Despite its importance to 21st-century life, the use and spread of code has outstripped the number of people capable of bringing it to life. This is an increasingly urgent problem to solve, given the enduring recruitment crisis afflicting software development worldwide.
Enter low-code development platforms. These platforms, which use graphical interfaces to allow untrained personnel to create new and exciting software, promise to democratise software development without increasing corporate reliance on the limited software developer labour pool. According to a new report by Gartner, up to 65% of application development activity will derive from low-code solutions by 2024.
But as with all new technology paradigms, low code is not without risks. Early adopters report that, unless user permissions are carefully managed, non-technical staff can cause unintentional damage, and cybersecurity precautions can be overlooked.
How low code saves developers’ valuable time
First and foremost, low code saves time – a valuable quality amid the current IT recruitment crisis, explains Ed Macosky, chief innovation officer at software company Boomi. When the pandemic placed extreme pressure on IT departments to deliver digital systems, “companies were able to adopt low code and automation technologies to handle the lighter, quicker tasks and free up IT team members’ time for more business-critical projects,” he says.
“This means non-technical ‘citizen developers‘ in an organisation can deploy new business applications without burdening IT, and IT teams can maintain software with less manual work,” he adds. Indeed, developers working outside of formal IT departments could constitute up to 80% of the user base for low-code technology and tools by 2024, according to Gartner.
One company to adopt low-code solutions as an alternative to costly developer time was OneASG, a division of Brunswick Corporation specialising in marine and mobile industry system design. After mapping out transformation goals, the company realised manual testing wouldn’t be able to handle the volume of tests required. Eventually, they found their solution in the form of AI-powered automation and low-code functionality.
“I could write a script four times faster,” says Laura LaRocca, Brunswick Corporation’s QA manager. “Once you have the set-up you can run scripts the first day locally. It compresses the time you take to test.”
Few believe low code will allow companies to completely avoid employing developers. “It’s important to remember that coding skills are still required to be able to tweak default functionality and customise solutions,” says Stuart Houston, cohort lead at CodeClan. “For building small applications, low code can be faster, but like any technology there is a learning curve – especially when using it beyond simple business processes or prototyping.”
But low code is not just about saving time, Gartner’s research argues. In future, it says, low code will allow companies of all stripes to adopt what the analyst company calls ‘hyper-automation,’ in which many more services are automated than previously possible under older software development methodologies. Low-code solutions will be used to map out business processes and catalogue data to support this, Gartner predicts, all without the need for expensive development contracts.
For some, this is already happening. According to Gartner, organisations are now starting to move into hyper-automation phase in their use of low code. Indeed, 13% of business technologists surveyed indicated that low code was a valuable tool in supporting automation initiatives at their companies over the past year.
Low code risks: permissions and security
Low-code development applications are not free of risk, however. Alta Technologies, a server distribution business, found this out earlier this year when it built an inventory marketing database using a low-code solution. The new system ultimately allowed the firm to increase the number of the products it could list from 3,100 to almost 11,000.
However, not everyone was familiar with how the low-code platform actually worked. “One learning lesson happened after we’d gotten to nearly 10,000 product listings,” recalls Corey Donovan, Alta Technologies’ president. “A staff merchandiser tried to do a bulk update via a CSV import, but matched its columns to the wrong fields. Thousands of listings were overwritten with incorrect data and we had to restore to an overnight back-up, losing half a day’s listing work.”
After this experience, Alta Technologies instigated a stricter system for managing user permissions. The episode reveals the need to establish best practices, many of which will already be familiar to coders, among non-technical staff.
The same is true of cybersecurity, Macosky adds. “Unfortunately, some can be tempted to overlook the necessary security requirements and become hands-off with potential application risks,” he says.
This includes ignoring the need for code signing using security keys, ensuring users are properly authenticated, and ensuring failures are logged. These security concerns will become increasingly important by the end of this decade, as more firms use low-code development platforms to shore up their competitive advantage.