low code development

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Why agencies need low-code application development right now

The use of low-code application platforms (LCAP) within the government is accelerating at a rapid pace driven by not only the need for timely delivery but also for its quality, security, completeness of capabilities, high availability and, most importantly, the ability to change quickly. Custom-built applications are notorious for lengthy development cycles and are ineffective in meeting changing demands. Low-code platforms have reached critical mass, and the technology is accelerating at a speed that agencies can no longer ignore. Leading providers of low-code platforms include Appian, Microsoft Power Apps, Salesforce, and ServiceNow.

Leveraging LCAP has enabled the delivery of web applications, from initial concept to production deployment, in less than eight weeks. In addition, by using an LCAP certified at the highest impact risk level under the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, agencies can significantly simplify the authority to operate certification process.

That promise of rapidly delivering new applications and services while saving time and cost is why LCAP is capturing the attention of government and private-sector organizations alike. According to Gartner, the market for low-code development technologies was set to grow 23% between 2020 and 2021. By 2023, more than 50% of midsize and large enterprises will be using a low-code solution as one of their strategic application platforms. By embracing an LCAP today, agencies will capitalize on quick development cycles, project success and rapid return on investment.

To get the most benefit from low-code development, IT leaders must understand its capabilities, limitations and how it fits their strategy for creating applications that empower employees and serve citizens.

How low can you code?

Low-code development augments traditional, hand-coded programming with a platform that enables developers to leverage a graphical user interface to create new software quickly. In addition, LCAPs provide dozens of prebuilt components that offer drag-and-drop functionality to enhance existing applications or assemble new ones. As such, it requires little to no coding skills, making it easier for developers of all skill levels to create applications.

Low-code development enables agencies to:

Rapidly innovate new applications. Low-code development is ideal for scenarios where time is of the essence, reducing development cycles from years to months or from months to weeks. Effective platforms also enable IT leaders to quickly integrate components from leading cloud providers – useful tools like address validation or speech recognition.

More easily modernize existing applications. Many agencies lack the resources to migrate from legacy systems. A low-code approach is well-suited to layering a graphical interface or front-end portal on top of older software. That approach can also pay dividends down the road. Many legacy systems require months of training and are fully understood only by long-time users. A low-code-enabled interface can help new users get up to speed quickly.

Comply with agency standards. Every time an administration, a cabinet-level department or Congress changes a set of rules, agency applications and services must reflect those changes. A low-code approach can make responding faster and easier. What’s more, many agencies maintain style guides that specify fonts, colors and other details for websites and online tools, and low-code tools can automate almost all style-guide compliance.

Focus developers on innovation. People are great at ideating new processes and services but not as good with repetitive tasks, leading to random mistakes. Software, in contrast, is superb at repetition and consistency. So, it makes sense to leverage low-code tools for reusable components while freeing developers to dream up new, better ways to empower employees and serve constituents.

While low-code is a strategic enabler for just about all enterprise applications, it does have its limitations. For example, graphically intensive applications (simulations/animation), low-level drivers, and embedded systems still must be written in a performant language like C++ or even assembly. However, with a good web service-based architecture, low-code can still play a role by integrating with high-code components via REST or even embedded Docker containers running within the platform.

Second, unlike no-code solutions designed to let virtually anyone create software, low-code development is best reserved for the development team. Sophisticated business users might use a low-code platform to enhance a digital tool used by a small internal team. But for enterprise-class applications or citizen-facing services, even low-code-enabled development is best left to experts.

Five steps to low-code success

Like any technology, low-code development requires the right approach. To achieve low-code success, agencies should follow these five guidelines:

1. Empower developers. A low-code platform replaces the lengthy build and test cycles of Java and C# with modular coding and drag-and-drop reuse. Now more than ever, agencies need experienced, talented experts to understand business needs, innovate new processes and services and apply modern, agile methodologies to deliver advanced capabilities. As we have seen 100% custom code, class libraries like Java Development Kit (JDK) and Microsoft.Net and frameworks augment class libraries, the goal has always been to maximize the reuse of existing code to accelerate application delivery and capability and quality. Today, LCAPs deliver considerable capabilities out of the box while also providing extensive integrations and blank palette user interface capabilities thanks to JavaScript, CSS and HTML hooks.

2. Adopt a modern software architecture. Low-code development optimizes software design. But it doesn’t eliminate the need for robust software architecture.

Software design involves the organization of data, the implementation of components and the look and feel of applications. Software architecture deals with the underlying system structure, how the components fit together and how the application integrates with other systems. Agencies need a modern architecture to create enterprise-class software that can easily integrate with other systems.

3. Focus on business needs. Low-code development can deliver new functionality, but it does nothing to identify the functionality users require, so agencies should make sure developers are capturing user requirements upfront. Fortunately, a low-code approach can free IT leaders to spend more time understanding needs and how new applications and services can fulfill them.

4. Don’t get locked into a low-code platform. LCAPs now offer robust platforms built for scale, but they require investment – and they can lock organizations into a particular solution set. A robust architecture, a component-based strategy and integration with best-in-class web services can help minimize vendor lock-in. 

5. Work with a partner that knows low-code development. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos talks about one-way-door decisions, which are nearly irreversible, and two-way-door decisions that can be easily changed. To deliver a successful enterprise application, organizations need a partner with extensive experience with web services, containerization, cloud and advanced low-code development. When properly implemented, low-code applications offer two-way door agility, providing the future-proofing needed for applications to maintain an iterative development lifecycle without the need for total rewrites.

Such a partner can also help agencies understand development needs and how a low-code approach can meet them. Additionally, it can help implement an architecture that enables the most significant benefit from low-code efforts. After all, the ability to create applications quickly and inexpensively delivers little value if the applications are ineffective.

In traditional development, developers put much of their effort into application basics. There’s little time, budget or energy for creating capabilities that deliver truly high value. Low-code development can let teams focus on building applications that better empower employees and serve citizens. It’s no wonder the Air Force, Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Human Services and Transportation Security Administration are leveraging modern low-code platforms to accelerate the delivery and quality of software applications to support their mission-critical programs.

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