Throughout my whole professional career, I’ve worked with technology that caters to information workers. Sometimes I’ve been the power user of these tools myself, then a manager responsible for defining the details how these systems should work. For the past decade I’ve been the guy who actually puts the technology pieces together to deliver that system.
I have never written code in traditional programming languages for a customer project. Sure, I’ve done plenty of work that isn’t accomplished via point & click GUIs, but none of it resembles what the Wikipedia definition of computer programming says. In short: I don’t code.
Every year it feels like I’m sinking deeper and deeper into the technology domain of Microsoft business applications, and at the same time it’s less & less likely that I’d start writing code for a living. The rise of low-code development platforms (LCDP / LCAP) like the Microsoft Power Platform means that there are more & more people like me out there. Citizen developers are taking over many application development tasks but they don’t do what traditional programmers used to do.
The impact from this paradigm shift is potentially massive. Computer programming isn’t going away nor decreasing as a professional activity. However, application development as a task is being separated from the domain of programming. The output of what “code” used to create is therefore being democratized:
In this article I want to write down a few observations and thoughts on this topic, which I’ll hopefully get to drill deeper into in future writings.
From code-first to low-code
Things have moved along surprisingly fast. Just three years ago there was a small debate in the Dynamics 365 community on whether all functional consultants should know how to write code. Neil Benson’s excellent article called “Three forbidden words: I don’t code” popped up in my Timehop stream a while ago to remind me about this. (I must stress that despite of the title, Neil actually argues against the need for every consultant in the project team to write code.)
Today in 2021, this whole question on whether every IT worker should invest time and effort in learning a “real” programming language felt to me like it must have been from a decade ago. To put things into perspective, we have to keep in mind that this original debate took place in 2018 , at a time when the fusion of Microsoft Dynamics 365 and PowerApps (the “no space” era) had just been announced. MS had only just begun the process of throwing BizApps consultants and citizen developers into the same pool of technology. It was a very different world still.
Fast forward to 2021. If you look at what the Power Platform community has been debating about recently, I’ve seen a lot of concern from people with software development background & skills. “Isn’t Microsoft valuing coders anymore?” is a question that can rightfully be asked when looking at the common theme of marketing messaging coming from Redmond. It’s a stark difference to just 3 years ago for sure.
Already earlier, many customers who have previously been burned by problematic CRM implementations full of custom code have begun expressing their preferences in subsequent projects. “Avoid code based extensions and leverage OoB configuration options wherever possible” has not been an uncommon requirement to hear from them.
Now when Microsoft is advertising how powerful the low-code options can be, it’s going to be even harder to suggest code-first solutions to customers. At least you need a clear justification for why custom code is necessary. This can have unfortunate side effects, too, where the avoidance of coding leads to an even harder to maintain maze of configuration spaghetti. Different cooks, same dish.
Excel is eating the world
Power Fx has received a lot of attention based on only the initial announcement of what Microsoft plans to do with this new low-code programming language. I’ve previously analyzed the broader role of Power Fx as well as reflected on how Dynamics 365 professionals might approach it.
I’m not so sure that it’s wise for MS to go out and shout to the world at this point that “Power Fx is the world’s most used programming language”. Also, I wouldn’t personally say that my Excel skills have gotten me that far in creating formulas for Power Apps Canvas apps. It takes a lot of tutorials and browsing through the formula reference to get into grips with Power Fx.
Yet there are unquestionable benefits from using the “Think Excel” mantra as the backbone for developing this new programming language for the low-code era. Not just for sharing the same function names, but rather for ensuring the focus of Power Fx remains squarely on the power users that can make Excel sing. Not those wannabe programmers who eventually want to move from the safe sandbox of Power Fx into something without the training wheels. Of course one still might need to have the programmer’s mental model for producing complex apps with Power Fx regardless:
We need to keep in mind that Power Fx is not aimed at the audience who writes code for a living. Microsoft is not expecting that developers with skills in other programming languages would switch over to Power Fx. Rather the purpose of (eventually) open sourcing the details of the language implementation would appear to be in enabling other parties outside Microsoft to adopt Power Fx for their products.
Despite the ubiquitous role of Excel in the business world, we should not assume this spreadsheet software to be the only place where future app developer generations will gain their experience from. Gaming platforms like Minecraft or Roblox with their big focus on user generated content could be considered equally important sources from where the inspiration to become a digital maker is first put into the mind of an individual.
