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Low-code and no-code development platforms have been heralded in recent years as a solution to engineering talent gaps and as a trend that will properly democratize technology, allowing even non-coders to build applications from scratch. However, despite the marketing rhetoric, such platforms pose considerable challenges: how do they fit alongside existing development projects? To what extent do they enable or restrict our ability to build the kinds of software we want and need?
In this episode of the Technology Podcast, Neal Ford and Mike Mason are joined by Scott Shaw and Xu Hao to discuss the state of play in the world of low-code and no-code. They explore the different types of platforms that have emerged in the space and ask what organizations need to consider before they invest time, energy and money in integrating them.
Neal: Hello. Welcome to the Thoughtworks Technology Podcast. I am one of your regular hosts, Neal Ford, and I'm joined by another of our regular hosts today, Mike Mason.
Mike: Hi, Neal. Very happy to be here in person for a change. This is great.
Neal: We are, in fact, in person here in Barcelona as part of the Doppler meeting. One of the discussions that perpetually comes up in our Doppler meetings is around low-code/no-code environments. We have two of the Doppler team members here to discuss this topic. One, you're already familiar with, because he's normally one of our hosts, but he's a guest today to talk about this — Scott Shaw.
Scott: Hi. I'm Scott Shaw from Melbourne, Australia, despite my accent.
Neal: The other is from China, our colleague Xu Hao.
Xu: Hi. My name is Xu Hao. I come from Thoughtworks China.
Neal: As I mentioned, we're here to talk about low code-no code environments, which is a big topic. It's a big marketing push by a lot of organizations in the current day. We have, as Thoughtworks, traditionally been a little bit… not the biggest fans of these kinds of environments for reasons we'll get to in a second. But it's probably a good idea to talk about the spectrum of what these tools look like. What are some of the examples of no-code/low-code, and what are we talking about here?
Xu: Usually, for me, it's, I would like to separate the no-code from the low-code because they have, clearly, a different target audience. When we are talking about no code, they pretty much focus on the people who don't have any technology background. They don't want to write any code, but they would like to create a small application. One of these examples I can think of is WordPress. Today, they have a really vibrant ecosystem. You have a lot of plugins you can use. Based on WordPress, you can build your eCommerce website like designing lines of code. That is a no-code for me.
Also, the low-code is more targeting someone who already knows how to write code, but in a particular domain, they want to write less code or some sort of like this scenario.
Neal: We used to, tongue and cheek, call some of those environments “cartoons to code” where you draw lines between things to create connections or for workflow engines, those kinds of things.
Mike: Doodle way.
Neal: Doodle way! Exactly. That's another of our derogatory terms for tools like this. I think a lot of that disdain comes from, there's a whole generation of case tools, these computer-assisted software engineering tools that were supposed to write code for you that were all these doodle way kind of tools that we got burned by, but as Xu Hao was saying, this is really a spectrum from one end or the other of how much code do you actually write. That gets more into the low-code kind of stuff.
Scott: Yes. I think even with no-code — many of the no-code platforms, you still have to write an expression at some point when it comes down to the leaf of the tree, you have to write some kind of expression and understand basic logic operations.
So when you're writing an expression in a leaf node in a GUI editor, you actually need to understand, okay, what's that going to do, roughly, to the architecture and composition of the no-code thing or low-code thing that is produced at the end of the day?
Personally, having looked at this stuff for a while, I think one of the problems is this vendor hype around not needing technical people anymore because actually, to get the best out of these things, I think you do need fairly technical people. If you don't have technical people you tie yourself in knots. Then the traditional programmers come along and say, "Hahaha, what a nice mess you've made. Let me dig you out of that hole."
Neal: A perfect example of that is the common problem that you run into often with rules engines, which are specialized low-code/no-code environments, as you are writing expressions. The problem you run into there, very often: rules engine sounds great, let the business people write the business rules, but then they don't really understand abstraction.
When it comes time when I have this complex workflow that needs a slightly different step, they don't understand abstracting common behavior, they just copy and paste so that your rules engine, over time, becomes these copy and pasted almost identical workflows that nobody can understand anymore because you don't have abstraction, which is something fairly technical kind of thing to be able to understand.
