Low Code and the future of DevOps?

The term ‘low code’ is being thrown around a lot in DevOps at present – but is it a movement to be taken seriously or dismissed as the next fad?

DevOpsOnline.co.uk met with Nick Ford, chief technology evangelist at Mendix, to discuss its veracity and to see if there really is something in the burgeoning low code phenomenon.

With his 30 years in software and nine years in the company, it is understandable how Ford has so much familiarity with low-code and why it was so easy for him to shine a light on how accessible, manageable and forward-thinking low code can be.

So, what is low code?  Is it just about making the creation of apps more accessible?

Ford: “The thing about low code, is the problem it’s trying to solve: software development is hard, it’s difficult to do. It’s highly complex and highly skilled. So, what low code is trying to address is two things: to abstract you away from that underlying complexity and make it simpler using visual models, the kind you use to drag and drop; to address the collaboration problem inside organisations.

“It’s about how can we get people speaking to each other in a common language. How do we get business and IT to start working together to solve some common problems?”

So, ultimately, you’re really into making coding accessible for everybody?

Ford: “It has to be for me. We’ve gone on too long for coding to be held by a minority of people. That doesn’t help us build the apps we need. Every company is a software company, but also they’re not.

“On one hand, they are an insurance company, but they are having to carry this huge overhead of building software to differentiate themselves. They are carrying a team of people that actually add significant value. So, how do we expand that pool of developers so that everybody can do that?

“For me, I think, that’s where I’d love to head. I think we are a long way away from it, but the world will change for the better, I think if we can empower more people to do those kinds of things.”

Children as young as nursery-age are now being taught basic coding lessons. Do you feel that coding is something that will be in all of our lives soon?

Ford: “It already is! It’s everywhere we look. It’s hard to understand what the future will look like. What kind of jobs will there be? It’s for sure that whatever will be happening, applications and software will be at the core of it. So, those skills are very, very important and they shouldn’t be held by a small minority of people – they should be held by people who have great ideas.

“Often enough, entrepreneurs bring solutions to life in the intersection between somebody who has a great idea, and somebody who has the capability. What we need to do is to give people the technical capability to do that, which will open up the flood gates for people who’ve got ideas for building software, but not the capacity, money or technology to be able to do it. I think looking forward, low-code will help change that situation for the better.”

Why did you decide to go into this type of coding?

Ford: “What I have a passion for is creativity and one of the areas you can be very creative in is the software world. You can build something that doesn’t exist yet!

“So, I went into software off the back off that, but was quickly disillusioned as to how difficult it was to do the things I wanted. I moved into low code very early on in my career but recognised we weren’t getting it right yet, as an industry. I’ve been chasing down that goal ever since and thinking about software enrichment.

“Low code, for me, is an ideal way of doing it. I genuinely think that low code will be one of those things that people have on their CV’s in the next 12-18 months, along with FISS (Fiscal Intermediary Shared System) and the other products we use every day. It’s more than just coding, it’s about how we change business for the better and use this kind of technology to help us.”

You mention that applications are done right the first time, with the ability to integrate without multiple code. So, how does that work?

“What we do is get people to use something they are able to see and visualise and use, much quicker than you can do with other code. We’re talking minutes, hours, days, weeks, rather than months and years. We’re able to converge on a solution that works for the businesses making a minimal, viable product, in a very short time. Your opportunity to find out what will work and what won’t work just becomes much more frequent. What’s interesting is that you find the people that you are working with get really excited. That doesn’t happen much in software!”

If you could work with any tech, what would be the dream?

“What I’d love to be able do to do is to strip out and simplify that product as much as we possibly can. Inevitably, it’s a balancing act. How do you balance the complex needs of a full stack developer with someone who’s a RAD (Rapid Application Developer) and someone who’s a different kind of developer? How do we make sure that absolutely anybody can really use this software and they can pick it up with no training and no background? I guess it’s not the sexiest of things I’d like to change, but simplicity for me is what it’s all about.”

What do you see for the future of low-code tech?

“The future’s bright – I’ve been in this space since the early 90’s where co-generators and rapid application development and 4th generation languages were trying to chase down the same problem, and it was tough. It was hard because it was difficult to get people to think about writing software in an abstracted way. Low-code is certainly something bright.

“The future for low code is that it’s used by anyone and everyone. I think from a technology perspective, we’ve got good competition in the market place, which validates the market, but what I would really like to see is that it becomes mainstream. I want it to just become a part of what people do and the way they live their lives. People have great ideas about what they do on a mobile app, things that would help them every day.

“So, pushing it from enterprise and business into mainstream and having the future generation of software developers to build the next Facebook, the next Twitter, whatever it might be.”

How will this affect more highly-trained software developers?

“The landscape for software development is changing and there are some forward-thinking developers who get it and are embracing low-code and understand it. But there are those that aren’t. I think it’s an environment that they see as a threat, which they shouldn’t do.

“There’s a clear role for the full-stack developer in a low code environment. It’s not like we’re trying to take those people and make them redundant by replacing them with low code. That’s absolutely not the case. What we are saying now is there’s a role for the maker, or the ‘maker movement’ as we are calling it. RAD maker or the decision application maker: they all have a role to play in the development of software. Where I see the future for our traditional software developer is, they still need to use those skills to build the connection into services, the integration into the landscape, the things that they do very well.”

What implication does low code have for individuals and for the whole industry?

“Software testing is something that is critically important to building applications that run inside the enterprise. We take testing across the DevOps and CICD pipeline. There’s the initial regression testing, performance testing. There’s the inbuilt testing of the platform. So, a lot of the things that we’re able to abstract away from are things like consistency checks within the application.

“I still think as you come out of that, there’s still a role for functional testing, for performance testing. We also have a quality and monitoring solution that is based on an IOS standard which allows you to look at the quality of your model at the time because the challenge when you are building software at speed is you continuously need to refactor – because you build something, it works, you re-factor, you build.

“I don’t think these tools necessarily take away the need to test, but what they do do is allow you to automate testing upfront and to integrate into the test space that you find, and to build into your CI/CD department.”

You do a lot of touring, so how does speaking about this sort of thing help the DevOps world?

“I think what it does is it makes it real. There’s a lot of talk about DevOps and how they are building in a DevOps way and there’s a lot of success in this. I think, by me touring and talking about what we do and really putting that in front of people, it really shows the simplicity and the speed at which we can do things. There is the capability for developers, now, to be in control of how they push products into test. It just means we can be more productive as teams. It helps us realise our goals much better and develop technologies that help us to do that.

“I think the one challenge left in DevOps is the organisational challenge. There’s still a cultural aspect to development and operations, and what people often find is they can speed up development, but if it’s a traditional organisation that can slow the deployment of applications down. To me, DevOps is critical to this.”

What do you think is around the corner for DevOps?

“DevOps is a way of pushing the operations more into development and pushing it back down the stack towards developers. [Talking about app development] you hit one button and anyone in the team can use it. For me, that’s the future of DevOps.

“You don’t want people just building production applications and pushing them into cloud with live data. You need to put some governance and management around it. I think automation is enabling developers to build and deploy systems that they can use instantly – that’s where we’re heading. I think we’ll see it begin to evolve into the world where anyone can spin up a container, deploy into the cloud of their choice and run into something they have just developed 30 seconds before.”


Grace Palin Barnott was speaking to Nick Ford at Mendix