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Early digital computers weren’t very useful. Sure, they were far more powerful than the punch card tabulating machines that they replaced, but they were devilishly hard to program. Instructions needed to be written in assembly code, which was time consuming and difficult.
That system began to change when John Backus developed FORTRAN in the early 1950s, which replaced assembly language with command statements that compiled the lower level code into something that roughly resembled English. Later languages built on that basic logic, compiling commands of low-level code into something even simpler.
Today, companies like Quick Base, Mendix, and Zudy are pioneering a similar movement, attempting to transform code into visual interfaces. Much like in the shift from assembly code to FORTRAN, the underlying code is still there, but it can be represented more simply. These low-code/no-code platforms are beginning to disrupt how software powers enterprises.
Visual interface is the key to the power of no-code platforms.
The Cloud Disruption and the Application Programming Interface Economy
Traditionally, technology favored large enterprises. Developing systems required a substantial investment in hardware, as well as expensive consultants to design the applications. Once they were built, they were also difficult to modify and upgrade, so systems would go for years — and sometimes decades — without being significantly upgraded.
“The attitude was, ‘we build it, you should like it,’” Jay Jamison, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Product Management at Quick Base, told me. So legacy systems prevailed and people just learned to work around them, making stuff up themselves on checklists and Excel spreadsheets. It wasn’t very efficient, but it basically worked.
The cloud disrupted many of these legacy systems by making powerful systems available to anybody with an Internet connection. Rather than having to pay upfront, even the smallest startup could access technology that rivalled what was available to large enterprises. Perhaps just as important, these systems could connect to other systems through Application Programming Interfaces (API).
Cloud computing and APIs did much to give small, agile firms an advantage. Without legacy systems to hold them back, they could deploy cloud technologies much faster than their larger rivals and deliver better service to their customers. But no-code platforms are now helping larger enterprises to move with the speed and agility of startups.
Overcoming Legacy Systems
As a senior executive in the facilities management industry, Bruce Squibb knows well the limitations of legacy systems. In facilities management, each project is essentially unique and systems need to adapt to different types of buildings, customer needs, maintenance schedules, and so on.
Squibb’s company Able Services, for example, recently won a contract to manage the janitorial services on several campuses for a large university. To effectively start up a business, you need to manage a lot of loose ends while also keeping managers, front-line employees, and customers on the same page. That’s a big job.
In an earlier age, most of this would have been handled with spreadsheets that would be sent back to a central office to be updated in a master report. However, Squibb’s team designed an application using Quick Base that automates much of what needs to be done, which helps his team to operate much faster, with more transparency, and with fewer errors.
Perhaps even more importantly, because Quick Base is a no-code platform, the application can be easily customized and augmented as the need arises. For example, if the customer institutes new facilities regulations or buys new equipment, the application can be altered to take these changes into account in as little as a few hours.
Flipping the Model
In a very real sense, no-code platforms flip the traditional IT model. Rather than developers driving what an application should look like, line managers can become an active part of the process. Much of what they used to set up in Excel spreadsheets or checklists on clipboards, they can now do in cloud-based mobile applications.
“A big part of the benefit to no-code or low-code platforms is that they let you access elements of a development environment visually rather than actually writing the code yourself. That accelerates development and improves quality at the same time,” Marshal Worster, a Senior Director of Solution Architecture at Mendix, told me.
Visual interface is the key to the power of no-code platforms. Because it’s so easy to use, front-line managers and other nontechnical people can do front-end and basic functionality, such as building their own screens, designs, and features. Rather than trying to explain to developers what they want, they can show them.
Today, computers are on every desk and in every pocket.
Essentially, no-code and low-code platforms make good on the promises the agile software movement made over a decade ago. Yet rather than merely integrating software development into the rest of the enterprise, it is making it possible for the rest of the enterprise to integrate itself into software development.
Building an Agile Enterprise
We’ve come a long way from the early days of computing, when computers were enormous machines hidden in back rooms, which could only be operated by an elite priesthood who were conversant in the arcane languages the machines could understand. Today, computers are on every desk and in every pocket.
No-code platforms help to match distributed functionality with distributed control. “No code is basically Agile for anyone,” Jay Jamison of Quick Base told me. “Where the agile software movement brought developers closer to business decisions, no-code platforms empower line managers to deliver value to the development process and, increasingly, to build things themselves.”
He also points out that when line managers can impact the development process, strategy and implementation can become much better aligned. “You’re talking about businesses being able to impact their strategy in a matter of days and weeks instead of months and years,” Jamison says.
Today, computers are less “high tech” than they are basic business tools, and the more power we can put in the hands of the people who use those tools every day, the better off we’ll be. The future of technology is always more human.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com.