What is low-code development? A Lego-like approach to building software

Drag-and-drop tools allow citizen developers to assemble applications without the need for manual programming. Here's how companies such as Shell Downstream, 7-Eleven and John Hancock are putting low-code development to work.

building blocks of computer hardware
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In an effort to better compete in the digital era, enterprises are swapping traditional software development approaches in favor of Agile and DevOps, which enable programmers to build and continuously upgrade software in coding sprints. But these methodologies are just a couple of many options CIOs have at their disposal to fuel faster application creation.

Enter low-code development, which as the name suggests requires minimal coding to compose applications.

Low-code development platforms employ visual, declarative techniques, which define data, logic, flows, forms and other application artifacts, without writing code, according to Forrester Research. Such tools enable developers to drag and drop application components as if they are moving virtual Lego blocks around a computer screen. Developers may code to integrate access to older applications, for reporting, and for special user interface requirements, Forrester analyst John Rhymer wrote in an October 2017 research report.

For a deeper look at low code, read technologist Steven Koh's explanation, here, and Jason Bloomberg's article distinguishing low code from its no-code cousin, here

Low-code benefits: 4 real-world examples

 The time-savings associated with low-code (and no-code) development is potentially significant for companies trying to push software out the door before their competitors do. Thirty-one percent of application developers Forrester surveyed cited challenges in meeting business requirements in time as a result of using traditional coding with programming languages, frameworks and middleware to build bespoke applications.

CIO.com recently spoke to IT leaders at Shell Downstream, 7-Eleven and John Hancock about the benefits of low-code in their software delivery efforts.

Low code for oil production

craig walker Shell Downstream 

Craig Walker 

Shell Downstream CIO Craig Walker is overseeing a digital transformation that includes a shift from on-premises software and custom software development to cloud services and low-code development. Using low-code, the oil company’s developers are building customer portals and other digital services for the company's mergers and acquisitions, retail, human resources and sales and marketing units.

Walker says the low-code approach has reduced time from conception to proof-of-concept, enabling the company to deliver apps to market faster. "I can drag and drop a few things and someone can look at that data and say, 'Wow, that tells me something I didn't know,'" Walker tells CIO.com

Walker says the shift — a departure from years of coding custom applications — comes in response to disruptions in the energy industry. He adds that Shell only writes its own code when it aims to differentiate with intellectual property, or to develop services that may yield a competitive advantage. 

Grabbing Slurpee sales data to go

paul mccollum 7-Eleven

Paul McCollum

7-Eleven turned to low-code to supply product pricing information to regional managers who visit as many as 10 stores a day. The convenience store retailer, which operates 10,000 retail locations in the U.S., constructed a field price optimization app that enables its regional managers to access pertinent sales, says Paul McCollum, a 7-Eleven technology officer. The managers, who access the data from laptops, tablets or smartphones, can then work with the franchisees to bolster sales and improve product placement in stores.

McCollum says low-code allowed him to mimic a lot of enterprise-grade functionality for the app, which replaced a cumbersome Excel spreadsheet. Also, when a manager notices incorrect pricing information, he or she can click a button to send a report to a store notifying them to update their pricing. "The low-code component is that fact that I wrote it in four days," McCollum tells CIO.com. "That's where we're headed -- to put more technology in their hand."

Insuring better customer service

len van greuning John Hancock

Len van Greuning

The IT staff at John Hancock consolidated customer data from several systems, facilitated a major master data management clean-up, and moved operations onto Salesforce.com. From there, the team began leveraging low-code to infuse "customer centricity" into its digital transformation, according Len van Greuning, vice president and technology officer for the company.

Van Greuning used the platform's pre-defined data and cybersecurity models to allow non-developers to configure the environment while keeping it "as standard as possible." For example, screen workflows in the firm's call centers enable staff to easily capture and access customer data in Salsforce.com. The company also created a digital service that allows customers to upload scanned copies of insurance claims into Salesforce.com, automating a task that previously forced clients to send receipts by FAX.

Developers can also use the low-code approach to quickly assemble and prototype new applications the business may want to use, van Greuning says.

Better business practices
After a fire marshal threatened to shut down the Essence Festival when the venue hit capacity, Solomon Group used low-code development in combination with internet of things (IoT) data to help event staff track the number of thousands of attendees at any given moment in the venue.

Solomon Group built optical turnstiles equipped with sensors that monitor foot traffic coming both in and out of the gates. Using REST calls to pull the data into a new app, Solomon Group was able to visualize the data, charting attendee throughput per hour. 

Tracking real-time attendance and foot-traffic data helps clients permit more people to enter the event by controlling the flow in and out of the entrances and exits. This in turn allows venues to better manage staffing levels and sponsor placement, according to Solomon Group co-founder Jonathan Foucheaux. 

Low-code platforms & tools

Shell Downstream, John Hancock and 7-Eleven use tools from Salesforce.com, including Process Builder and App Builder, for their low-code production. Solomon Group leverages low-code technology from Mendix. OutSystems, Appian and Kony are also among a dozen or more vendors providing low-code development services to a variety of enterprises, according to Forrester.

While it appears low-code adoption is gaining traction, real, rigorous coding isn't going anywhere, according to the IT professional interviewed for this story.

"Low-code is fantastic in areas where you have commodity services," van Greuning says. "There's still a narrow space where you want to differentiate where you need strong engineering and that will never go away. But at least you can spend the right dollars than rather than on things that you can get off the shelf."

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