EP 09

Low-Code in The Workplace


A trendy topic.

Everything needs to be faster, easier, and cheaper. And low-code is a player in that arena.

It aims to get the power of building applications into the hands of those close to the business process. It’s a great concept, but has its challenges. In this episode we’ll talk about who low-code is good for, who might want to use it, and give you some strategy for how to use low-code tools at your organization.

Please enjoy the conversation between Mike Bodell and Mitch Herrema.

Hosted By
Mitch Herrema
Mike Bodell
Produced By
Mitch Herrema
Edited By
Mitch Herrema
Music By
Eric Veeneman


Intro: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to Make Others Successful, a podcast where we do our best to make you successful in your workplace. So you can cascade that down and in turn make others successful. today we're going to be talking about low-code and no-code. A trendy topic in the community, and try to talk through some of the ins and outs of who is low code for? Who might want to use it? And basically give you some strategy as to how to use no code, low code tools at your organization. So please enjoy the conversation between Mike Bodell and myself. 

Mitch: So, Mike, you just got back from a conference last week, a little bit out of town, not too far, but we got to present with Microsoft in an in person conference, right?

Mike: Indeed. I did. It was actually really great. We got to see a lot of people in person, a lot of faces that we haven't seen in a few years and a lot of new faces that we're actually able to put with that virtual contact that we've had with them in the last few months.

Mitch: It didn't even have like an online aspect to it. Like you didn't even have the option to stream. It was like, you gotta be there, which is different. So we got to present with Microsoft. They asked us to talk about their Power Apps tool, right?

Mike: Yep. We were asked to come and kind of provide an intro to Power Apps. And basically what Microsoft is doing is trying to kind of evangelize that tool or that platform for their customers and promote it, get them to use it. It is the no code, low code option that is out there right now from a Microsoft standpoint. And so it was cool to be able to speak to that. We spoke with a lot of people who are already using power apps in some way, shape or form, but quite a number of people who are trying to figure out how to use it in their organization.

Mitch: Okay. So we can dig into that a little bit more in a few minutes, but let's set the stage here. So like you put together a presentation on this and we basically came back and said, Hey, this might be some good meet for a podcast that we can talk about and have a conversation about and dig into some more. So you mentioned no code, low code. Can we kind of orient people to what that really means? I feel like, everyone is coming out with some sort of no code, low code tool, get apps built faster. And there's a whole movement around this no code movement. 

Mike: So the first thing I'll say is this movement, this transition is nothing new. This has been going on for the entirety of my career. It's something from a computer science or a developer standpoint. Everyone is always trying to build better frameworks, build a way to help you build something faster, cheaper, better. And you can talk about things, rapid application development tools there or a number of them out there.But even within the Microsoft space, for years they've been promoting things like SharePoint as an app development tool. So you can write less code and store data. And we all know, that's not always the best.

Mitch: Don't build your apps on SharePoint please.

Mike: Yeah don't build apps on SharePoint. SharePoint has its purpose and it's a good purpose and building apps, isn't it. But power apps is basically the latest Microsoft foray into that. And in this generation of that no code, low code option, it's actually becoming more mature and usable.

Mitch: Okay. So yeah, we obviously have some, we typically stick in the Microsoft suite of tools and power apps is kind of that tool, no code tool in that suite of tool. So I'll say my first interaction really with a no code, low code tool was a couple years back, we decided to move our website to web flow. And I struggled because it was like a tool that you could get at some of the developer-ish aspects of building a website, but you didn't quite have full control and coming from a developer background I was hesitant to say the least. And I wasn't quite sure if it would work out. We're years later down the line and it's been great. It's really easy to update. And I'm glad that we did it.

Mike: It's very interesting that you speak of it in those terms, because I think control is one of the things that you do give up when you move to no code, low code. And that control giving that up becomes a real issue for somebody with a formal CS background. Somebody who likes to have their fingers in the code and likes to create beautiful experiences and have complete control over how those things happen. That is one of the trade-offs. And so when we talk about no code, low code and where it should be used or where it could be used, there are definitely trade offs that you have to take into consideration because there are certain things you don't want to do with it. And so in the scenario you're talking about, Webflow turned out to be a good fit and worked out well and we're still using it.

Mitch: Yeah, I think it's a good thing to put power in the people's hands that don't necessarily need to know all the technical details about a solution. But yes, it's hard for the people that do know the technical details to kind of walk it back. So finding a good middle ground there is the challenge. So a lot of the times when we talk about these sorts of tools, it is aimed at, you can use your citizen developers to build apps now. What does citizen developer mean?

