code-for-a-living August 10, 2022

Will low and no code tools ever truly disrupt tech development?

Will the programmers of tomorrow be shipping products written without touching too much code?
Avatar for Katrina Dene
Director of Communications

Nearly everyone working in tech has an opinion about low and no code tools—believe me, I asked. Whether they code or not, low/no code incites some kind of reaction. For something designed to be so simple, its existence is surprisingly complex. Over the last several months, I spoke with developers, engineers, data analysts, CEOs, designers, and marketers about the topic. I’ll share some insights from those conversations with you here.

First, maybe a little bit about me. I’ve worked in tech for over a decade, always in marketing and communications and almost always alongside security engineers and developers. I consider myself moderately technical, but I don’t code (much). I reported a vulnerability, but I couldn’t patch it. I built a website, but I never pushed it live. I learned early in my career that research is the key to everything. So the more I heard rumblings about the rise of low code/no code, the more I researched.

Admittedly, low code and no code both seemed like ridiculous concepts at first. Low and no code couldn’t possibly mean little to no code. It means little to no visible code. I’m a moderately technical communications person in tech, so I’ve used tools like Zapier and content management tools to build things that work and aren’t the worst. The broader question remains – how will low and no code tools shake up tech development? After countless conversations, I concluded that…drumroll…it won’t.

Accessibility for building requires accessibility for learning

Low code and no code tools are designed for people like me or the couple running a pottery shop down the street. We need something easy, maintainable, and we’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re just trying to get something up and running. That means more people will be interacting with code, but not necessarily coding from the bottom up.

“The first and most tangible impact of low code comes down to accessibility,” says Matt Kiernander, Developer Advocate at Stack Overflow. “Empowering your non-software engineering folks to change website copy, build their own automations or applications all help to increase exposure and familiarity with the technology that powers your business. This exposure by extension gives citizen developers a sense of empowerment, autonomy, and ownership that was otherwise unattainable.”

This, of course, has pros and cons. The sheer number of people touching code or building what they need will grow significantly. That can be empowering, like Matt said, and chaotic. Someone building a simple automation or a quick personal website can take something and push it live quickly. When that’s not enough, things get dicier. 

“One of the seemingly inevitable side effects of making software easier to build is that you tend to sacrifice customizability and a much deeper understanding of how the software works,” Jon Chan points out, Stack Overflow’s Director of Engineering for Community Products. “Low-code/no-code tools tend to look for a general use case and that can restrict how flexible that software can be: there seems to be a tradeoff between ease-of-use and control in all of these tools that I haven’t seen anyone tackle really well (yet).”

With tools available now, people will mash what they can together to create what they need, learning in real-time to get enough context to understand how to get something to work.

“Early developers blindly using low code or no code tools without learning the fundamental principles of writing code will inevitably hit a ceiling,” Stack Overflow CEO Prashanth Chandrasekar noted in his recent quarterly update. “Particularly when they have to unpack what they created.”

No and low code users will still need developers and engineers to help build their dreams. That brings me to the second big concern from developers: do low and no code tools lower overall dependency on developers? What does that mean for their jobs?

Jon reassured, “As it stands now, there seems to be a tradeoff between ease-of-use and control, and until someone figures out how to remove that tradeoff, there will always be a need for engineers who can fully manipulate software to meet the full range of use cases businesses (and individuals) need.”

Ultimately, this means that developers will be focused on more complex, hopefully interesting, work. At least in theory.

Primary concerns: work and also work

Anyone marketing a low or no code tool to developers is targeting the wrong audience. But like we’ve seen with so many tools over the years, tools used for hobbies will eventually enter the workplace. Will we start seeing low and no code tools disrupt developer workflows?

“I would be very concerned trying to use low/no code tools for software projects where performance, scale, security etc. are involved,” said Ellora Praharaj, Director of Reliability Engineering at Stack Overflow. “These tools are not designed for dealing with large amounts of data or lots of dynamic updates or for scenarios where speed matters. The low level implementation details are abstracted away from the user which makes it easy to use, but not suitable for agile development.”

With more people cobbling together what they need and learning as they go, there runs a risk of compromising security or something simply breaking without a ton of visibility into why.

“While I see low code tools being able to help data scientists and analysts iterate or experiment quickly, I do not feel comfortable using a no-code tool,” says David Gibson, a Senior Data Scientist at Stack Overflow. “Dealing with any analysis or machine learning model requires complete visibility into code and the data sources used to generate the output. Code creates a roadmap for how a number was generated. If I’m looking at a query, I can easily double-check the logic. Double checking a series of mouse clicks becomes substantially harder to check.”

TL;DR

Developers will never be out of work. Low and no code tools are making building tech more accessible, but it isn’t agile or flexible enough to replace developers.

“I’ve been hearing about low-code solutions for 30 years, only they had different names back then,” Stack Overflow CTO Jody Bailey shared with me. “I do believe low/no code is useful and it will continue to get better. Is it going to replace developers? Not in the near future, but I do believe over time it will change the skill sets required to deliver innovative tech solutions. But just like we still have developers writing assembly and C code today it is hard to imagine a time when we don’t have people writing “real” code themselves.”

The rise of low and no code tools with non-engineers will prompt more people to learn coding languages as they are building, but there is plenty of work to go around.

“There are lots of benefits to low-code platforms,” Prashanth Chandrasekar noted. “More specifically, it makes building technology more accessible to so many people. As we look towards the future, we’ll see more people developing technology than ever before, but the need for context will undoubtedly remain consistent.”

In the last 30 years some of the world’s oldest companies transformed into technology companies. General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Liberty Mutual, for example, were all non-traditional tech companies that are now leading their respective industries in tech-led innovation. 

“As more people learn coding languages, perhaps prompted by low code tools, the more innovation we’ll see across industries,” Prashanth said. “Learning is the key. Developers that make the choice to learn will rise to the top.”

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Podcast logo The Stack Overflow Podcast is a weekly conversation about working in software development, learning to code, and the art and culture of computer programming.

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