Developers are among the most in-demand tech professionals in the world right now, with front end, full stack, mobile, and back end developers among the top 10 hardest to fill tech jobs, according to data from Indeed. With demand outpacing supply, many companies are left without the tech talent needed to build apps or automate business processes.
Enter low-code development platforms: Tools that allow IT and business professionals without coding experience to build apps, potentially filling tech talent gaps in organizations.
"Developers trade off a little bit of control for more prescriptiveness, and because of that, they get a higher level of productivity," said Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond. "It also makes developing approachable for a wider set of folks out there who may not have a computer science degree, but can use a low-code tool to build applications."
Forrester predicts that the market for low-code tools will grow to $15 billion by 2020. "It feels like we're in a growth phase now—we see tools that make it easier to build mobile apps and web apps, and automate business processes. It's certainly an upswing," Hammond said.
In a recent Forrester report analyzing mobile low-code development platforms, Hammond identified four companies that offer particularly strong solutions: OutSystems, Kony, Mendix, and Salesforce. Several other tools exist as well, spanning business processes, mobile, general purpose web development, and even Internet of Things (IoT).
"Low-code platforms are one of several strategies that firms can employ to increase the amount of solutions or applications they're developing to widen their skills base," Hammond said. "If a company doesn't have a deep pool of development talent, low-code tools are one way they can account for that."
Different tools can be used by different areas of the business, ranging from IT developers to business developers. "We're seeing developers that get embedded inside the business organization, who are looking less for technical purity but are trying to solve business problems," Hammond said. Even full-time professional developers may use these low-code tools side-by-side with business people, he added.
Most vendors in this space have "getting started" platforms and freemium offerings for businesses that want to give these tools a try, Hammond said. "Look at the companies, download their starter editions, and try building an app and solving a problem," he said. "It's very easy to adopt these tools a project at a time."
People with some level of quantitative skill, such as those who have taken a programming course or are good with Excel, can often get up to speed with minimum training, Hammond said. Platforms like Salesforce offer extensive online trainings as well.
"It's easy to dismiss these tools as something only for business users, not a serious tool you'd put side-by-side with Java or Node.js," Hammond said. "Doing that risks losing an opportunity to deliver more capabilities overall, and integrate those solutions and round out a portfolio of capabilities. Even the technical folks in the IT organization should be taking a close look at these tools."
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While many day-to-day applications companies use can be built with low-code platforms, these tools have limits, said Ryan Duguid, senior vice president of technology strategy at Nintex. For example, Duguid said he has yet to see a low-code platform that can build augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) apps, or leverage artificial intelligence (AI).
"You'll always need the hardcore developer exploiting the advances of technology," Duguid said. "But when it comes to things that are fundamentally pushing and pulling data, and capturing information from users, most of these things can be put together with tools that remove the need for a large amount of code that historically had to be handcrafted."
It's also key to know the boundaries of these platforms in terms of operations, Duguid said: You may not be able to build things to certain exact specifications, but you can make something for a lower cost that functions well.
Ultimately, low-code tools can make even professional developers more productive, and free them up to solve more complicated problems, Duguid said.
"There is a mass of unsolved problems in every organization, and a limited set of people who can solve them," Duguid said. "You need more people to solve these problems, and they don't have to have a computer science background. They just have to have an interest, and not be afraid of playing with tech."
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Alison DeNisco Rayome has nothing to disclose. She does not hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.