Mike: That's a good question. So citizen developer can be anybody, honestly. I guess one of the ways I would frame it is let's talk about the characteristics of a citizen developer. It's somebody who doesn't necessarily have formal computer science or code development training. These are going to be folks who often are working in the business, like doing the day to day, like running operations, speaking with customers, customer service, like those types of folks, and they're closest to the challenges or the problems that the business has, and it makes them really great candidates to solve those problems because they know what's going to work, what won't work. [06:03 inaudible] as an example and generally you're going to be looking at someone who has a little bit of technology capability or ability so that they can jump in and actually have a  basic understanding of what they're trying to create. 

Mitch: Okay. So what I'm hearing is it's someone who's willing to get their hands dirty. They understand the business well, but can piece together a technological solution in a way that can get the job done for lack of better terms. Is that fair?

Mike: That's fair. I would say that. And we'll talk about it probably in a minute, they need some guidance to keep them in the rails.

Mitch: Yeah. So let's dig a little bit more into this whole citizen developer idea in that. Why is that a focus in the first place when people are pitching this no code idea? Because there's a whole world of custom app developers out there, people that know code and they can build apps and can build something really great, but we don't want them to do something or why?

Mike: So that is the key thing right now. So you said there's a whole world of developers out there. Actually that's kind of the problem, is there are some research out there that points to the fact that we're probably going to be at a deficit of like 500,000 developers here in the United States in the next year or so. And those folks are expensive. So hard to find, expensive right now. It's hard to find talent in any industry or for any role much less developers. And so being able to utilize other parts of your workforce and kind of incorporate them in your tech vision and having them help solve problems for your business is a pretty powerful thing. So you're talking about, as I mentioned before, people who are close to the business, challenges, often will have some of the best methods or ideas for solving those challenges. 

So they're going to have a lot of fresh ideas. And then in addition to that, you're introducing new folks into that talent pool, into your resource pool of people who can build apps. So whereas before maybe you had one or two people in IT, who built some apps for you in the extra time they had, or maybe you had to go to an outside vendor. Well now we can actually look at other resources within our own organization to be able to get those things done.

Mitch: You just made me realize these are the people that are like making the crazy Excel spreadsheets that are crucial to a business process or everyone's favorite like Microsoft access and basically the ones who are behind the scenes, running the show, but are a little bit out of their depth.

Mike: That's interesting that you say that. So when you think about Excel spreadsheets running the business or access databases running the business. Yep. These are people who are capable enough.Those are the types of skill sets. Like they can get in and get their hands dirty and figure out how to solve a problem with those tools. But the other thing that I would mention is like, in this day and age, if somebody's still functioning or using an access database app to run their business, chances are the person who built that access database app is maybe gone from their company, no longer in the workforce. They're retired and now they don't know what to do to support it. Because developers or I shouldn't say developers. Folks who may have built apps with those tools are even fewer and far between.

Mitch: Sure. Okay. So even if let's say they're still around, we're looking at these new "tools" as the next step up from that. Something that is a little bit more stable, secure, something that isn't as black magic-y, right?

Mike: For sure. Yep there's definitely a much better story around the tools that are out there today. And there are ways that you can manage them so that you're not dependent on that one old guy in the organization that you need him to live forever so your business doesn't fail. So one other little piece of or a tidbit that I'll add to this whole citizen developer story and using no code, low code tools, that's a benefit honestly, is the tools that we have at our disposal today, being what they are. There is nothing wrong with somebody who you might consider to be a pro coder in using those tools. They can build rich apps and now, by the way, they're doing it faster and cheaper.

Mitch: Sure. Yeah. Like I feel likeI've loaded up a handful of those tools. And like I said, Webflow, I feel likeI know all these properties. I know exactly how they work. I know where to go quickly in order to make what I want to show up on the screen, for example. What should someone look for in a no code, low code tool? So let's say they've never heard of this before, or they're building custom apps today and maybe they want to dip their toe in this idea. What should they look for?

Mike: Well today when we think about modern tools and just how the world works. Everybody is doing everything on their phones, on their mobile devices, on a tablet, on a laptop. You can pretty much almost do any part of your business anywhere in the world. So one of the key things to any, no code, low code platform that I would look at, would be accessibility, in terms of, can I run it on any device? Can I access it anywhere or the fact is there are some tools out there that help you build applications faster, but those apps still need to be deployed? Let's say in the app store, or let's say to a server somewhere, I would be looking for something that enables me to actually deploy that stuff to the cloud, to some cloud,Microsoft cloud, could be Google, any number of places.

