Developers are in high demand and short supply, and many companies are left without the tech talent needed to build apps or automate business processes as pressure for new software to support digital transformation efforts mounts.

Companies unable to hire developers in this hot market–and even businesses with developers that want to free up more of their time–are increasingly turning to low-code or no-code tools. These platforms allow tech and business professionals with no coding experience to build apps and potentially fill talent gaps in their organization.

To help IT and business professionals better understand what low-code platforms offer and how to get started working with them, we’ve pulled together the most important details and resources. This guide will be updated on a regular basis as new information is available.

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What are low-code platforms?

Low-code development platforms allow IT and business professionals to create business application software through graphical user interfaces, instead of traditional computer programming. Coding is replaced by building apps visually by dragging and dropping UI components. All of the project’s components, such as frontend and backend code and configuration files, are automatically generated based on standard best practices.

These platforms reduce the amount of time it takes to create software, so that business apps can be delivered more quickly, and a wider range of people (sometimes called “citizen developers”) in an organization can contribute to app development.

It’s key to differentiate between low-code and no-code platforms. Low-code platforms are most often used by IT and others with some coding knowledge to create mission-critical custom applications. No-code platforms typically allow business users with no coding skills to solve their own problems and optimize day-to-day operations.

SEE: Business leader as developer: The rise of no-code and low-code software (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

Different tools can be used by different areas of the business, ranging from software 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,” said Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond. Even full-time professional developers may use these low-code tools side-by-side with business people, he added.

While only about 10% to 15% of companies are using these platforms to build software, as opposed to traditional coding, the market and adoption rates for these tools are growing rapidly, according to Forrester.

Gartner further supports Forrester’s rapid growth predictions by predicting that 65% of all app development functions will be performed on low-code platforms by 2024, by which point Gartner also predicts that 66% of big companies will be using low-code software.

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How can businesses benefit from using low-code platforms?

Low-code platforms can help businesses fill developer talent gaps by allowing business and IT professionals without coding or application development experience to build apps. They can also help make developers on staff more productive by cutting down development time.

“Developers trade off a little bit of control for more prescriptiveness, and because of that, they get a higher level of productivity,” Hammond said. “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.”

Nearly 60% of all custom apps are now built outside the IT department, according to a report from 451 Research and FileMaker, Inc. Of those, 30% are built by employees with either limited or no technical development skills.

In a survey of Quick Base users, 68% said the main reason they create no-code apps is because they fit their organization’s needs better than other solutions, and 61% said it was so they can make changes more quickly to apps as their workloads and requirements change.

Security concerns and executive buy-in were ranked as top concerns of using no-code platforms, the survey found. However, 47% of Quick Base users said that IT was fully supportive of their efforts, and 17% reported that business departments and IT were working better together as a result of building no-code apps.

Low-code and no-code platforms offer a number of benefits, including increased productivity and efficiency, career advancement for those that work with them, and cost savings, Quick Base found.

Low-code platforms can also help bridge the gap between business and IT, as they enable business units to create the apps they need in the way they want them, and the IT team to make any needed coding repairs behind the scenes, without the business unit noticing changes in how the app functions.

Development teams, and, increasingly, CIOs are often the ones seeking out low-code solutions for their companies to fill talent gaps, said John Rymer, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester.

One survey from PMG found that 42% of developers said they were “interested” in enabling more citizen developers, and 19% said their company already actively uses these outside-of-IT resources. Meanwhile, 74% of IT professionals said they see low-code solutions as key to rapid application development, the survey found.

Low-code platforms can also offer businesses more rapid application delivery, helping to realize the continuous delivery goals of DevOps.

The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted the benefits of low-code development, particularly financial ones. Because businesses had to rapidly shuffle plans for 2020 budgets suffered, and low-code development has proved a way out for many organizations. Low-code development during COVID-19 shutdowns has also freed up already overburdened IT teams, Claris CEO Brad Freitag told TechRepublic.

“The demand for digitization is so incredibly high and in some ways low code is the only way they can keep up. IT departments can focus on things like single sign-on and identity management,” Freitag said.

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What are the limitations of low-code platforms?

While many day-to-day applications companies use can be built with low-code platforms, these tools have limits, according to 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).

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Businesses also cannot always completely build and manage apps without the need for developer and operations skills, according to Leonie McGloin, program marketing manager of mobile platforms at Red Hat. While low-code tools can be a powerful asset during proof-of-concept phases of development, and can simplify some UI/UX issues to get an app running faster, “there is still a considerable need for developer skills to customize the project, create back-end APIs, and manage infrastructure deployment,” McGloin said.

Speaking with TechRepublic editor-in-chief Bill Detwiler, Jeffrey Hammond, vice president and principal analyst serving application development leaders at Forrester, thinks low-code has the potential to reshape development teams entirely.

The limitations of low-code platforms, as mentioned above, mean skilled software developers are still needed. What may happen, Hammond said, is that the traditional team of developers may cease to exist.

As low-code development platforms proliferate across the enterprise, “I think you’ve got the potential of seeing even more hybrid teams where developers get embedded inside the business organization,” Hammond said. The outcome of this shift, Hammond said, is a new environment in which developers handle the technical aspects of software development, while departments using the software are designing UIs with their desires in mind.

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What does the market for low-code platforms look like, and what products are available?

Predictions show the low-code market poised to reach $45.5 billion by 2025. With its value estimated at slightly less than $12 billion at the end of 2019, expect massive growth over the next few years, potentially to the tune of a 22.7% compound annual growth rate. In 2018 some 67 distinct vendors already existed in the low-code space, with dozens of others found on a small or regional scale, Forrester reported. Among large enterprise vendors, only Salesforce had embraced low-code platforms with prior to 2017, the report noted. However, since then, Dell, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, and SAP have also joined the market.

Leading low-code development platforms as of late 2020 include those from AppSheet, Oracle, Nintex, OutSystems, Appian, Quick Base, and more. Several tech giants have also jumped into the low-code space, with Microsoft offering PowerApps, IBM having its Automation Platform, and Amazon launching Honeycode in 2020. Google’s low-code tool, App Maker, failed to gain traction and will be shut down in January 2021.

Businesses should seek out detailed product evaluations and match offerings to their individual needs, Forrester recommended. The leading vendors tend to cost the most, while others may offer solid fundamental features that are useful in many cases, often at lower costs, the report noted.

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.”

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How do I get started choosing a low-code platform?

With so many vendors in the space, it can be difficult for companies to determine where to start in the selection process. Forrester’s Rymer offers the following three tips:

1. Determine who is going to do the work. Low-code platforms tend to fall into two market segments: Those for developers, and those for the business side. Companies must decide which side they need a platform for, and which will fit that purpose best.

2. Figure out the use cases the company wants to deliver. Each tool offers functions in different areas, including workflow and business process applications. You should select a low-code platform that fits your individual project needs.

3. Create a strategy that includes governance. Building and maintaining software is difficult, with or without coding. Businesses that benefit the most from low-code platforms are those that create a strategy, such as one that includes a portfolio management system, which can help employees keep track of what apps have already been built in the platform.

It’s also helpful to start small, invest in staff training, and identify a business leader to champion low-code projects, experts recommend.

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Image: iStockphoto/gorodenkoff

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