Is ‘low code’ just old wine in new skins?

I confess to have been a bit cynical when I started the call with Martin Scovell, CEO of software vendor MatsSoft, about this great new idea that is doing the rounds. Here’s the skinny — rather than having developers program business processes from scratch, you can use a drag-and-drop tool to create process models. Press play and, hey presto! You have an application.

If you thought you might have heard the ideas around ‘low code‘ before, you would be right. Such ideas have been doing the rounds for as long as I have had the term ‘analyst’ on my business card, which means going beyond industry analysis, to when I occupied the lowly position of a business analyst in the mid-Nineties.

Even before that I was writing about the prototype-based software development approaches which started to materialise in the mid-Seventies, but which no doubt had their roots long before. But despite the deep desire to yawn vocally in the face of this clear re-hash of old ideas, I remained intrigued. “Why now?” I thought to myself “What’s changed?”

My interest was piqued by the nature of MatsSoft’s arrival on the scene. Software companies form for a number of reasons, for example that someone has spotted a gap in the market and gone cap in hand to the VC’s. More intriguing are those companies that find themselves growing unexpectedly and base their business strategy upon that.

As was the case as process management tools provider MatsSoft. “As we started to expand, we found we had a really good code base but we were still a body shop, we still needed coders. If we paused and rebuilt, thought to ourselves, we could move beyond that.” Not only did MatsSoft find itself better able to meet its customer needs, it also discovered that customers could do the same for themselves.

So far so good — but has the company found itself in the front lines of a revolution, or has it merely reached the same epiphany as so many BPM tools providers before them (most of them subsequently bought by Tibco, Oracle, IBM and others)? The answer may well lie in the nature of computing today, and how the boundaries of innovation have moved beyond the IT department and into the lines of business.

This phenomenon has been called many names, not all of which are particularly polite. We talk about Shadow IT, consumerisation or how the CMO is getting a bigger technology budget than the CIO, for better or worse. Fact is that control over technology delivery has fragmented and is never likely to go back to the long-cycle, change request oriented approaches of the past.

Businesses want agility, they want to be able to innovate and move fast, in many cases fearful that if they do not, some upstart will steal their lunch. Mantras such as ‘fail fast’ or ‘test and learn’ are an increasing part of boardroom conversations. As such the impetus for technology-based innovation is coming as much from the business, if not more, as from the IT department.

As business use of technology matures, so it makes sense that the tooling the business needs also starts to grow up. Let me put it another way. Back in the day, when I would say to a business user, “You can do this bit yourself,” they would look at me as if I was mad. These days, the business is doing a number of things for itself, for better or worse, and is increasingly ready to take on the tools it needs to do so.

In consequence, while the tools may not be all that different, the user base is changing. Perhaps lines of business may not do the work themselves, but they can work with providers without having to go through the bottleneck of IT. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as IT’s role itself moves to being platform curator rather than keeper of the keys for all things tech-related.

The overall result is less cost, and therefore more opportunity to use tools that help smooth the activities of the business. “You can automate and standardise things that would not previously be dealt with because it was too expensive,” says Martin. Sure, this means more productivity, greater efficiency, more innovation, improved customer experience, all the things people say you can get out of process management tools.

More importantly however, is that it puts the business into the driving seat, at a time when the business is looking to drive. Yes, ‘low code’ might be yet another term to describe a familiar capability, but it is pushing on the door of a far more open and technologically savvy set of business user.

Not only this but, rather than presenting itself as something that can make the organisation more ‘agile’, the low code model is being offered in response to an organisation asking for increased agility. Of course, many organisations still play lip service to such terms but at least the request is coming from the right place.

For sure, we are not yet at the finishing posts. Such technologies, and our working practices, will continue to evolve but as says Martin, “There’s no going back – the die is cast. This is how the businesses we work with are choosing to embrace technology.” As organisations continue to mature, they will need the right tools to be used by the right people, in the business and in IT. If that means re-inventing the wheel or creating new terms to describe old mechanisms once or twice, that’s all good.