Mitch: So it's not just building the apps without code, it's soup to nuts without code it's, it's having it out there, living, breathing, people being able to use it without having to touch any sort of extra aspect of supporting an application.

Mike: Absolutely. So when we think about deploying something to the cloud, there is another vendor in the cloud, some big behemoth who is managing all of that stuff that we're putting up there or deploying there. And then we don't have to worry about it. So back in the day when we would build apps, we would deploy them to a server. And you had all of the responsibility yourself, or maybe you paid a vendor to keep an eye on it for you. If the server went down, if the server needed to be patched, if some data framework or model framework that you are using in your application had a security hole all the sudden, you were responsible for dealing with that. And so it made all of those things, a factor in the total cost of ownership of those applications. You had to think about that type of stuff. You had to think about stuff like uptime, is this accessible to the world? And do I need to make sure that it's up? What do I do for redundancy and things like that. So in many ways, a lot of those problems are solved for us by leveraging a no code, low code platform that is hosted in the cloud. 

Mitch: So yeah, the ability to deploy it is one thing that I'm hearing, being able to depend on someone to effectively manage your app for you as a service, anything else they should look for in a tool?

Mike: So another thing I think that is an important consideration when you're thinking of a tool is just the total like cost of ownership for that tool. And if you think about licensing for it, that can be a pretty important factor. So one of the big advantages, honestly that Microsoft has in this space is so many people are leveraging office 365 and everybody's got a license, because we have email and we have to have that to function as a business. We have to have word application and Excel and all of these things. So we just have that. And the beauty of the Microsoft, no code, low code story is that out of the box with that basic office 365 license, you get a free Power Apps license. So you can have some level of citizen developer building apps, and you can leverage apps in your organization basically for free at some level.

Mitch: Sure. Okay. So yeah, monthly cost is something to pay attention to because it can add up quick, I was just reading a Twitter thread. I think it was earlier today from the guys over at Duck Bill group, they do AWS cost reduction services, and they're always entertaining over on Twitter, but they were talking about retool, which is a no code tool. And they were talking about how much that costs to run, because I think the original like starter pricing is 10 bucks per user, which is like palatable. But then as soon as you want extra control, like putting permissions around who can access what apps and things like that, it jumps to 50 bucks peruser, per month. And they're like, man, this is an investment. And it was making them second guess the tool. 

So money is important. You want to think about what that looks like over the course of its lifetime. And that goes back to one of the benefits of no code, low code, right? We started this with saying better, faster, stronger, yadayada cost. We want cost reduction as we're providing solutions. Let's dig into some of the other areas that we say no code helps with because it's not just cost you less, right?

Mike: So I would say in addition to cost, I mean, so much is related to ultimately the total cost of ownership. What it costs you in the long run. And a lot of the aspects of how we talk about no code, low code ultimately result in less cost. A quick example of something that is very useful, a good benefit of no code, low code is the ability to build a rapid prototype. Even if you ultimately are going to employ pro devs to go build an application. The reality is you can use a lot of these tools like Webflow, like Power Apps to prototype something and actually have live data in it and then let users touch it. They can actually feel it. They can run it on their phone, they can open it up on their desktop and actually see what it looks like. And it took you much less time to build that prototype than it would to pay a group of designers to build you a bunch of comps and build out something else that you could.

Mitch: We love designers.

Mike: We do, we love designers. 

Mitch: Designers are great.

Mitch: Yeah. So saving time is, effectively it will reduce cost in the long run, but let's say there's something business-critical that needs to happen quick and it's only the cost of not getting it done that is the big money saver, is that it needs to get done now so they can fix some process or make a process better and provide that app to their users. And no-code, low-code is definitely a quick way to get something out there.

Mike: Absolutely. Yeah. Also remember one of the benefits of this whole new talent pool that we have is you're exposing people in your organization to new opportunities for skill development and career growth. I can't tell you how many people that I've either heard about, or even known personally who have in the last two years, partly because of the pandemic, but also partly because of the new tools that are available, have switched careers from being, let's say a teacher to now an app developer. Like that's a very real thing because of these tools. And that's really cool.

Mitch: We had an employee that was a band teacher, that had enough technical skill to get his hands dirty in code and he was awesome at Power Apps and he killed it and he did great. And that was a huge success story for him.

Mike: One of the coolest things I think in those types of scenarios is watching people move from like in his case, a teaching career, where he does very well with people, is very helpful. He knows how to communicate well and moving him into that role where he's working with people to build a solution. It's such a great fit. It's really incredible.

