Real-world developers' low-code examples focus on productivity
Two enterprise IT organizations share the benefits their dev teams gained from different low-code platforms, the process issues the tools exposed and how teams can get started.
Low-code development tools are often touted as a way to empower line-of-business workers to build the applications they've always wanted. Forget that. Most LOB workers would rather spend their time doing their own jobs, with the help of a responsive and tailored app portfolio.
These employees -- account managers, logistics coordinators and dispatchers, scientists, marketers, truck drivers, insurance adjusters -- understand the business deeply and provide great software requirements. But they don't want to be developers.
"We're not an IT company. We're a biopharmaceutical company," said Michael Cattapan, director of software engineering at AbbVie, who presented on the company's use of OutSystems for low-code business applications at Gartner's Application Strategies and Solutions Summit in Las Vegas in December. AbbVie turned to low-code to improve user satisfaction with IT. "We weren't really focused on the citizen developer thing necessarily," Cattapan said. "Those guys were always coming to us saying, 'Look, I don't want to do that. You guys need to do it,' but we weren't doing it fast enough for them."
Why low-code development?
Developers need to start with the business's capabilities, and build an app portfolio, productivity tools and even documents that fit their way of working, said Dennis Gaughan, a Gartner analyst, speaking at the conference.
"Our CEO said, 'I need this stuff delivered quicker. My customers can't wait a year for you to give them more visibility into where their shipments are ... rating, quoting and all those things we do as part of the regular business day'," said Howard Cochran, senior director of strategic technologies at Estes Express Lines, a privately held, less-than-truckload (LTL) freight shipping company in Richmond, Va. It's no longer good enough to just deliver freight -- data is more important, and the legacy system is only capable of current business practices, not future requirements.
Estes Express Lines knew it needed to modernize its LTL software, but faced some unappealing options. Not only is commercial software for this market expensive, the company also found that the off-the-shelf feature set did not fit its needs. But to update the tightly coupled monolithic code on its IBM AS/400 would take years and be risky due to dependencies. Agile development doesn't work in this world.
Estes Express Lines needed a rules engine that could work with a truckload of business logic. Some of the low-code examples Estes wanted to execute had to interface with the AS/400 on the back end, as it is still integral to business operations. The company selected Pega Platform, which enabled it to move to an Agile methodology from Waterfall.
For enterprise developers attempting to meet the highly specialized needs of a vertical and tech-savvy users' expectations, low-code platforms are a way to handle the scalability, data management, architecture and security concerns that hold back internal bespoke software projects. To be worth the money, a low-code platform must be flexible enough to build almost any app securely, even if it's only for internal users, said AbbVie's Cattapan. Low-code examples at the company range from a shipment management app to track chemicals around its labs and manufacturing campus, to a reporting app related to drug approval rules in more than 200 countries.
To work for these purposes, a low-code platform has to scale in diverse situations: "We might have a really large dataset ... and we want the app server next to the data, but we also want the option to have it up in the cloud," Cattapan said. AbbVie's developers still perform .NET and Java programming too, alongside OutSystems app creation. They evaluate each project's needs to determine which approach is the best fit for the business goal, process and data.
Increase productivity, not project scope
AbbVie and Estes Express Lines both adopted low-code tools more than two years ago, and both companies report that development project time dropped significantly, from years to months and months to weeks. Both companies now constantly deliver updates on their low-code apps. And their developers solve business problems, manage project scope and communicate with stakeholders rather than spend the majority of their time programming.
Developers can create a low-code app in two days, Cattapan said, but there's still a four-week process to figure out which data to include, what business stakeholders want, rules for the application's operation and other scope and process decisions. Thousands of users work on these applications that AbbVie builds, so developers can't aim to accommodate every idea.
Estes Express Lines' Cochran warns against entering what he calls "the realm of possible." Left unchecked, a weeks-long schedule turns into a two-year feature roadmap. You can do just about anything with low-code vs. programming, but organizations must ask themselves some important questions. Is it worth it? Do you need it? How quickly?
"There's a fear from the business that, once [the development team is] done with their application, they won't see you again for two or three years," he said. Runaway feature creep is a self-fulfilling prophesy with Waterfall: You allow the project to go over budget and be late because you can't close the door to users' ongoing needs.
An Agile minimum viable product (MVP) helps combat off-the-rails feature building. In the low-code examples Estes Express Lines built, such as a truckyard management mobile app, users get basic workflows and processes from the start, and developers update it iteratively, with the guidance of a steering committee that balances wants with business goals.
"It requires a lot more engagement from the business stakeholders," he said, comparing low-code and traditional development. LOB workers meet in the Scrum room with developers, sometimes every day. The commitment proves its value when workers want to keep the MVP over their previous way of working. Cochran encourages users to spend weeks or even months with the MVP to identify requirements for the next phase of development.
For this kind of IT-led app portfolio, low-code tools could just as easily be marketed as high-productivity development platforms, said Daryl Plummer, a Gartner analyst. A low-code application can expand because it's paired with consistent underlying meta data and platform architecture. "There's some neat reusability that's already manifesting itself," Cochran said of Pega Platform. For example, Estes Express Lines drew upon the logic from a driver's pick-up and delivery mobile application for the truckyard management system, and a workflow for disputes handling will reappear in a claims app.
A low-code platform also handles dependencies and backward compatibility, so updates roll out to production without the kind of software bugs seen in conventional programming. Change requests are no longer a hassle. OutSystems creates code fast, which is great, Cattapan said, but it's just as important to easily move code through test and preproduction to deploy. The platform takes care of those dependencies without any scripting.
"There's a lot of value in that management of it in a controlled way," he said. The low-code platform creates a record of who worked on what app, in what environment and when, essential in a highly regulated vertical like pharmaceutical research.
From specialists to the masses
Estes Express Lines doesn't rule out the idea of the citizen developer.
While development projects on the Pega Platform currently involve a mix of on- and off-shore Agile teams, as well as an expert partner organization, the company is also experimenting with user-led functionality testing. And that's just the start. Estes Express Lines plans to select technology-savvy people to train for several months on low-code development, then send them back to their business units to build workflows.
If workers have the aptitude for low-code development, IT doesn't have to be the bottleneck, Cochran said. Developers often think that workers will hurt themselves with powerful IT tools, but Cochran plans to combat misuse with practical interventions, like an architectural cheat sheet that helps LOB employees understand what workflows make good low-code apps. Gartner sees non-IT jobs with development responsibilities on the rise, from citizen developers and citizen integrators to business analysts.
"I shouldn't need an app team to build simple logic," Cochran said, giving the example of a truck checklist routine LTL drivers go through every day. Pega Platform provides guardrails for developers, encouraging best practices and discouraging unnecessary customization, and offers UI templates. It also has roles-based sandboxes in the Pegasystems App Factory, so citizen developers and professional developers can share the same tool.
Vendors have also turned to AI to make low-code platforms more intuitively handle coding and repetitive structural development work, and proactively solve problems. By 2022, Gartner predicted at the conference, 40% of development projects will rely on what it terms virtual AI partners to work with coders. The developer's role moves from app builder to orchestrator who assembles apps from components the AI-enabled platform provides. Bot marketplaces also provide extra hands -- if you can call them that -- on development projects.