Low-Code Development: The Latest Killer Tool in the Agile Toolkit?
Health care payment processor RediPay finds that a low-code development equates to lower costs and shorter production cycles—not lower functionality.
For RediPay CEO Mark Gulley, building software was the easy part.
Gulley founded RediPay, a company that facilitates direct reimbursements between patients and dental and vision providers, in 2015. It took his team three years to lay the foundation for the company, from forming key partnerships, to navigating the bureaucracy of benefits claims and zeroing in on what made its product offering unique. But when it came time to actually build RediPay's apps—one internal, one for customers and one for providers—the process took just nine weeks.
How did Gulley's team create the product, currently in beta, so quickly? He credits low-code development.
“For a startup, the way we looked at it was, we don't have any legacy systems," he says. “We can build everything in the cloud, we can build everything low-code, and we'd be almost crazy not to do it."
The dev team had fewer than 10 developers during the build cycle and now is down to fewer than five developers, a lean approach that shows the power of low-code development, Gulley says.
Low-code frees developers from using unwieldy code editors like Vim in favor of drag-and-drop graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that allow teams to build apps quickly, easily and—critically for startups—cheaply. It's a development strategy that's gone mainstream as companies face rising pressure to build and deliver apps quickly.
For a startup, the way we looked at it was, we don't have any legacy systems. We can build everything in the cloud, we can build everything low-code, and we'd be almost crazy not to do it.
— Mark Gulley, CEO, RediPay
Drag-and-Drop Visual Development in Action
RediPay turned to Atlanta-based low-code platform OutSystems, just one player in what Forrester estimates to be a $4 billion market. These platforms run the gamut, from those that help developers include custom code in their applications (low-code) to those that maximize user friendliness by ditching the code completely (no-code).
Modern platforms aren't the first to try to cut development time and resources by making development visual. In the 1980s, fourth-generation programming languages, or 4GLs, like Visual Basic, promised the power of Java with the ease of a photo editor. But those languages were proprietary and didn't allow for many integrations, if any. If developers used Visual Basic, they had to do everything in Visual Basic.
Apps today, even those made with traditional methods, are likely to contain open-source code, APIs and other non-proprietary code. As a result, low-code providers had to make integration the foundation of their platforms. Add in the ability to tap into the cloud (which didn't exist in the 4GL era), and today's low-code systems not only allow developers to use non-local computing power that can make simple apps hum—it also means that they can download functions and packages developed by others, much like traditional programming's use of libraries.
The potential of the new generation of GUI app builders is immense, from simple internal databases to, say, managing a whole airport. Jason Bloomberg, founder of agile consultancy Intellyx, recalls how the managers of an airport came to him for help creating an app to run the entire facility, from tracking passengers entering the airport to back office operations to human resources. Bloomberg says it would have been difficult to do such a feat with a traditional development framework.
“One, it would be enormously expensive. Two, it would take you years. And three, you'd end with something you didn't want because you'd laid out all these requirements at the beginning and by the time you're done, things have changed," he says.
This example shows why the low-code/no-code approach has become essential in the agile toolkit. So why isn't everyone using it?
A Powerful Tool—But Not for Everyone
Of course, some apps really do require a bottom-up approach, particularly those that use nascent technologies like augmented reality. But even when companies aren't trying to build the next unicorn app, vested interests can prevent adoption. Bloomberg cites a few principal snags: consultants who thrive on protracted development pipelines, IT departments whose existences are tied to convoluted legacy systems, and teams brimming with coders eager to defend their turf.
And this is precisely why RediPay's Gulley opted out. "With custom development," he says, "you end up with an expert you have to rely on. Someone owns the code. It's their baby, so to speak."
But with a low-code approach, Gulley managed to avoid the ownership pitfall and substantially cut down on development costs. He estimates that the amount of human resources committed to building the RediPay apps was about five times smaller than it would have been had they been built from scratch.
That, Gulley says, has made future development choices easy ones to make. “Having gone through this process," he says, “I would never consider going back to the traditional development model."