Mitch: No, I'm glad you pointed that out because having somewhere to grow is important and unlocking different avenues for people that they're probably intimidated by code or they can't even think about logic, if else statements, and loops and all that kind of stuff. Like it definitely can be intimidating, but as soon as you put the tools where you can see what you're doing and put it all together and see it work without having to dig into the back end of it is a cool experience. I imagine for people like that. 

So it's not all roses with no-code, low-code. Right. So I think the fear for anyone at a decent sized organization with IT I'm sure smells I don't want people developing their own apps. That sounds awful. And like a lot to manage. And how soon can I lock this down?

Mike: Yeah. Right. So that's one of, like we talk about the fact that people just have office 365 licenses for email and therefore everybody just has access to free Power Apps. It's kind of a blessing and a curse. Like, yes, you have the tool. Everybody has the tool, let's be innovative and do all these wonderful things, but it's not locked down by default for you in at least in the case of the Microsoft environment. And so it's something that you do have to kind of keep an eye on and prepare for and, and have a good plan. And if you have, it all depends on the size of your organization. Many organizations are geared up for this and they have a strong IT presence and they have a vision. And they're working on that plan, but a lot of organizations who are just getting started and are using Office 365, because they're young and growing and going through that growth spurt, they're not necessarily paying attention to all of that stuff.

But it is something to definitely do. Like oftentimes people, think about something like this, where somebody can just have the power or the ability to go build an app on their own to do something right. Oftentimes we refer to that as shadow IT. There was a problem and somebody got frustrated and they figured out they could like allocate a server and stick it under their desk in their cubicle. And they're running an app behind this. Like running half your business and then they went on vacation and somebody unplugged it to clean behind the desk and nobody knows what's going to happen next. So avoiding the shadow IT scenario is important. And fortunately there are tools to deal with that. That's something that has been a challenge historically over the last couple years, but Microsoft is doing a lot and the Microsoft community is doing a lot to kind of combat that and provide tooling that can kind of help us move into that more mature, planned governed environment for building apps.

Mitch: Yeah. I think it's a natural reaction for IT because like you said, when a tool is there and people can play, people will most likely play and it's a lot easier to close it down than it is to figure it out. And so part of Microsoft's movement in creating an app, actual application life cycle for these apps and making it more stable and less shadow IT is good. But we also like to encourage IT to not jump to, I need to lock this down because there's so much good that can come from it. And there is a way to make it good and harmonious with citizen developers and IT but it takes a little bit of work. 

Mike: Absolutely. So having that plan first and foremost for how you're going to facilitate or enable your citizen developers is important. So getting some sort of governance plan in place, deciding what connectors maybe you want to lock down so that you're not allowing people to send data outside your organization, that they shouldn't be sending outside. Those are very real concerns and you can get ahead of that and kind of set up your environments or set up a method or a process in your organization that facilitates and supports that. And it's all about making it easy for your citizen developers to make the right choice. 

So instead of locking everything down and they're frustrated because they can't ever get anything done and make progress, you set it up in a way that allows them to ask the question, I have this problem. I can solve it with this app, where can I put it?  And then you kind of funnel them into the right location for that. And if there are exceptions that need to be made for that application, you can manage that and do that type of thing. And the thing that I would say most enables the new, no code, low code platform or thing to be not shadow IT, is the fact that it is in the cloud. And the reality is when you're in the Microsoft cloud, for example, you have a tenant admin, they have visibility into everything that's going on. 

So there is no more server under the desk. If you're building a Power App somewhere and maybe nobody's got a plan yet, but you're building it. The reality is that tenant admin can see what's going on and now there are even better tools for that visibility. You can set up monitoring and alerting for when somebody's using a connector that you're trying to pay attention to, for example. So you can keep tabs on all the stuff that's going on, in addition to control it or restrict it.

Mitch: Sure. Okay. So all that tooling is great. It's come a long way. And to anyone listening that works in IT, you can enable citizen developers in a way that allows them to work within the confines that you set up basically. And it doesn't always have to be all locked down. So just a little encouragement as to there is a way to do it, keep your your eyes and ears open as to how to set that up. And I wanted to plug real quick. If you want to learn anymore about this, we do have a learning center on our website. We go into that application life cycle and environments, and for anyone using Power Apps or has that Microsoft subscription, we do have some more, if you want to learn more about these topics, but we didn't want to go too deep into those specific things today.

