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How to choose a low-code platform

With the citizen developer movement gaining momentum, many enterprises are wondering if it’s time to invest in a low-code platform, and, if so, how should they approach it? Let’s take a look at a few considerations to keep in mind so you and your users can leverage this trend for the best results.

Forrester recently identified more than 40 low-code platform vendors. Many offer general-purpose platforms that handle a broad range of mobile and web apps and cover the complete app management lifecycle, including development, integration, deployment, and marketplace distribution. Others offer more specialized solutions for specific business functionality. Forrester divided these into four app segments: database, process, request-handling, and mobile.

2016 State of DevOps Report

Clarify what you want low-code to do for you

Faced with this breadth of solutions to choose from, companies first need to do some soul-searching around what they ultimately want to get out of a low-code platform.

“When deciding which platform is right for them, a company should first consider the role of low-code in their architecture and rationalize tools that are currently used in-house,” says Mike Hughes, director of product marketing for OutSystems, which Forrester named as one of the top low-code platform vendors. “Is this a strategic solution that will help drive the organization’s broader application delivery goals, or is it a point solution to solve a specific problem? It’s critical to avoid the risks of selecting a tool for limited scenarios.”

Organizations should choose a low-code platform that meets the organization’s overall goals, Hughes stresses.

“By selecting a platform with the broadest feature set, an organization can avoid redundancies across solutions, simplify their IT stack, and speed time to market by leveraging the features available in the platform.”

Identify the right people to use the platform

Low-code platforms simplify much of the engineering complexities of app development by minimizing things like hand coding and setting up a build environment. While this greatly reduces the technical skill requirements to use them, it doesn’t mean just anyone is cut out to be a citizen developer. Other “softer” skills, like attention to detail and project management are vital to getting a usable product up and running.

Peter Yared, co-founder and CTO of Sapho, an enterprise mobility and micro app platform provider, says that to be successful with low-code platforms you generally need the type of user that understands data organization and logical flows.

“Low code doesn't necessarily mean [it’s for] non-technical users."

"We've found that the type of user that can use reporting software is generally very successful with a low-code platform," Yared adds. "Users that can use reporting software understand data organization, logical flows, and creating solutions for other users.”

He also stresses the importance of a strong product point of view, which requires the ability to analyze problems and provide the simplest solution. “We’re strong believers in 'single purpose apps' that help users perform a single task." They’re typically triggered by some type of notification or event and ask the user to complete some type of action, Yared says.

"By focusing on a single purpose app, it makes it a lot easier to deliver an app that is useful to other users in the organization.”

Expect IT to still be involved

Low-code platforms promise a win-win solution: rank-and-file employees can circumvent IT hurdles and get the tools they need more quickly, in order to do their jobs efficiently. Understaffed IT departments are relieved of some of the burden on their limited resources.

But don’t expect that you can simply provide users with some plug-and-play tools and turn them loose. When developing enterprise-class apps, both end-users and IT need to be aware of—and able to address—the larger infrastructures that the app must function in.

“At some point, every app needs to be integrated with IT systems, such as single sign-on, and it will need to access other corporate information stores,” Yared says. It’s also important from a compliance perspective to make sure that employee, customer and financial data is stored and accessed in the proper manner, he adds.

"Low-code platforms need to go the extra mile to be both easy for users to use, and easy for IT to approve.”

But even with the most easy-to-use low-code platform, there will be development challenges that end users just aren’t equipped to handle. Perhaps something the user wants the app to do isn’t directly supported by the platform, or custom code needs to be written to get two services to work together. In cases like these, a working partnership with IT is essential.

A little complexity, which you can prepare for

Larry Gadea, CEO of Envoy, a company that helps enterprises get rid of paper sign-in books and provide tablet-based visitor registration, says you need to plan well for automation to be effective.

“Knowledge of all edge cases and adapting properly for them is still a critical part of the automation."

“Think of using Zapier to notify Salesforce whenever a new Stripe transaction gets completed," Gadea notes. "Sure, you could set up something like that relatively easily for new accounts, but what happens when a refund is issued, or if a new SKU gets created on Stripe that Salesforce isn't expecting?"

"These are things engineers always think about and are good at, but may not come naturally at first to the non-engineer. This is where IT staff or others in an organization can really help.”

Low-code platforms are a great way to harness the power of those who understand your business best—your employees—but it can require some heavy lifting up front to ensure success. With a little forethought, you can find the best solution for mobilizing your citizen developers and rapidly delivering apps that meet the needs of both your end users and your business.

Using a low-code platform? Share your best practices in the comments below.

2016 State of DevOps Report
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