Scott: I think it's really important that the abstraction or the metaphor matches the domain — matches the problem. I think a good example of that is Excel. If you're an accountant, an Excel spreadsheet is perfect. If you have columns of numbers and you have to do operations on those numbers and have that be reactive, that's great. We've all seen people squeeze Excel into places it should never have gone and use it for all sorts of things. It's so convenient it's really hard to avoid doing that. We're all tempted to do it. I've done it too.
Neal: Yes. We have — Thoughtworks as an organization — never misused spreadsheets or Exel for anything… [Laughter]
Xu: I think one thing is, some of the low-code platforms that provide an abstraction that may be oversimplifying because some of the low-code platforms are going to say, “okay, everything is a business process,” or “everything is a workflow,” or “everything is a form.” Some and better are going to say everything is a form plus a workflow. “Everything is X.” That is actually one of the problems. As a developer, we know, even when we say everything is an object, then we're still getting into trouble 'cause we're running into real code.
Neal: Well, that brings up one of the first low code-no code platforms, HyperCard, where everything was a card. You could build really sophisticated applications with the Apple HyperCard in the early Mac. It had this card metaphor, which-- but gets exactly to this question of abstraction. How far can you push that card abstraction until it finally just breaks? We've taken a document presentation format and built an entire application ecosystem on top of it with HTML and HTTP. We're guilty of misusing abstractions ourselves for–
Neal: Let's talk a little bit about why we have traditionally not been a huge fan of this and come up with derogatory terms for them. Why is some of that starting to change? We are seeing so many of these. Something that doesn't die off on its own evolves and becomes useful in many cases. One of my criteria that we've used for a long time — this is actually in the Evolutionary Architecture book; we talked about how evolvable these things are — is that, too often, people focus on the benefits you get from this low-code environment — quick, rapid application development etc., but they don't look at the things you're giving away.
One of the things I always say is, you can choose a low-code environment if it supports things like versioning and the ability to diff and having a refactoring IDE and the ability to unit test all of your little bits at whatever level you want because you have all of those things within regular code— and you have to give that up in a lot of these environments. Some of them support some of those things, but abstraction is another one of those things. The ability to have refactoring and extract methods, etc., which is more and more sophisticated but needed in more cases. A lot of the low code-no code tools don't support that.
The last bit I'll say about that is something that we talked about — I've talked about for a long time — that all of these fall into, eventually, which is why the fourth generation languages, which were all the rage for a while eventually faded away, is that them and low-code/no code environments suffer from what we call the last 10% trap, where the first 80% of what you want to build is very fast and easy, rapid, the next 10% is possible, but the last 10%, you can't get far enough underneath the abstraction to actually get that done.
You always want a hundred percent of that, which is ultimately the failure of HyperCard, the reason we're not using HyperCard for everything, because, at some point, you reach the limit of that abstraction and you can't get underneath it to build useful things. We always go back, for that, to very general-purpose languages. That was always my criteria. Anybody else have any criteria they want to add to that?
Xu: I actually have two criteria. One is actually the modern no-code/low-code platform is actually getting better. One of the criteria is that you have a separation between production and development mode. The early generation of the low-code platform, they don't really have a sense for, “here is my production environment.” You usually have a back office or you have a different mode. Then what you put in there goes into your production environment. The reason low-code platforms they're getting better in this area. I don't know. Today, maybe they're doing much better.
Another criteria that is interesting — if I'm using a low-code platform, is there a way I can change back into the normal development environment? The reason being, I think that's a fundamental logic for this low-code platform. They assume the user is going to be an absolute beginner because for an absolute beginner, you don't understand things. You don't really understand how everything goes but you want to do something quick.
That is actually true even for a proper programming language because I still remember when I starting doing, like, Delphi 20 years ago. At first, I go to the UI builder that is much nicer, then later when I have more experience, I can write the whole UI maybe totally from a coding perspective. I'm actually from a total beginner I become a more advanced user.
