By Amit Zavery, Vice President/General Manager and Head of Business Application Platform, Google Cloud
A new method of creating software applications for business use is changing the rules of software development. The “no-code” software development platform allows business users to create and extend, on their own, many business-facing or customer-facing applications without any IT intervention. A graphical user interface and model-driven logic eliminate the need to write code to create the apps. This enables business users – so-called “citizen developers” – to meet their needs for applications and other business tools in a way that is cheaper, faster and more efficient.
But unlike the much-maligned shadow IT, a no-code platform gives the IT function visibility into and control over data, with full awareness of who’s using the platform and how. The result is a changed relationship between IT function and the business, one that yields distinct benefits to both.
At Google, I am responsible for our no-code offering, AppSheet, which gives me a close-up view of these mutual benefits and of no-code’s potential. We already have 400,000 systems operating on our no-code platform. For example, business users in warehouses are building applications to manage and share information about inventory, purchase orders, and approvals. Telehealth providers are using no-code development to integrate patient-facing interactions with patient management systems. Mortgage brokers are using it to gather information from loan applicants, notaries, and escrow companies and combine them in back-end systems.
How does no-code development work?
A “citizen developer” – someone outside of IT who creates new business applications for consumption by others using runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT – pulls data from chosen data sources into a database or spreadsheet. This is connected to the development platform, which interprets the different data fields as ways to capture or display data.
The user can then use easy-to-understand tools to edit the properties of each data field and turn the data set into a dynamic table, chart, calendar, or other display. Next, the user creates actions to navigate or change the data, set up workflows to create alerts about the data under specific conditions, and generate reports at any given interval. The result is an application – in areas ranging from CRM to field inspections to personalized reporting – that’s ready for use.
After that, the platform makes it easy to set up the new application’s security credentials by choosing from a menu of required user sign-ins and third party authentication options. The citizen developer can then invite other users to install the new application and test it. Finally, after all necessary changes have been made, the user marks the app as deployed with a single click that automatically makes it active and available to all authorized users.
Low-code, as opposed to no-code, development platforms also help business users create and deploy applications in less time without traditional hand-coding. But the results still need extra work from programmers to make them function within the broader infrastructure. That means they’re still diverting IT from other, more strategic tasks.
The dual benefits of no-code development
The potential benefits of no-code development are significant for both IT and the business. For one thing, a lot of companies are using so many cloud services that they only have a skeleton IT department. Consequently, even if business users explain perfectly to IT what they need, they may still have a long wait for the overburdened IT function to deliver it. And often IT may end up iterating on the requirements for months or even years before they truly understand what the business is trying to achieve. Giving business people software development tools puts process in the hands of those who directly understand business’s needs.
On the IT side, handing off certain routine development tasks to the business frees up resources for work on more critical projects that may have been backlogged or have a longer time horizon. No-code development also makes it easier for IT to deliver new capabilities like AI and machine learning. Incorporating AI and ML into the platform’s graphical interface as actions lets business users simply drop them into workflows.
As long as IT retains control over the development platform, work processes, and the data itself, it makes sense to let business users build an application that meets their own needs. And when business users develop their own applications, they feel more empowered, which increases job satisfaction and retention.
Evaluating no-code development platforms
Businesses considering no-code development need to look for four things. First, an open ecosystem is critical. A no-code platform should be able to connect to multiple data sources, from Microsoft Office 365 to Salesforce.com to SAP to Amazon Redshift, and to control and manage access to those sources. Otherwise, its usefulness is limited.
Second, you need to ensure that the platform is truly no-code, not just low-code. Otherwise, your citizen developers and other business users with no programming experience won’t be able to use it productively.
Third, if you want your users to build and deploy even complex applications without coding, look for an intuitive, easy-to-use interface that also includes powerful application delivery and security functionality.
And finally, you need strong governance capabilities. Even when you let business users build their own applications, IT still needs the ability to control access to data and the platform itself, as well as the ability to manage data security and visibility.
Preparing the organization to use no-code tools
You have to implement no-code development as a partnership between business and IT, so each understands what the other is doing and why. IT needs to understand that it’s responsible for determining who can have access to the no-code platform and providing line of business users with sample applications to model their own work on, as well as online videos, tutorials, and forums to guide them in getting started.
Once business users start developing innovative new applications, IT needs a mechanism to share and give other teams visibility into those applications so they can be adopted and reused. It’s IT’s role to let business users know what’s available, help support an adoption pattern, and explain the governance structure so no-code developers understand what will happen to their app once they create it.
So far, adoption of no-code among our customers has been straightforward. A department sees a need for an application. Someone looks into how to scope and build it. IT blesses the project and gives the citizen developers access to the no-code tools for that use case so they can build the application. And finally, when the application is complete, IT helps the developers announce it and make sure it’s accessible and available to be easily delivered and adopted. That’s the point at which end users or customers download it and start interacting with it.