Low-Code App Builders Could Drive Companies Crazy (in a Good Way)

System administrators and other tech pros like to keep their infrastructure locked down—and for good reason. There are a lot of threats, both internal and external, that can destroy data and leave strategies in total disarray.

At the same time, however, employees sometimes operate best when they have considerable leeway. Several years ago, sysadmins and network administrators tried in vain to prevent employees from using their personal smartphones (then a new category of devices) for work purposes. Although those employees insisted that their iPhones and Android phones made them more productive, many tech pros saw the risk as just too great.

Of course, we know how that story turned out: a vast majority of businesses now maintain some kind of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy, often with rules and modifications in place to mitigate data tampering and corporate espionage. Administrators had to surrender to reality.

A similar situation may end up emerging with another, relatively nascent technology: no-code and low-code app builders. These tools give employees the ability to design, build, and launch apps—all without having to code very much (if at all). In theory, this opens up the software development process to anyone within an organization.

In many scenarios, this could be a very good thing. In a recent meeting with Dice, two Microsoft executives—Richard Riley, director of Microsoft Business Applications, and Charles Lamanna, general manager of the Microsoft Application Platform—offered a story in which a security guard at Heathrow Airport used PowerApps, Microsoft’s no-code building platform, to construct apps that radically streamlined his job. Soon he was building multiple apps that made operations at the airport more efficient, and he found himself promoted to a tech role.

PowerApps gives administrators the ability to regulate some aspects of app design (such as what kinds of data can be uploaded to the app), but it doesn’t prevent “citizen coders” from building in the first place. In theory, a sysadmin would be unable to stop, say, Arnold from Accounting or Jill from Facilities Management from designing small phone-based programs that meet their needs. And this is by design; Riley and Lamanna suggested this kind of “controlled chaos” is ultimately good for a company’s production and creativity.

Indeed, PowerApps includes features designed to make novice app-builders as self-operating as possible. For example, there’s an “App Checker” (represented by a little stethoscope icon) that allows users to debug their apps before launch. And integration with 230 data connectors limits the friction inherent in connecting an app with a legacy database or system. Once you get the hang of things, you could launch an iOS and Android app and have it in the hands of hundreds of colleagues before your local administrators realize quite what’s going on.

Of course, no-code and low-code app builders aren’t a new concept; various small companies have been attempting to perfect such a platform for quite some time. Then there are the other tech titans: Google App Maker, for instance, offers a low-code building environment for custom business apps. These tools will only grow more sophisticated as time goes on, giving regular employees ever-more-powerful abilities when it comes to app building. (These apps are also business-centric, taking off some of the pressures that face “popular” or marketplace-based apps.)

That could lead to a bit of anarchy in many companies, at least as it pertains to the software stack. But maybe that isn’t the worst thing, so long as administrators make sure to put stringent policies in place regarding certain kinds of sensitive data (you don’t want someone cobbling together an app that surfaces patients’ medical information, for instance). Getting a little crazy can make a firm more innovative, even if it drives tech pros insane at first.

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