After all, being a guru in Excel formulas isn’t perhaps the strongest indicator of being a potential business app maker. The no-code generation is less likely to dive deep on a single tool, rather they are fearless in combining new services together on the fly to reach the outcome that they need. Separating this ability to grasp new technical tools from the ability to write algorithms in traditional software code is perhaps where the true democratization will take place.
Professionals vs. Citizens
The terms we use for grouping people into different teams in the current articles that cover the phenomena of low-code and business applications are somewhat problematic. On one side we have the “classic” developers under the banner that says Professional Developers, while the other crowd represents the “modern” way of creating apps and has been given the Citizen Developers banner.
“And now, ladies & gentlemen, LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!!!!”
That is exactly how we should NOT depict the situation. There are no winners and losers in this game. We haven’t invented a silver bullet that solves all business problems. There’s no eternal glory to be found from being “all code” or “no code” in everything you build. Yet it’s obvious that we’re not talking about a homogeneous group of developers here. Some of the platforms and tools used may be shared across, but the roles remain distinct.
The amount of low-code business applications that organizations of all sizes in every industry will soon have in their hands means that we’ll see a growing number of employees working 100% on these. If low-code becomes your full-time job, you’re not just a citizen or a hobbyist. You’re a professional working with advanced technologies and complex processes. The only thing that separates you from the “classic” definition of a Professional Developer is that you don’t write much code (aside from things like Power Fx).
Microsoft seems to have already reduced their use of the Citizen Developer term. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it would not continue to exist in the discussion, as the idea of anyone being empowered to create apps still is a powerful way to get the message across. It’s more likely that the terms used to describe the different roles within the “fusion teams” that deliver Power Platform based solutions will need to be adjusted.
When a business professional starts handling more and more technical tasks in the app delivery process, I don’t think this makes him/her a Pro Dev nor a Citizen Dev. It is the area in which I personally operate and yet I can put a label on it. Luckily it doesn’t make my work any less valuable. I’ve always lived as the secret agent between business & IT, so I can easily remain to be that mysterious Agent X. As the army of these agents grows, though, they’ll become a lot less secret with their presence within organizations.
Are they simply “Makers”? Time will tell.
Where democratization may lead us
I think what’s happening today with software resembles something that has previously happened with media. Two decades ago we saw the Web 2.0 phenomenon that moved the online world forward from a static web towards a social web. The elements and the actors aren’t all that different from what the move from code-first to low-code apps is dealing with.
Content creation exploded when the ordinary people (citizens) were given tools and channels to shift from just being content consumers to the new role of content creators and publishers. That was a huge transfer of power. For me personally, my decision to start this blog back in 2008 and to become an active participant in the Twitter community around Microsoft business solutions have been far more powerful decisions than anything I’ve ever had the chance to make at my actual day job.
If the traditional media was run by Professional Journalists then what emerged from the social web & social media revolution might as well be called Citizen Journalists. No longer was there any formal training nor editorial processes required for getting your content out there. It had a profound impact on our society as a whole, in both good and bad. The forming of new citizen driven communities around topics like business apps is a very mild example on that scale, but it’s where I’ve been able to observe the phenomenon in the closest possible detail.
What happened with human communication in the Social Web revolution could very well happen with human-to-computer communication in the next uprising. On a high level, I can’t actually see that many differences between what WordPress did to words and what Power Platform aims to do to apps. Different context yet the same underlying dynamics of how the traditional top-down model is replaced with a bottom-up approach.
One specific insight that could be drawn from this analogy between the social web and low-code movement is the ratio between different user roles in each. Even if anyone could technically start a blog these days, relatively few people have done it (and even fewer have managed to stick to it over the years). Most are merely content consumers, and some are active in commenting or sharing content.
It’s very likely that we’ll see a similar distribution when it comes to low-code apps in the business world. Only a small share of those with access to the tools will ever become consistent app makers – and that’s perfectly fine. It’ll still be big enough figures to disrupt the traditional usage of code.
Opportunities and threats of low-code
Just like the rise of Facebook or Twitter didn’t solve every problem related to media, we aren’t going to reach the promised land of digital transformation merely through low-code application platforms. Many of the arguments heard from Professional Developers on why the actions of Citizen Developers will create a flood of new problems are in fact well founded concerns.