Most of the low-code platforms just assume all the user is going to, let's stay for an absolute beginner forever. That will become a true frustration because you don't want to really do similar thing for two, three years. You already know a better way. You already roughly know how the things work. You're going to figure out a way to become more productive. That is, for me, is there anything so I can change the whole thing back into code? That is actually really important for me.
Mike: I think a little bit on that — there has been a rise of professional low-code platforms. I think they're labeled where the intention is that people to get good at using them and understanding them and even understanding a little bit about the abstractions that they should create to avoid that copy-paste problem.
Scott: I think you should look at what the learning curve is to become that expert. If it requires deep expertise, then you have to ask yourself if you're really getting the benefits that you were expecting to get from the low-code platform, because it may be harder to find people with that expertise than it would be to find programmers in the first place.
Neal: That I think gets to where we're seeing more and more of these show up, but these really rarefied domains where you would build years of expertise. There are a lot of these tools around orchestration and distributed architectures, for example, or building these workflows, business-based workflows. We see a lot of these low code-no code environments for that, where building up several years of expertise is actually useful because these 80% workflows are really common. The kind of things that we used to build in Microsoft Access and things like that, forms-based applications.
I think we are seeing more of those platforms support years and — not a career's worth of development, but more than a few years worth of development worth of payback to learn it.
Scott: I think often that expertise is needed around the deployment process and around the separation between production and test that Xu Hao was talking about. Yes, you can do it, you can separate those things with a lot of the tools, but doing that sometimes means you need to get out of the covers. You need to understand the guts of the system. You need to know a lot of secret variables and switches and forms. I think that defeats the purpose.
You need to be able to not just develop an application, but develop an application in a professional way that's well engineered and do that within the context of the tool that you've been given without having to go around and go under the covers to make it happen.
Mike: I think we have to realize that we're coming from a particular perspective here, which is we are used to developing software using traditional coding techniques, armies of developers who are reinventing what we hope is the cutting edge of the best way to do software always. We haven't even started talking about things like AI-assisted programming and then stuff like that. — That will be for a different podcast…
The thing that I think is quite interesting about low-code platforms is that in many ways, they're not a competitor to what we already do. I think it's more of an end. There is more software in the world that people would like to create, but that we can't necessarily create with the current set of programmers that we have. If we have a different set of tools for people, maybe they can take that on.
I think one of the things that I found interesting when I was looking into this stuff was, we would look at the software delivery lifecycle and Thoughtworks would have a lot of opinions about that having written the book on continuous delivery and stuff like that. We'd have some fairly strong opinions on what we think a good SDLC looks like. But some people who are picking up low-code platforms don't really have an IT department or don't have much of one, and certainly don't have developers who have a strong inclination towards TDD, continuous delivery, and all those kinds of things.
For some of them, picking up the out-of-the-box software lifecycle that a low-code platform gives you, is actually a step up. Even if the versioning isn't exactly what we would like, and you can't actually view the diffs in the way that we would want to, the fact that there is some version control, the fact that there is some separation between environments and some notion of promoting an artifact to another environment, that might actually be quite a useful increase in — that might actually be a good step up for some [crosstalk]
Scott: Yes. Particularly when you're talking about internal applications where you don't have a customer experience you're trying to worry about, utility applications. I have a lot of empathy for the businesses that want what intuitively seems like a really simple application, or you want to make a change to an existing application. "I want to change the color of this button," and you get a quote back for $200,000 to make that change. That's ridiculous, and so I understand what the motivation is, and it's definitely the tradeoffs are there, many times.
Xu: I think the scenario, like you described, is more towards no-code rather than low-code because — I can share some of the cases. One of the cases is really popular in China, that is actually in Taobao. That is one of the largest eCommerce website probably like in the world. Most of the site around Taobao, they only have 5 to 10 people — really small business, they don't really have strong IT department.
In order to have your inventory data working properly and you can integrate your own spreadsheet with the Taobao system and with the payment, these sort of things are really difficult. Then Taobao has an ecosystem. They build a ecosystem. It's more like a marketplace strategy, so if you're a business owner, you can pick up all those plugins or similar applications. They have some customization features and then they have this integration. If you're using other software, they can much more easily be integrated with Taobao. That is more like no-code — most of the time, you don't really need to write code, but you need to know how to config this plugin.
