ABCs and 123s—letters and numbers are some of the first things we learn—even before we enter school. We’re taught to recognize, memorize, understand, and eventually manipulate them to communicate and persuade. These characters reveal their greatest value when we’re able to use them as the foundation for something greater, that not only moves individuals forward, but entire communities, businesses, and societies.
Simple letters and numbers underpin some of the greatest technology innovations of the last decade (and those that have yet to come)—often in the form of software code. And yet, when manipulated for coding, these familiar characters take on a new level of complexity that only a few specially trained people understand. Most application development today still requires people to learn archaic languages that only a small minority understand—to think the way machines think.
There’s a challenge to this construct. With an increasingly technology-driven future, there simply aren’t enough skilled professionals to code us into the next great innovation. Just two percent of the worldwide population knows how to code, and the need for software developers is estimated to grow by 24 percent over the next seven years. Untold dollars and hours are being spent to teach more people how to communicate in these languages, and there aren’t enough educational programs available around the world to keep pace with the need.
There was a time in computing’s history when logic and problem solving—not knowledge of a specific programming syntax—were the desired skills. Think about what could be done if we spent just some of that effort creating software that empowers creative thinkers with tools to streamline the time between generating an idea and translating it to an application. Low-code technology makes this possible. Advances in AI make this approach even more powerful.
Software that writes itself
Software development is about crafting logic. It’s taking an outcome and reverse-engineering it into logical steps. Today, this is mostly done by people that are specially trained in translating logic into a particular computing language. Not everyone can do this, but most people can learn to draw a picture of a process or tell a story in a logical manner about what they are trying to achieve and what they need to do to get there. This visual approach to capturing and translating logic is the next wave of technological change the industry needs to advance. And when AI is integrated into low-code technology, software can write itself.
Young children are already being taught to code by playing games that involve following or creating a story line or sequence of events using visual cues. Hour of Code is a great example. It’s a non-profit focused on computer science literacy that provides access to countless one-hour tutorials for kids starting before they can read, up through adults. For the youngest kids, the tutorials are games that teach them how to manipulate, drag, and drop shapes, icons, blocks, etc. to complete a challenge or tell a story. The actual code is hidden, so kids can focus on the story and the goal.
That’s how application development should work today. Using visual metaphors to draw a process allows more people to build applications, makes it easier and faster to build them, and a lot easier to change them as well. You don’t need to worry about what platform or operating system you’re building for because the process (or story) is the same regardless. The software understands what the pictures mean, translates, and spits out the code the machines need to make something happen, and AI technology ensures the software self-optimizes.
This low-code approach to development gives organizations the flexibility to structure teams and deploy technologies that don’t require extensive coding expertise. It empowers “citizen developers,” employees (often without a technical background) who can create new applications or programs from a corporate or collective code base, system, or structure. When the need for fluency in a particular programming language is eliminated it’s easier to capture the logic held by employees and incorporate their creative vision and institutional knowledge into a project.
Additionally, when low-code is combined with Agile processes, it allows development and IT leaders to manage the input from cross-functional teams and better control the quality of application development without losing control of business-wide standards and IT practices. A low-code approach involves both people and processes to address current and future app development challenges. As common app development tasks are streamlined, low-code empowers increased productivity, reducing IT dependency and empowering business users to take increased ownership of the development and maintenance of their own applications.
Shifting to a low-code approach doesn’t have to be painful
For organizations that are already looking to leverage the valuable knowledge held by individual workers or that currently work in an agile manner, moving to a low-code approach is the next logical progression. Steps to take include:
- Gain leadership buy-in on a low-code approach that recalibrates technology to cater towards a more inclusive way of working and bring non-technical business people into the app development process.
- Identify the people that have demonstrated excellence in their roles, but also show a clear desire to make a greater impact. Engage them on the opportunity to reimagine their own careers by exploring the potential to become a citizen developer. There’s a quickly developing wave of need coming behind the citizen developer, which will create a demand for citizen data scientists as well.
- Educate the citizen developer on how the contribution of their logic and operational knowledge can help drive value for the organization and give them more opportunity and control.
- Developer and IT leaders must then create a set of rules, templates, and platforms that can be understood by non-technical employees, guide and orchestrate the app development process, and prompt citizen developers to provide the information needed to build an application within the organization’s parameters—all without ever having to write a single line of code on their own.
- Create and maintain regular collaboration across IT and business people by establishing a Center of Excellence (COE) that ensures the approach remains streamlined and effective—without overburdening business teams. In this context, a COE is a highly formalized and self-directing entity that is responsible for supporting business users and shepherding even the most complex projects to successful completion.
- Ensure you understand how transparent or opaque your AI-driven applications need to be. AI is more powerful when the decisions its making are opaque, but if you are in a heavily regulated industry or have other reasons that will require you to explain why certain decisions were made, be sure your AI is more transparent and traceable.
Low-code for the greater good
This visual and collaborative approach to software development has the additional benefit of opening employment opportunities to a wider, more diverse pool of workers. Of the more than four million computer software engineers in the U.S. alone, 70 percent are male and little more than a third identify as a non-white race or ethnicity. That’s not a particularly diverse workforce, meaning the software created—the same software that powers everything we do as humans—is at risk of being exclusionary and biased.
We need solutions that reflect how a greater fabric of people think, communicate, and work. This includes diversity in terms of race, gender, and culture, but also diversity in terms of experience, to ensure empathy is part of the development process and reflected in the end-product. Not only because it is the right thing to do ethically, but because the final product will be better for it. When those who reflect the users of the software are involved in its development, you’ll get better results.
But low-code is only possible when an organization makes the cultural shift from believing technology solutions are solely the responsibility of technical experts to believing everyone can contribute to change. Any person with an idea to create or improve the environment around them should have the ability to make their idea a reality—without being impacted by the coding language barrier.
Case in point: ACSO, an Australian nonprofit organization focused on supporting clients in, or at risk of, falling into the criminal justice system—has a small team of just four developers to build the technology that will help address the seemingly immovable issue of crime and prison reformation.
By leveraging a low-code approach, this small—but mighty—team is empowering case managers, criminal justice professionals, and mental health professionals to more independently create the tools they need. This enables them to collaborate more seamlessly and manage client information to both change the lives of individuals, as well as make a greater impact on the communities they serve.
Empowering anyone (and everyone) with an idea
It’s time to abandon the notion that creating technology solutions falls exclusively to technical professionals. Society needs to make technology accessible to as many people as possible—across all areas of the business and skillsets. By doing so, we can empower creative thinkers and provide tools that streamline the time between having a great idea and seeing it come to fruition for the betterment of society.
With this mindset, organizations can realize the untapped potential that sits within their four walls. The citizen movement can flourish as technology evolves and provides individuals with the opportunity to evolve and thrive as well. By democratizing software and taking a more collaborative approach to technology challenges, managers can open application development to a more diverse group of people and ultimately redistribute power and opportunity.
When given the right opportunities and tools to succeed, our basic ABCs and 123s have the power to accelerate communication, collaboration, job creation, and technological innovations at enormous scale and in ways we can’t yet imagine. If we know how to build software so that a four-year-old can build an application, then surely, we can figure out how to give a lot more adults the benefit of that same capability.