Change management and version control don’t suddenly become a non-issue. Application lifecycle management (ALM) isn’t automatically taken care of. Architecture design and documentation can’t be skipped. Just by moving certain parts of the software development lifecycle from code based tools to graphical configuration tools and formulas like Power Fx we’re not magically making all the other parts irrelevant.
Some of the problems encountered with traditional business application delivery will only be amplified by the low-code model. As the volume of apps grows, as we have more parties involved in their development process, as the backgrounds of these individuals will be more varied – we’ll run into scalability challenges for sure.
This just highlights the need for new innovation. Reaching into the existing ProDev toolbox isn’t likely to be the answer – just like you couldn’t adopt the practices from a traditional media newsroom and apply those into social media platforms.
Be it the creation of content or apps, any model of manual governance and control that relies on A) the creators to follow specific rules and policies, and B) human editors/gatekeepers to enforce them, isn’t going to scale very far. Algorithms must be put into use. AI needs to be given the opportunity to help us in everything that goes into developing and maintaining great business apps.
Can’t put the genie back in the bottle
It’s time to accept the fact that this thing won’t go away. What low-code represents is not any specific service or tool that today allows you to do A, B and C – but not yet D, let alone E. It’s all about the journey – how to move closer and closer to Z, one step at a time.
Success is not defined by whether you would ever reach Z without writing a line of code. What low-code platforms aim to do instead is to keep grabbing the low hanging fruits of app development, one by one. Focusing solely on the “what’s missing compared to code-first” aspect is therefore not very beneficial in understanding the actual value that has been derived from different generations of low-code solutions, be it RAD tools or application platforms like XRM.
Sure, there aren’t many new apps being built on top of MS Access or Lotus Notes anymore (hopefully). Does that prove it was a bad idea to build any of them in the first place? Of course it doesn’t. These tools may have only been good at A or B back in their days, yet there was significant business value to be gained for getting the crude apps out there to the users who needed to manage digital information via them. Besides, even if you built a “proper” app via custom code in the golden era of Access or Notes, you would have likely needed to re-build that solution a few times anyway to stay relevant with modern client technology and new business requirements.
The evolution of software keeps pushing us towards higher levels of abstraction. It would be strange to think that the direction could ever turn and we’d see a large scale return to artisan software being carefully crafted by coding every line by hand, reducing the use of libraries and APIs that offer shortcuts to those soulless programmers that just want to meet customer requirements quick & easy.
Early days still
I’ve had a great opportunity to dive deeper into the concept of low-code during the past year, ever since we founded a company that focuses 100% on Microsoft Power Platform based solutions. One key insights from all my investigation work has been that we’re not yet very close in finding common ground on what low-code actually means. Neither the vendors, tech media, consultants nor customers seem to have a clear understanding on where to position low-code in the greater IT scheme.
Academic research on topics like end-user development (EUD) / end-user programming (EUP) seems to have mostly stopped almost 10 years ago already – before the invention of the term “low-code”. One study from December 2019 specifically calls out the lack of recent research activity “There are very few publications related to low-code aspects and they are from the last two years, demonstrating its emerging trend.”
Since it currently appears to be mostly the vendors like Microsoft, OutSystems or Mendix who are pushing forward their agenda, with help from analysts like Forrester in building up the hype, it’s hard to know what percentage of the low-code and citizen developer stories out there are based on facts. Sure, projections like these make it sound like it’s already an amazing success story:
- Gartner forecasts worldwide low-code development technologies market to grow 23% in 2021.
- Forrester analysts estimate 75% of all enterprise software will be built with low-code technology this coming year 2021.
It must be great for anyone investing in low-code to be able to present such growth percentages, to prove they’re betting on a winning horse. Still, I feel like we’re only starting to write the greater story behind all this exciting technology. Democratizing the tools through which our digital world is built one app or one automation at a time – that’s gonna be a bigger deal than just the amount of VC money being pumped into no-code/low-code startups.
At the end, it’s not even about which tools and platforms will win. Looking at both the investments as well as progress made by Microsoft into/with Power Platform, I have very little doubt that they will be taking low-code into mainstream for real. What’s the truly interesting part is thinking about all the ways in which this may change the business user behaviour, the role of IT departments, the market dynamics for professional services – basically everything around the low-code platforms.
If that’s something you’re also interested in talking about in more detail, perhaps you’d want to reach out to us at Forward Forever. Or if you feel like there’s something I’m missing in the above thoughts around the democratization of code, I’d sure appreaciate any comments in the box below.