Now, an example is the product we integrated from China many years ago, that the golden data. That is really, really simple. You have a form-based application that is heavily used by our admin team. They were actually using that to create a form, like sending out, collecting some data, and then just quickly processing that. That actually supporting 80% of our operation procedure within China. Also for that product, they're heavily used in even smaller businesses.
One or two people — really, really small business. They don't even connect with Taobao yet. They're more like on WeChat. I was sending out a form into a group of people if they want to buy something. There's just fill in the form. I have people processing the form at the back end and then sending out the product. That for me is more towards the no-code scenario rather than a low code because, in that case, you shouldn't even think about anyone to write a code.
Scott: It's a very specific domain too. I think there's some tools — some of these platforms are trying to be completely general. That's where I think you could get into trouble. You expect it to solve all of your problems with one package. I think being as narrow and targeting it and being disciplined in your business about where you use that, where you apply it, because there's… Vendors are going to want you to use it for everything in the end. It's really important. I think it's up to you to draw the boundaries for the architects or the people who are defining how the product is going to be used.
Neal: That's a good way to arrive at our first piece of concrete advice that we can give from this discussion, which is: manage expectations for these things. This is one of the reasons I think that we have traditionally been annoyed at these tools because they are so overhyped by the marketing departments and these tool vendors and that always annoys people — when you see someone promising the moon when you know they can't actually deliver the moon. Managing expectations I think is important because for exactly the case that Xu Hao was talking about, you don't expect to be able to build a sophisticated application with this series of plugins, but you know what your limits are.
The exact same is true I think for the most pervasive, by far, low-code environment on earth, which is Excel. But people are happy in Excel because you don't try to build excel into a web browser or some other different application because you understand the abstraction so well and you understand its limits so well and so You don't try to turn it into some Frankenstein monster — which is unfortunately not true with some of these low code-no code tools which sell themselves as the solution for everything. I think that's really important: understanding what it's good for and importantly what it's not good for.
One of the piece of advice I give teams when they're evaluating these things is, the normal way you evaluate something is the Hello World. If you can't get Hello World to work in low code-no code, then what are you even doing there? That should be beyond trivial. You should try to find some of the edge cases you think will push up against where it will break to see exactly where the edge of its capabilities are because then you can plan to supplant that with something else, or should we use this or not? Understanding its extent I think is really important early on.
What's some other concrete advice we can give people as to ways of choosing these things intelligently? Because they are here, they're never going to go away and they are useful in many situations, so in what situations are they useful in?
Scott: I think it's really important that you be able to get your data out. Because no matter how great your platform is, at some point, you're probably going to want to migrate away from it. At some point, you're going to want to replace it with another tool or another platform or even just upgrade. There are so many of these tools that I've seen that the data checks in, but it doesn't check out.
You have to go through extreme histrionics — or maybe there's no way. That actually applies to a lot of ERP tools as well. But I think you should look at what are the facilities that I have for just dumping and getting all my data back from the vendor.
Xu: For me, the key thing for the whole podcast is really know your audience. Hopefully, is going to be the real user for this low code-no code platform. One of the trends we have seen in the industry when we're talking about DevOps, we're actually building a lot of tools in our application to enable the operations people so they can actually do this sort of thing. We're actually starting to be building our own low-code or no-code environments because it’s already built into your application anyway.
Most of the time, you're going to have a bunch of scripts, you're going to run, you're going to generate a health-check page and then usually you're going to have small functionality helping you to do a really quick thing like on there. You probably want putting in more functionality in there. We are already seeing some of time, they have really, really at once DevOps, they're starting to build in their own low code-no code platform for their operation people.
That is actually, if you think about, if you know your boundary, if you know this… maybe like Homebrew low-code platform is a better option rather than buying something.
