It feels like DevOps principles are permeating every discipline, creating new buzzwords by the minute. DevSecOps. DatabaseOps. SalesOps. FinOps. MarketingOps. This “JargonOps” is clearly encouraged by marketing campaigns (and bloggers, wink, wink). Yet, the phrases do depict a real trend: all industries are getting an efficiency overhaul in the wake of increased automation.
As I’ve covered before, low-code and no-code tools lower the barrier to entry to application development, enabling field experts to construct workflows as they see fit. For tech-savvy non-engineers, this could be a huge boon to transform copy-and-paste stopgaps into efficient workflow automations.
I recently chatted with self-proclaimed “productivity geek” Sean Chou, CEO of Catalytic, to get his take on where this new era of automation is heading. From healthcare to logistics, advertising to supply chain management, every industry is likely to get an efficiency boost — and a lot of this digitization will be constructed using codeless environments.
But first, how did we get here?
From RPA to No-Code
“The story of B2B software is largely about automation,” said Chou. If we consider classic examples of corporate applications, we see one common thread — B2B software has always sought to automate traditional office work.
And so, it came to pass that computing and software devoured all these office tasks, from accounting to time-tracking, communications and many other areas. Though computer-based office work delivered huge efficiency boosts, these interfaces often introduced new hurdles; bad UI design, difficult navigation and a hundred open tabs, just to name a few.
From there, robotic process automation (RPA) aimed to operationalize a growing number of tedious digital workflows across Excel spreadsheets, web apps and desktop apps. In Chou’s words, “RPA took the concepts of test automation software, and then pointed it toward production systems.”
Though RPA’s process of recording screen interactions gathered much interest and attention (and funding), screen scraping is ultimately too fragile to be effective. It adds technical debt over legacy systems. It can be expensive to implement. Lastly, it’s not processes-centric and doesn’t implement reusable software-defined APIs.
At that point, though, “Pandora’s box was open,” Chou said. Folks started to consider other ways to optimize, and reimagine how end users could automate workflows and stitch together interactions between disparate apps.
Out of the ashes of RPA rose a new paradigm — low-code and no-code.
No-Code Addresses Everything Ops
There’s not often enough developers to help with SalesOps, FinOps or any other Ops areas, explained Chou. “The only thing that can change the narrative is no-code technology that is effective.”
Similar to how higher-level programming languages made low-level programming more accessible, Chou sees low-code and no-code unlocking accessibility for automation design by orders of magnitude.
Four Examples of Everything Ops
So, what are some examples of no-code use cases for automating operations? Chou outlined four specific categories that he believes will see much more citizen developer attention and action in the years to come:
Customer Ops: “It’s really important to run customer operations as efficiently as possible,” Chou said. Especially in B2B interactions, people need to adopt various systems dictated by the customer. This can result in many ad-hoc implementations that beg for efficiency improvements.
Financial Ops: Imagine the number of Excel spreadsheets that make up an account’s financial foundation. Consider the tedium of inputting data, generating reports or migrating calculations into other tools. There’s a ton to automate here. Providing no-code platforms to financial minds could have a “really transforming effect,” said Chou.
People Ops: “The number of mini apps being developed for HR use cases is astounding,” Chou said. Think of all the digital tools HR must use: vacation requests, employee performance reviews, personnel databases – the list goes on. There’s a significant opportunity to clean up legacy applications within many HR departments to build a more coherent platform.
SupplyChain Ops: Procurement and supply chain operations is another area where no-code could have an impact. Streamlining inter-company communications or engaging with potential customers are areas worthy of automation.
No-Code? No Problem
Across all these verticals, Chou notices three common patterns emerging.
First, groups are using no-code to create standard operating procedures (SOP). SOPs could be used for onboarding or offboarding customers or ensuring compliance with a set of policies.
Another everyday use is data pipelining — pulling information from many resources for analysis. A common use case is processing financial or customer data to generate a particular output. This is an area where embedded machine learning models could enrich the data.
Lastly, a third common use case is creating workflow-powered surveys. These online forms could be used to measure employee engagement or to collect customer input. No-code workflows enable not only the collection of that data, but could allow for additional actions to be taken upon input.
Implications and Governance
Of course, giving non-developers the keys to the castle could have some downsides. Let’s face it — computer science is, well, a science. There’s a reason engineers are taught strict practices around version control, data governance and peer reviews. All of which must still be upheld when establishing a citizen development culture — especially at scale.
When it comes to low-code and no-code, “governance is a huge thing,” said Chou. “Any company coming at this with no governance in mind can’t work beyond small teams.” Move beyond 10 or so citizen developers, and you’ll really need to establish some sort of shared framework or center of excellence.
Making citizen development work in a large company requires IT visibility, data governance and a review process for new workflows, said Chou. IT will likely also want to verify that a new workflow doesn’t make permanent state changes. Otherwise, static apps that don’t touch core systems or affect persistent data stores are probably fine. “Having built-in governance is really key to making this successful,” Chou said.
A Technology Leap
No-code is giving more people the ability to produce unique workflows to increase their efficiency and do more with less. But with this movement comes worry. “With every technology leap, there’s always a wave of people concerned,” said Chou. Many naysayers are worried that automation will leave people out of work – “They’re coming for our office jobs!”
Instead, Chou recommended we curb our expectations. Citizen developers are not going to build sophisticated iPhone apps any time soon. “If you think no-code is a panacea for all software, you’re coming at it all wrong,” he said. Instead, what they can actually can accomplish is far more practical.