tasks related to the organisation’s digital presence. Tsvetkov says that this can be a major roadblock for marketing staff and content editors (for example) who often need to rely on IT to configure website layouts or set up integrations with marketing technology and other third-party tools, which slows down the process and makes it less efficient. That is why the low-code concept has become a key productivity driver in the content management and digital experience space.

“As a result then, we have taken a composable approach to managing digital experiences, enabling business users to solve specific problems without relying on developers for every one of them,” said Tsvetkov. “The website is treated as a set of Lego blocks, with each block representing a different aspect of the website such as content, presentation, or integration. These blocks can be connected to each other, allowing websites to be built in a low-code manner. In the digital experience space, organizations need to choose tools that make it easy for non-IT personas to solve technical problems and manage their digital presence based on low-code capabilities, so that they can focus on what they do best – creating great content and engaging with their audience. Low-code solutions empower these personas to be more efficient and effective in their roles.”

Tejas Gadhia, lead developer evangelist at Zoho agrees with the momentum being expressed by the industry, he talks about low-code platforms now becoming ‘resolutely mainstream’ today. Besides the obvious benefits such as increased developer productivity and democratisation, he points to something that is rarely highlighted (and much more strategic in the long run).

“That lesser-known (or perhaps lesser discussed) element is [low-code platforms’] ability to provide a stable foundation for organisations to mitigate the risk of technological disruptions by being the perfect host,” said Gadhia. “For instance, with the integration of AI, low-code platforms can automate various development tasks like ensuring quality, security, and compliance while enhancing the end-user experience. If pursued independently, these tasks would have been much more time-consuming, costly, and difficult to implement across the developer and end-user spectrum. AI is just an example… and this is true for all the disruptive upcoming technologies.”

Speaking of the same voice expressed by the technology advocates and spokespeople quoted thus far is Steve Day, senior director, marketing & solutions for SAP Build Apps. He reminds us that, in the past, companies would customise their enterprise applications to achieve desired business outcomes. 

“Now, thanks to low code, organisations around the world are adopting a ‘keep the core clean‘ approach to enterprise applications, using low code app development and process automation to personalise their enterprise applications,” said Day. “This keeps the core enterprise app intact and enables quick personalisation in order to achieve desired outcomes to drive a competitive advantage.”

Citing the technology that works in this space inside the German softwarehaus itself, Day points to  SAP Build Apps as a low code app development technology that allows users to create enterprise apps with drag-and-drop simplicity.

A recent résumé rationale

What all of this means for the individual software professional is a new imperative for skills and capability – and it’s one that needs to manifest itself on every person’s curriculum vitae or résumé.

What all of this means for the individual software professional is a new imperative for skills and capability – and it’s one that needs to manifest itself on every person’s curriculum vitae or résumé. This is the call to action from James Sturrock, a man who has seen every side of the low-code coin develop in his role as director of systems engineering, UK&I, Nutanix 

“The core reality here is simple to understand. Automation at the code level and autonomous system accelerators in every form from low-code to its related family disciplines make enterprise software more valuable. Those same factors also make people more valuable,” explained Nutanix’s Sturrock. “When a developer is able to competently use low-code tools to elevate themselves beyond the need to painstakingly craft the syntax and logic associated with traditional application – and, crucially, workflow process – development, they are able to focus on higher value-add tasks that are more likely to bring business innovations forward and improve the bottom line and/or work for the good of people and the planet. It’s a high-stakes win-win and it starts with low-code.” 

Given this opportunity to hear from a selection of low-code purists, a number of low-code enablers, users and facilitators, plus perhaps a few organisations who may only just be entering the periphery of this space, we can see that low-code while still being very much of-the-moment, is also on a trajectory to become a subsumed commodity utility element in all enterprise software. Inevitably tracked alongside the development of AI and generative intelligence on a concurrent growth path, low-code is for every technical user and when we abstract elements of it further, it may be for every businessperson at some level too.

Nobody wants to reinvent the wheel or build roads where they already exist, low-code is on a journey and everybody needs to get a ticket.