For years I’ve been exposed to the low code movement. This is where people and companies claim that they have a low code solution to your tech problem. With a few clicks on their product, you can build a tech solution. This has some merit. For instance, although I’m a software engineer myself, this blog is hosted on WordPress and I’ve done zero coding to get this up and running. However, when it comes to my experiences with the low code movement, I’ve found a lot of claims and promises to be flat out lies that actually cause damage but before we go into this, what actually is low code?
Low code is where we can build a tech solution to a problem with little to no code. These products will generally allow you to define a layout for a graphical interface, manage data flow, and plugin other apps for sync in order to solve your problem. Again, these can solve problems, but the trick is understanding when to use these tools. The damage comes when companies try and build their value in these low code solutions. For instance, if a company needs to transport goods or workers from one site to another, it does not make sense to build your own cars, just buy them. It’s a lot quicker, safer, and cheaper. Same goes for my use of WordPress for blogging. The issue is is that your company isn’t around making cars. If someone has access to the concept of a car, it will not ruin your company. Your company is around something else that needs to simply use transport to help it in its business processes. Same goes for this blog. The reason why people read this blog is not because I have access to WordPress, it’s that I have clinical and technical experience and worked in cutting financial and AI tech in London and London A and E experience. It also doesn’t hurt that I recently wrote the first textbook on web development in Rust with the world with the publisher Packt. I do not lay down in bed at night worrying that someone else is going to start a tech blog with a clinical flavour because they can pay for WordPress. Same goes for accounts who use Excel or any other low-code solution as opposed to having a team of software engineers. They are not selling the tech, they are selling the service of accountancy. If I buy the same software that they use tomorrow, they are not going to freak out because I have zero experience or qualifications in accounting. Low code becomes a scam when your main service is based off a low code solution.
Let us say you want to build a website that merely lists events and courses in a particular field. People can go onto your website and checkout the events. This is fairly straightforward. Great! You can knock up a website with pretty much any range of website builders and even take payments so you starting doing that. One problem, so can anyone else. When something is easy to replicate, then the market is easy to flood, and you’re going to always be competing with razor thin margins on it. You are not a tech business, your value is really on your network on having the courses. However, the main value is in the platform. You then decide that you want to stick out and become a force to be reckoned with by making yourself a little bit more unique, so you want to build a phone app that has ticketing. Ok, how do we get the data from the website to the phone app? And how is the phone app built? There’s some low code app toolkits and you can start building them and maybe connect to them with Zappier. Wait, how is the data even stored on your website? Oh, we really should have unique IDs for the users so they can go across platforms. Oh wait, we kind of want an email so send if conditions turn to x, y, z so the customer knows what’s going on…. ok this is still kinda working. Of wait, we want some more functionality, it would be nice to have a QR code so the user can login at the venue. Traffic is increasing, we need to really be pushing tasks onto a job queue and spinning up extra servers to handle traffic at different times…. oh, we can’t do this on WordPress. It gets more and more complex to the point that this happens.
This is known as technical debt. You take a quick solution now, but as time goes on, you’re paying for it. I’ve seen it time and time again where a group of people have tried to get a tech product off the ground and they’ve used low code solutions. They’ve smugly brought all the hype and touted that they could build the new facebook with a point and click site builder. However, when they want to add more features they realise that their platform just doesn’t support it and they’re begging a developer to “write a bit of code” to just add this one feature. Problem is, you can’t just write a “bit of code”, you have to rewrite the whole system. That’s right, the system that they have point and clicked away is close to worthless. They have locked themselves into a system that can be quickly replicated and restricts them from truly customising their product. It just doesn’t hold any value. It’s like an accountancy firm demanding more when selling their company because it upgraded the Quikbooks subscription. No the value is in their client contracts etc, stuff I can’t go out and buy tomorrow.
The other factor that exacerbates this, is that low code scammers and false profits talk about low code as if software engineers have been sitting around doing nothing. In the last 4 years I’ve seen a complete shift to Docker. This is where we wrap our applications into mini containers, get them talking to each other, and deploy them on clusters. Multiple apps with different operating systems and languages can be deployed and scaled with a few lines of code. When I’m coding a Flask app and I want an admin panel I just install the plugin that has an automatic graphical user interface for editing, creating, and deleting data entries. That’s right, software engineers are always automating their boring processes so they can focus on the interesting business logic. Login managers, database drivers etc are all being open sourced and are free to download enabling the developer to do things in a few lines of code. There are whole code libraries that you can just plugin and providers like AWS and Google cloud offer one-click deployments and this highlights the importance of the competition. If you have a low/no code tech product, all we need is two mildly experienced software engineers and a couple of weeks and they will smoke your product.
And this is what it is. Low/no code has a place. I use such solutions all the time and I’ve invested in some SASS companies. Using low/no code solutions to solve problems within your business is a great idea and no sane person would suggest otherwise. However, basic economics of market flooding and the fact that software engineers are always automating their own boring tasks so they can add even more value next year dictate that you’re asking for failure if you’re selling a tech product that’s based on low/no code. As a wakeup on what’s the horizon, machine learning packages are now open and can be trained and deployed with a few lines of code and AWS is opening up a blockchain API.