Low-code/No-code: All hands on deck
The rise of low-code/no-code platforms in the last few years, fuelled in part by the pandemic, has opened up a whole new world for the software industry.
By Charlotte Qazi, Senior Engineer at BCG Digital Ventures
Offering an alternative solution by allowing those with no or little technical coding background to get hands on, they can reduce development time and costs, while dramatically increasing efficiency and letting engineers focus on the cutting-edge tech.
In this article, DV Senior Engineer Charlotte Qazi explains how DV deploys the low-code/no-code model, explores the advantages and pitfalls, and examines whether engineers are in danger of being out of a job.
One of the things I love most about building new ventures is that buzz in the venture room, when everyone is bouncing ideas off each other and collaborating to come up with the best solutions. It’s that electric drive to get things done.
In those early days, you don’t quite know entirely what direction you’re going in and things are moving so fast; everyone on the team is focused on burning down the risk and working out the best solutions to solve the problem.
The speed at which we bring ventures to market is imperative, and a core part of our unique approach at BCGDV, and we’re always looking for ways to move at pace. In recent years, low-code/no-code platforms have become more prolific and much more powerful, and we’ve had great success deploying them to give us that time advantage and get products to market sooner.
As an engineer, this might initially feel like I’m being put out of a job — if everyone can ‘code’ then what can I bring as a venture builder — but, it’s exciting to see how these platforms can support our teams in building better products, faster.
The advantages of low-code/no-code
Business is changing, particularly post-pandemic, and customers expect slick digital products. A website and/or a mobile app is no longer enough, which means we need to be delivering more value-add in the form of more cutting-edge tech.
With engineering time at a premium during the venture build, what are the main advantages of turning to low-code/no-code platforms?
Non-technical members of the team can get hands on with low-code/no-code platforms, giving us a head start by reducing time spent on the basic tech that’s becoming more and more a baseline of what our customers expect.
Increased speed and agility
Low-code/no-code prevents engineering from being a blocker to production. With more hands available to build the product, we can move faster and be more efficient in our sprints.
The speed that low-code allows us to prototype our ideas supports our teams in developing, learning, and iterating on the product more times over the sprint, allowing us to get even closer to building the right answer for our client.
As our ventures become more technically demanding — think IOT, blockchain, ML/AI — it’s a huge benefit to the engineering team to be able to hand off some of the less technical tasks, such as maintaining the marketing site, to other members of the team, so we can focus on the custom development.
Each cohort can keep a closer handle on the part of the product that they are responsible for, e.g., the marketing team can control content via content management systems, and the design team can build their own designs via drag and drop-style front ends.
For example, our Growth cohort can develop whole websites quickly and easily with tools like Squarespace to test our go-to-market assumptions. Because of the minimal time investment, these sites can be built to be thrown away after we’ve finished testing, with higher gains than costs to the venture.
Another great advantage we’ve found is that our design team can create brochure sites straight from their designs, built in Figma, without the need for dedicated engineering time. This gives the design team complete control over the pixels on the page, saving a huge amount of time in the back and forth between front-end engineering and design. It also allows designers to get a better idea of the look and feel of their designs as a web page/native app before we invest engineering time into building and iterating.
Before these tools were available, it wasn’t uncommon for an engineer to have to rebrand entirely more than once over the course of a venture, which was costly in terms of time and effort.
Fit to fail
We create an environment where it’s ok to be wrong, as low-code/no-code allows us to spin up an app more quickly, making it less painful to throw away if our assumptions were wrong. We can build spikes to test our assumptions at a lower time investment.
Is there a downside?
So it all sounds pretty dreamy, right?! You might be wondering why we aren’t building our entire products from low-code at this point. Let me share some of the important lessons we’ve learned along the way:
Low-code/no-code is great in early development, but I wouldn’t recommend it for products with lots of features and many users. That’s not to say that in a few years there won’t be more platforms available, or that the current ones will not only have stood the test of time, but may have more features available.
Security is a common fear around low-code/no-code solutions. As engineers, we generally prefer to choose the tried-and-tested solutions that we know offer the highest security. There’s always some risk with newer platforms that they might not be maintained well, particularly as the low-code platform itself scales and ages, potentially opening the user up to security breaches. My advice here would be to think carefully about the risk. Perhaps if you are simply prototyping or have a very small user base then low-code/no-code is still useful. However proceed with immense caution if you are wanting to develop something with a new platform for your entire user base!
Sometimes we’ve found that the existing low-code/no-code platforms can be limited in functionality, which can cost you time in the long run as you reach their ceiling. You need to be aware of that and be acting in the background to ensure that doesn’t become a problem for your business. Particularly in terms of styling, you can create a much more bespoke finished product if you code it yourself. However, certainly in the early days, it’s often worth considering how bespoke your product needs to be in order to get off the ground.
When choosing a low-code/no-code platform, keep in mind who’ll be maintaining it and what their needs are likely to be. For example, on a recent venture, we were eager to create something quickly, primarily using AWS’ answer to low-code, AWS Amplify. However, the team we were transitioning the solution to were more familiar with Microsoft Azure; thus, while we may have gone to market more quickly and saved ourselves some time early on, in the long run we would have lost time gained in the early advantage in having to upskill the future team.
How do I get started?
If you’re ready to start testing out some of the low-code/no-code platforms for yourself, here are some of the ones I recommend:
- When it comes to no-code, on the front-end you can build websites via dragging and dropping boxes around a screen, with platforms such as Squarespace, Wix or Wordpress. There are also tools for the back-end, such as Xano, or content management systems, such as Contentful or HubSpot CMS, that allow you to include data without needing to build your own API.
- There are also low-code solutions that still require an engineer, but minimize the development hours needed to build various parts of the product, like AWS Amplify and Google Firebase.
In summary, while low-code/no-code is a great option for getting to market quickly and learning from your users, the ideal solution is still to build the key parts of your product from scratch.
Ultimately, if you write the code yourself, you have much more control over it!