Mike: The one thing I was going to add, which I don't think is too deep is so in addition to facilitating citizen developers doing the right thing, and including them in that innovative workforce that you have. Some of these tools also make it so that the pro developers feel comfortable building no code low code solutions. So think of a scenario where you've got a team of developers that are working on the app, traditionally, they're going to have source control and they're going to have basically a life cycle if you will, within their project where somebody's going to write some code, they're going to check it in. There's going to be a pull request. Somebody's going to review the code. There's going to be a build process. It's going to go to the test server. Somebody's going to look at it, it's going to pass. All that stuff happens. So that stuff is now available for the power platform.

And that's some of the learning content that you're kind of referring to. But the reality is that makes it so that pro developers can actually do that collaborative development. It's not just only one person can edit the app at a time, which is what it was two years ago. Right now we can actually work together on an effort, on let's say a larger app and we can merge our code and we can do all of those things. And by the way, the organization owns the IP at the end of the day.

Mitch: Sure. And none of the things you're talking about are required. It's all optional. You can, if you want to. So if anyone's listening and is like, oh my gosh, that sounds overwhelming. You don't have to do to that degree, but at a big organization, it probably makes sense to do it to some degree. And we're trying to point out it's available.

Mike: Absolutely. And that has been one of the biggest sticking points for adoption. Like when large organizations think about like, what am I going to use to build my apps? Well, I can't use that yet because the tooling isn't there. Well, the tooling is now starting to be available. And it's actually really good.

Mitch: Mike, I have to say, you have really gravitated toward this low code, no code. He's become a power apps guru everyone. I think I'm going to be honest with you a little bit. I think it's allowed you to get a little lazy on the pro code side of things. I think you're a little bit behind now. You gotta catch up.

Mike: I would say you're a hundred percent, right. The reality is like one of the interesting things about no code, low code and power apps in terms of the stuff that I have built, is like anything for the nice things that you get with power apps there are trade offs. So that control that we talked about earlier, like, yes, I can build stuff faster and I have all of these widgets and controls I can add, but the reality is if I want to drop shadow, I can't have it. So you give up some things. And so I find myself often when building a power app, banging it up against a wall, some restriction or threshold or something, and then trying to find a way around it. And there are a number of blog posts out on the internet where people have found hacks and work arounds and ways to make something seem like something that it's not. And I actually enjoy those types of things as much as anything else I'm doing right now.

Mitch: Yeah. So it sounds like Microsoft, if you're listening, Hey, can we get drop shadows? And we have lots of other ideas for you.

Mike: Oh, there are tons of ideas. 

Mitch: So hit us up. For anyone that doesn't know, Mike. Mike is a, how can I get the quickest from A to B kind of guy?

Mike: I am the most pragmatic

Mitch: And the most humble.

Mike: Some people will say that about me. I would never say that about myself.

Mitch: So this kind of solution works awesome for him and it makes it so he can develop things quickly and not spend a ton of time on it and still be really successful with it. And so I would count him as a success story to who this tool works well for. And yeah. Any last thoughts on this talk?

Mike: I would just encourage people to go out and, and look at some of the learning content that's out there. We have a number of videos and things like that. I think there's a whole world of possibilities with this type of new platform that's out there and available basically to anyone who wants to use it. And we continue to see more interest and more traction in this space every day. It's really cool.

Mitch: Nice. So pro coders don't count low code stuff out. It can be okay. Citizen developers. 

Mike: If you really got to scratch that itch for you pro coders out there, you can build custom components. And then include them in your Power Apps. Believe it or not. 

Mitch: That's not messy at all. Is it? It works. Anyway citizen developers, or you might not consider yourself a citizen developer. You might just be part of a business, but interested in tech, we just want to encourage you to try things out, get your hands dirty. It isn't super scary. Like Mike said, we have some learning content out there. Mike actually put together an Intro to Power Apps course. If you're actually interested in learning how to build your first app, you can check that out. And we'll put that in the show notes. But Mike, I appreciate you running us through a lot of these concepts that you talked about in your conference and was excited to share it with our listeners. So thanks for your time. And we'll see you next time.

Outro: Thanks for joining us today. If you haven't already, subscribed to our show on your favorite podcasting app so you'll always be up to date on the most recent episodes. This podcast is hosted by the team members of bulb digital. Special thanks to Eric Veeneman for our music tracks. If you have any questions for us head to Makeothersuccessful.com and you can get in touch with us there. You'll also find a lot of insightful blogs and videos to help you modernize your workplace. Thanks again for listening. We'll see you next time.

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