How to navigate the different shades of low-code

I vividly remember the day my dad bought me a computer. I was still in primary school as a young 11-year-old rascal. 

We already had an Atari game console and played Asteroids in true early 90s fashion. One day, my dad bought us our first PC. It was a second-hand computer, the only second-hand computer I ever owned. It had MS-DOS on it and probably a version of Windows, although I’m not sure. It didn’t even have a mouse. But it was awesome.

The honest questionnaire

There were no computer stores, so software was hard to come by. But what it did have was QBasic, an MS-DOS-based programming language with a built-in IDE—not that I had a clue. So that was the software that I was using all day, also because it came with an extensive built-in manual. The first app that I built was a questionnaire app. The first question was, “How old are you?” Everything you answered beyond 11 gave you the “you are old” reply.

My schoolmate was also into coding; he had MS Visual Basic. This was a visual way to build software. You dragged and dropped components on a canvas, and you had a UI. Of course, with some crafty use of some 5¼” floppy disks, that software was mine. Sorry, Bill Gates, but I'm happy your company worked out for you anyway in the end.

Visual software development. Sounds familiar, huh?

Speeding up software development since day one

For most of you who have been in IT longer, this is nothing new. Ever since software development appeared, we have tried to speed up the way we build software. Because with software, you can build software to build software.

The first lines of code were written (and debugged!) on paper. Then compilers appeared, virtual machines, garbage collection, and whatnot. And then came the internet. I’m not going to bother you with stories about the early days of the internet, but it was fun and small.

Software development has always been progressing at a fast pace. Where is low-code in all of this?

Truthfully, that's hard to explain. Didn’t mini-Chris build software visually in the early 90s? If visual development has been around since then, then what makes modern low-code low-code? We’ll get back to this later. Because after the Visual Basic era, building web-based apps emerged, and we were back to writing everything in code again.

Different types of software

If we code an application nowadays, there's a good chance it’s a Javascript-based application that runs in a browser, often based on REACT as a framework. These types of apps have customized user interfaces and an authentication system, and they can connect with APIs to display data. They’re independent beings that can live outside of the place where they were conceived.

When you read all of this, you might say, “Chris, why should I care about differences like that?” Great question! The answer is, of course, “it depends.”

These differences matter a lot when navigating the different shades of low-code. When you’re improving your professional work with software, you encounter different problems, and different problems call for different solutions.

There are two different types of software: applications and automations. Automations are often made in tools that we call restrictive no-code platforms. An example is document generation automation. If you use an RPA tool like UIPath, you create an automated sequence of executed tasks. The automation is just a configuration inside a restrictive no-code platform. With no-code creator tools, it’s most often not about applications. With low-code the deliverable should be an application. This is an important distinction.

This is not a question of whether one is better than the other. This is about your use case. If your problem is that you need to generate a lot of documents, automation is an excellent setup for you.

But it’s not an application.

What is an application, and what is the best fit for your needs?

An application has a customized UI, can independently connect with APIs, and should be able to run independently outside of the low-code platform itself as well. 

At Betty Blocks, we also use the term no-code application development. The outcome is an application, so the term is used to explain that absolutely no code needs to be written to build an application. I know it can get confusing.

It's not important whether it’s automation, no-code, or low-code. What is important is to know if the solution you chose works for you today and if you want something that can fix the problems you anticipate needing to be solved in the future.

If you only want to fix your current problem, find the tool that best suits your problem use case and pick that one. If you’re on the business side of an organization, that makes sense; you have different things on your mind.

It’s different if you’re, for example, a CIO, IT Manager, or an Innovation Manager. Your task is to select a platform that fixes that one use case that triggered the search and all the ones that will follow. That requires looking at the versatility of the use cases that a low-code platform can handle.

Restrictive no-code platforms normally leave the stage, mainly because scalability and customization are important factors. Opting for a restrictive no-code platform without thinking about future needs for scalability and customization leads to having to rebuild the application on another platform.

Who will be building the apps?

Tons of articles have already been written about the continuing lack of developers worldwide and how software is eating the world. We all need software everywhere, but who is going to build it?

If you have a team of developers already, that might be less of a problem for you. You just want them to deliver more and faster.

There are platforms for that. We call that low-code for IT. These platforms are optimized for experienced developers and long software development cycles. These are the teams that build the next iteration of your ERP or CRM system. If you’re an IT Manager and improving the output of your current team is your priority, then low-code for IT is your pick.

But, the advantage of low-code is that it empowers a new breed of developer.

If you’re an Innovation Manager, and you have an innovation team, do you see them as a team of developers? Probably not. They are tech-savvy people who know what a good app looks like. This brings us to business-led IT or citizen development. 

If you have a diverse list of (unknown) use cases to solve and you know that the current IT developers are too busy to help you, then you need a different solution. You are looking for a platform that can enable that team of tech-savvy innovation people; we call those people Business Technologists nowadays. These developers need tools that allow them to rapidly build prototypes to validate, iterate on, and build out into a full-fledged application.

The need for business-led IT

If you are an IT Manager and have a team that is flooded with projects like moving SAP to the cloud or implementing Workday, you know you don’t have the capacity to support the business with their requests. All these requests for small apps and automations never make it to the top of the backlog.

Business people always find a solution, so you also know that if you don’t help them, they will find a way. And most of the time that way keeps IT Managers up at night. Business people sign up for tools and expose company data to the public internet. That’s stuff for nightmares.

The solution is to offer your organization a way to become more self-sufficient in a safe, governed, and controlled manner.

Solution-based low-code and BPM low-code

With the emergence of low-code, prominent software vendors have seen opportunities to add low-code capabilities to their software. This makes a lot of sense because previously, when you missed a feature in your CRM, you needed to build a custom app and connect it to your CRM. What if you could build that piece of customization directly in your CRM? Or in your service management platform? 

Enter solution-based low-code

Leading software vendors like Salesforce and ServiceNow offer these low-code features on top of their core products. We call that solution-based low-code. You don’t buy solution-based low-code when you want to build an app with a connection to the solution. With these solutions, you extend their capabilities. Usually, these low-code solutions are more code-heavy and require specific IT knowledge.

Imagine a government agency responsible for overseeing permit issuance. Stringent legal standards govern this process to ensure compliance with the law for each permit application. In scenarios where precision is paramount and errors are unacceptable, Business Process Management (BPM) platforms are an ideal solution. Typically, these situations involve large IT projects and complex software systems, where BPM tools can streamline processes, guaranteeing accuracy and adherence to legal requirements.

How to pick the right one?

Low-code comes in different shapes and sizes. There’s no one-size-fits-all or best solution. The one that’s best for you depends on your needs. While navigating the low-code landscape, there are five main stops to visit:

  1. Restrictive no-code
    Enable non-technical users to create and deploy applications using a guided, template-driven approach  
  2. Low-code for IT
    Streamline and speed up the development process by reducing the amount of hand-coding needed.
  3. Low-code for Citizen Development
    Democratize application development by enabling business users to build customized applications.
  4. Solution based low-code
    Provide a platform that allows users to create applications to leverage solution capabilities.
  5. Low-code for BPM
    Enable users to design, automate, and optimize business processes.

Remember, the world of low-code and no-code solutions isn't strictly binary. There's a spectrum of possibilities with overlapping features and functionalities. Consider this guide as a starting point, not an absolute rule. Your judgment and specific needs will ultimately guide your choice.

There, did I make that easy enough for you? 🙂

PS: Want to know more? Last week I did a webinar on navigating the different types of low-code, which you can find here: