Custom software development is great for getting all sorts of benefits: competitive advantage, a solution that matches your business needs exactly, and you have complete control over what functionality is added and for how long the system is maintained. There are plenty of times, however, when the cost of a full custom solution just can’t be justified. So where does that leave you? You’ve got a requirement for software to support your business but off the shelf software isn’t meeting that need. The answer may well be a low code solution.
Low code tools have been with us for some time and in the last couple of years have really started to become more prominent, capable, and mature. These tools provide a development environment used to create application software through a graphical user interface, bringing together pre-built blocks of functionality, instead of the traditional hand-coded computer programming approach. Some low code tools also include some level of scripting to provide customisation options beyond what is provided by the tool out of the box. Then you also get the phrase ‘no code tools’ which refers to tools where there is literally no typing of any code, scripting, or anything like that to create a custom system. You do see ‘low code’ and ‘no code’ used almost interchangeably and the differences are fairly subtle, with similar pros and cons so I wouldn’t particularly worry about that detail.
So, what are the benefits and when would you use one over the other? This is where an analogy comes in and in best Software Solved tradition, I feel there is quite a good comparison to cake!
If you want some cake, you have a number of options:
- You could just go down to your nearest supermarket and buy a cake off the shelf. Compare this to off-the-shelf software packages. The quality is going to be generally good, there’s often plenty of choice to meet your cake requirements, but the options for customisation are limited. You get what you’re given.
- You could buy a pre-prepared cake mix. All the ingredients are sourced and measured for you, the technical expertise required to make the cake is more than just buying one off the shelf, but far less that making the cake from scratch. The customisation options are much greater than off the shelf and the final product is going to be pretty reliable if you simply follow the instructions. This is your low code/no code option.
- You could make the cake from scratch. You have the get all the ingredients yourself, measure them all out correctly and the final quality of the cake is dependent upon your skills as a baker. You do get to decide exactly what type of cake to make (chocolate fudge cake, obviously. Carrot cake if you’re trying to be healthy), what shape it should be, how it is decorated, but this takes longer. This is the custom software development option.
Remember that it’s not an all-or-nothing situation either. I’m talking about low code and custom, not about cake anymore. You can look at implementing the majority of your system’s functionality with a low code tool and then the parts of the system that aren’t easily implemented with low code as custom.
When looking at a low code platform, the key factors that I would recommend you look at are:
- Capability – how much functionality can be delivered with this platform?
- The lead time to get from idea to production use. This is one of the key strengths of low code.
- Security of the system, both in terms of data protection and user and access management.
- Integration with other systems. There are going to be situations where the low code platform of choice doesn’t do what you want and having the options to extend that system by integrating with other systems is key.
- Licencing model and ongoing costs. Just like any other system or change delivery, the total cost of ownership needs to be considered over the lifetime of the system.
- Dependency upon the platform vendor for the operation of the system. This is a mixed bag between vendors: some low code systems have to always run on the vendor’s platform, some produce a ‘deliverable’ that can be hosted elsewhere.
- Lifetime of the product and vendor. Does the vendor have a clear roadmap for the platform? What is their track record for supporting systems long term?
Low code platforms have their place. They can be used in production; they can be used as a prototyping tool for testing a solution idea quickly. There are several good quality, mature low code platforms available today, so they are worth investigating.
If you’re finding that you’re adding more and more complexity to an Excel spreadsheet to track data or solve an organisational challenge, struggling to share it effectively, with old copies flying around on email and no single up to date source of the truth? Well, then maybe it’s time to look at systemising that spreadsheet and low code might be a really effective way forward, or at the very least a first step towards improved efficiency.