Picture of computer punch card on left and on right picture of footballs traveling to center with words "low code no code"

I listened to a thought-provoking discussion recently sponsored by low code/no code technology leader Creatio. The controversial term “citizen developer” is garnering a lot of interest and dialogue, and some curious emotions.

So why the emotion? It is no more than evolutionary change. In fact this is not a new idea at all, but just a maturing one. The citizen developer term implies that anyone can “code”, and so you need not be a coder to develop your business process and all the IT stuff that makes it work. The premise is that code can be generated behind the scenes by an easy to use human interface anyone can understand. A little history may shed some light on this.

My career started in Information Technology before it was abbreviated to “IT”. When there was this off-limits “glass house” where people would wonder “what is going on in there?” There was what looked like a large machine people would tend to with manual switches, magnetic tapes and hole-punched paper tapes and cards. The “coders” (or programmers) would write instructions that resulted in how switches, magnets and punches needed to be placed. The machine would simply read the switch positions, the magnet positioning, and the punched holes to decide what to compute! But even back then there was a movement to simplify what was and is till often referred to as coding.

For longtime football fans you remember Fran Tarkenton as being drafted in 1961 by the Minnesota Vikings and garnering just about every major quarterback record before retiring. What you may not know is that after retirement he created a software company. I was impressed to hear him speak live about “Computer Aided Software Engineering” or CASE for short. CASE would actually generate code for you! Just as today’s “low code / no code” actually does generate code, you just don’t have to code it yourself. Instead, like with CASE, you have a friendly interface to make the code happen in the background.

About the same time I listened to a lecture at GE’s R&D Center on fuzzy logic and artificial intelligence. These, like CASE, acted like a Punxsutawney Phil who came out too early and went back in their holes for several more decades. If only “the CLOUD” were around then maybe they would not have seen their shadows!

When the glass house was broken, coders were released around the world to thrive in a booming growth of IT. Coding demand gave way to outsourcing which allowed coders to choose between numerous IT companies and working as independent consultants. Life was good. Then outsourcing started getting mixed reviews, and some companies switched gears to insource what they had outsourced. But coders were still in high demand, so life remained good. Then CASE reared its ugly head again, renamed as “low code / no code”! But not by a former football star, but by some of the same software product companies that grew up developing code. Why would they want to cannibalize their own businesses? Or were they blessed with the ability as they say to “look around corners” to see what was coming?

Just as it was inevitable to stop depending on sales of buggy whips and then analog watches, IT cannot abdicate its role in the evolution of things. After all is IT not integral to the “internet of things”? So again, why the emotion?

To start with, change evokes emotion in almost everything. Fear is the basis for a lot of emotion around change. Low code/no code is certain to evoke fear of job loss or the need to suddenly transform careers from coders to CIOs. An emotionally intelligence response realizes that the worst-case scenario is unlikely to happen, and that reflection and reason will show this as an opportunity, not a problem.

Business executives will realize low code/no code as an opportunity to accelerate their business. CIOs and coders will recognize this as a positive evolution in how they get their jobs done, and how to upgrade their talent and skills.

Whether to insource or outsource during the low code/no code evolution is not a binary decision. The key is to leverage what you need to deliver to your business plan, taking into account the cost and value of hiring versus outsourcing, keeping IP close to the vest versus leveraging outside-in ideas, and of course how any decision plays into your capex/opex strategy. You can manage an effective balance of in-house/outsourced when it comes to core business knowledge (more domain than IT) and IT talent (more IT than domain).

In summary, I see the “citizen developer” as the next evolution of how IT gets done. The early day of coding in actual zeros and ones has evolved to enable everyone to participate. It presents an opportunity for everyone who sees it as one, whether your career is in IT or some other part of the business.