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On my 12th birthday, I got my first computer: an Amiga 500. And when I was 17, I founded my first company, which made software that allowed photographers to serve their clients. When I think back to my decades of coding, I remember that low-code technology started with tools that allowed users to build custom reports and applications with very little coding.
When I first started coding, low-code was somewhat analogous to the position artificial intelligence takes today: exciting, much hyped, and poorly understood. In 2014, it generated buzzing news: “Some companies are turning to new, ‘low-code’ application platforms that accelerate app delivery by dramatically reducing the amount of manual coding required,” explained Forrester.
Now, after nearly a decade of growing adoption, low-code – and increasingly no-code – tools are becoming mainstream.
The global low-code tools market grew nearly 23% in the past year, and today 41% of non-IT workers build or customize applications. according to until Gartner. Gartner also predicts that by 2024, three-quarters of large enterprises will use at least four low-code tools, and that low-code technology is likely to account for more than 65% of total application development. Gartner further predicted that by the end of 2025, half of all new low-code customers will be business buyers who are outside the IT organization.
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This explosive growth makes sense. Today, the business world is driven by the idea that every organization must digitally transform its operations to keep up with the rapid changes in the market. “Adapt or die” is a common refrain. Since most organizations do not have the manpower to carry out such a digital transformation with the labor of the IT department alone, the help of other business professionals is required. No-code and low-code tools enable companies to recruit new participants for the digital transformation, enabling companies to 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, otherwise known as “citizen developer,” who can usefully participate in the application development process. The tools are becoming easier to use and more intuitive. Users are assisted by excellent training within the tools themselves and a growing library of online resources with business-oriented, pre-built components such as tutorials, use cases and how-to videos. Business users who cannot write a single line of code in a programming language, such as C++ or Python, used by professional software developers, can independently build most of their useful applications using low-code and no-code tools.
Today, IT still does the heavy lifting of application development, but as this market evolves, business users will increasingly be able to create end-to-end applications with relatively little developer intervention. This shift allows developers to focus on maintaining large-scale strategic projects while keeping an eye on the long tail of applications being built by business technologists. Recently, developers’ responsibilities have shifted to maintaining core systems, enforcing application development best practices, ensuring standards compliance, data management and security, and acting as enablers for the newly created low-code application makers in various business departments.
In their next evolution, these tools will adapt to the specific needs of different business users, with pre-built content and components for business users enabling employees in technical areas to quickly develop custom applications. For example, a customer service representative may need an application for onboarding customers. By being able to create the applications themselves using tools that can be customized for this purpose, they can greatly accelerate the onboarding workflow and the resulting integration of new customers.
Low code meets AI
Looking even further ahead, it is likely that artificial intelligence (AI) will be included more heavily in the equation, enabling software development processes that are more proactively led and written by other software. This allows business users to create new applications using text prompts using the application development tool. Think of the auto-complete function in a Google search bar, but for code. There are already signs of this, as with GitHub Second pilot that builds on the GPT-3, OpenAI’s large neural language network. These are first-generation AI capabilities and will only become more sophisticated in the coming years.
While this prospect may cause fear 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 give the right prompts to an AI tool to generate the code a no-code application developer needs. The most in-demand developers in the coming years may be those who can write elegant and efficient prompts, more so than those who are proficient in programming languages.
The evolution towards increasingly user-friendly application creation tools is not only an opportunity for developers to build new strengths; it can also be a huge boon to their business colleagues and the business goals they serve. Companies are becoming more agile through the use of no- and low-code tools. Agility is the ability to respond quickly to change, and it is enhanced when business units can adapt and maintain their applications themselves to respond immediately 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 associates a poor customer experience with a brand, an outcome that is much more likely when application creation and maintenance is outsourced and when an IT department with limited resources is solely responsible for all maintenance. These tools adapt and provide capabilities for enterprise monitoring and governance of low-code apps.
Low-code/no-code’s next decade
While the next decade is likely to see an expansion in the role business users have in creating and maintaining applications, it’s important to note that the IT team is now – and always will be – the driving force behind this innovation. Their job is to figure out how to give business users the tools they need to be most productive and guidance on how to use them properly. This shift will happen through collaboration, with IT doing both the facilitation and back-end work that enables business users to leverage their skills and strategies through targeted applications.
The next 10 years of no-code and low-code development will likely bring about 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 the help of AI breaks this down and allows for a more collaborative environment. It is possible that in the coming years the boundaries will not only fade, but in some cases even begin to disappear. That should boost productivity and boost digital transformation efforts.
And while those kinds of rapid changes can present challenges for individuals and businesses, these rapidly evolving tools usually offer good news. With their help, business users can work more effectively and faster, IT teams can focus on driving business growth in high-value ways, and businesses can succeed better when the future is fast approaching.
Juergen Mueller is chief technology officer and member of the board of directors at SAP SE.
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