Neal: I think that's important too because that becomes a design consideration for the tools you build, is composability. The units from… very famously was designed for all those things to be composable so you can wire them up in all interesting ways. If you do the same for some of your observability and other kinds of ecosystem support, then you can start building simple little tools to wire them together in ways where the sum is better than parts,
Xu: Yes, sure. In that case, you may find a low-code platform really appealing quickly because you already have all this composable action and then you need a workflow engine to match them up. You're probably going to find a low-code platform like it's right there for you. I usually now is thinking, starting with a low-code platform, but maybe end up with a low-code platform that may be in another, like otherwise
Mike: I would add a couple. One is it's okay to have the right tool for the job, and it might be that you want more than one low-code platform in the building because they do do different things, have different metaphors. A lot of them come at very different price points, frankly. Those are reasons that you might want more than one.
Secondly, using low code-no code is a technology decision and it's technology related. These things should be done at least with the involvement of the IT department. I think it's a big mistake either for IT to abdicate responsibility for that or for non-technology pieces of an organization to say, okay, well, we're doing this and steamrolling the technology folks who should have an opinion. I think it needs to be a partnership for it to be successful.
Scott: I think you need to check with your design department too. [laughter]
You need to — seriously — if you're planning to use the front-end aspects of some of these tools, you should decide how important the user experience is for you. How important is it for you to be able to customize and tweak that customer experience? I think there are ultimately going to be limitations, even though they're getting better and better at that over time. I think you really ought to check with the customer experience people, the researchers, and the designers as to… Even if it's an internal application, you might want to give a level of personalization or customization that the tool doesn't really support.
Mike: That the tool doesn't really support is super critical there. This is coming back to Neal's last 10% trap. One of the things that I worry about is if you give a low-code platform to some competent technologists, they will twist it into doing whatever you ask them to do, which might actually be a really bad idea. You should stop at that last 10% that the thing can't really do because to get to that point, you should have made choices knowing, going into it eyes open, that it's not going to do X and Y and Z and that we don't want to–
All the vendors will say, "Well, you can just drop down and write real code." No, you shouldn't, though, right!? That's not the point of the tool! If you find yourself compelled to do that, then you’ve got to reevaluate that decision.
Xu: They're actually going to stop you from operating towards a newer version.
Scott: I think you also want to think about how the features of this tool extend beyond the boundaries of the tool. You're probably going to want to consume APIs for example. How flexible is that mechanism for consuming APIs? Are you actually going to actually have to change for the development that you're doing in other parts of your organization? Are you going to have to adapt so that your low-code tool can consume that data? I think that's an important thing to look at.
Neal: Not only that but things like testing. That's one of the things that the modern generation of these tools support more engineering practices like being able to support your data but also being able to support things like deployment pipelines and continuous integration and some level of testing beyond just testing the entire system all the time. That's one of the things that make us less mad at these tools, is that they're playing nicer with the ecosystem support that we like to see for the other bits of our software.
Scott: They're getting better at checking into normal social control systems too — about being able to dump out a text file that defines all the system and lets you check it in with the rest of your assets and version it with the rest of your assets.
Neal: So, any last remaining advice for people out there who are struggling to try to figure out? Should we use this low code-no code environment or should we write it from scratch, or?
Scott: I think having some really clear guidelines that if you're going to adopt the tool, make sure that everyone in the organization who is going to be affected by it knows where you should be using the tool and where you shouldn't be using the tool and what the boundaries of that are. It's really important to have some criteria to define how complex an application written in a low or no-code tool can be.
How many operations can you have on a single graphical page or how many branch points can you have in a single flow? Those kinds of things — I think it's really important to set some limits because there's going to be a point where you really need to stop and use a different tool, use something that's more sophisticated.
Xu: My last bit of advice is actually the better developer you are, maybe you're going to be more productive with the low-code platform — it's not the other way around. Because if you think of a low-code platform as a the developer experience tool or productivity tool, that, maybe, is another way to look at those sort of development tools.
Neal: It's less code you don't have to write! Fantastic! Thanks to both of our guests for this fascinating conversation, Scott and Xu Hao.
Scott: It's been great.
Neal: Thanks, Mike, and we will see you next time on the Thoughtworks Technology Podcast.
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