Code is no longer the best way to build software. At least, not always.
We are used to a world where it’s the only way to build apps — in 2019, code runs almost everything. As a result, learning to code presents itself as a worthy investment of time, a way to create things while being essentially guaranteed a well-paying job on the other side. Yet, whether or not it’s the best path depends a lot on your motivations for considering it. If you want to learn to code because you love getting into the technical weeds of a problem, then everything I’m about to say need not concern you. But if you’re looking at code as a means to bring your dream app to life, or as the solution to your career woes, well, at least let’s have a conversation about no-code first.
Getting apps built is expensive
The code-based web development industry is booming, but it’s creating a lot of inefficiencies along the way. Learning to code is a bit like learning how to make an elephant do tricks. You slowly pick up on how to communicate with one another, you tell it to do stuff, you get confused when it doesn’t respond, and you panic when it starts running out of control. All of this is of course is a messy process, full of late nights and headaches, and it takes time. And unfortunately the speed at which people are learning to be coders is a lot slower than the speed in which businesses can find them.
In business, as we all know, things that take time usually also take money. Learning to build web and mobile applications in code takes a lot of time and dedication, and like any highly skilled profession, developers can charge accordingly. Ideas for this or that app are abundant, but so are the stories of entre and entrepreneurs, who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on development agencies in an attempt to bring their dream app to life, not to mention the thousands more on revisions and new features. This path can work for companies where such expenses are a mere blip in a spreadsheet, but when you’re finances won’t allow it, custom software can be a massive expense.
This is where I tell you, “But there is another way!”. And there is. But first, let’s just clarify something…
Coding and programming are not the same thing.
For most people, coding and programming are synonymous. But of course, we have plenty of examples that show coding to be just one of many means to program. When you tell Excel to add up a list of numbers, you’re programming. When you set your alarm on your phone to off at 7 am Monday to Friday, you’re programming.
Programming is nothing more than issuing these kind of instructions: taking some input information, doing something to it, and spitting our new information. Excel and your clock just put a human-friendly layer between you and the code beneath, so you could click a couple of buttons on a screen, and have the code make the relevant changes out of sight.
A more efficient way to program?
One of the emerging ways is the precisely named ‘No-code’ method. The clue is in the title. No-code is a loose term for building applications using tools which provide a visual interface rather than a text-based one.
Think Microsoft Paint. I’m sure we’ve all sunk some productive minutes drawing crude pictures in Paint as a kid. Now if Paint didn’t exist, we might, if we sufficiently motivated to let our inner artist flourish, try to make a picture by writing code which puts certain pixels there and other pixels here. Notwithstanding the buzz some people get from doing things the hard way, I think we can all agree that using Paint instead of code is not only a more intuitive way of making an image, it’s also more effective. If we draw a line we’re not happy with, we can simply run an eraser over it with our mouse. If we want to change the colour of our pen, we only have to click on the hue we’d like.
This adolescent renaissance was only possible because some smart people worked out that they could create a visual layer on top of the code, which if manipulated would change the code underneath. No code takes this same principle, but instead of changing the source code of an image, it changes the code of an application.
And it’s more powerful that you might first think. We’re not talking Wordpress templates, nor website builders like Wix and Squarespace. These options are quite restrictive in the size of the Lego blocks they give you to play with — there’s simply not a huge amount of different ways you can stack them together. No-code is different in that it tries to provide you with smaller Lego blocks, of enough number and variety, to make it possible to replicate the kind of complex functionality that has until now only been possible in code. In 2019, there are many applications currently built by coders that could be built without code, like CMS systems for small businesses, customer-facing MVPs, or webshops. Traditionally, no-code tools have never quite achieved this dream in practice. Yet perhaps because the demand for learning web and mobile development skills has never been higher, a new generation of no-code platforms and software is starting to make it work.
Leading the charge is Bubble. Their philosophy is simple: rather than teaching people how to use the tools (code), we should be changing the tools to make them easier to use. “Bubble is a programming language designed to be learned in hours instead of months”, as it’s co-founder, Emmanuel Straschnov, puts it. The magic of Bubble is that it makes available a rather comprehensive set of functionality that can be strung together in countless ways. Developers have used Bubble to build fully functional clones of dozens of big-time web applications, like Twitter, Airbnb, Product Hunt, even Linkedin, in a fraction of the time it takes in code. What this means is a dramatically lessened learning curve for an aspiring developer, opening up the floor to all kinds of people with app ideas but without the time to learn how to code.
It’s not just the speed of development which gives no-code an edge in many projects, but it’s shortened learning curve. In both code and no-code, learning the grammar, or logic of programming, is essential. But beyond this, the only thing keeping a no-code developer from building is their familiarity with the particular no-code tools they’re using, which by definition are designed to be friendly to use. In contrast, coders must learn the syntax of various programming languages, and a whole suite of different technologies around them. Swarms of coding bootcamps are popping up all over the world in an attempt to fast-track learners through various versions of this curriculum, but they take anywhere from weeks to months, and often produce graduates with a lot of recipes for how to implement this or that kind of feature, but lacking the foundational understanding needed to create something novel.
Of course, those who can go through this process and thrive, are incredibly valuable engineers. But the bottom line is that a lot of the work they end up doing once they’re in a job is building relatively basic applications instead of innovating technically.
Contrast this with Bubble, which because it has abstracted away most of the routine, technical parts of an app, and provided the building blocks needed for the vast majority of common app features, let’s you simply get on with building things. Developers with Bubble routinely build applications in a quarter of the time or more it would take with code, simply because there are far fewer technicalities to get bogged down in. Enter.bio, an app which helps link your various online profiles that was launched on Product Hunt earlier this year, was built in 8 days. It’s creator, Dave, even found that a new problem emerged from the ease at which he can build with Bubble. Since he could build anything he wanted in days or weeks, he wouldn’t commit to any app long enough to try and market it; he’d just build a new app, push it live, and hope it took off. Dave even did a 9 week iOS coding bootcamp, but couldn’t stay motivated with code. Bubble provided the answer because “clicking things and visually seeing what I’m doing works better for me”.
And Dave’s not the only one. I myself spend the better part of a year prototyping and releasing various apps, looking for the one which would hit the big-time. Building apps became so easy, that I’d go from an idea to a live, functioning app, with users, in a matter of weeks, and the apps would be as diverse as a matching-service for people looking to study online together, or a video-based Q&A tool.
It is precisely this kind of no-code app development which is so well-attuned to rapid prototyping. Another MVP app built using Bubble is Followup Edge, a SaaS digital marketing tool which was built in three weeks and earning revenue two weeks later. For it’s lead developer, Scottie, who built the MVP, the no-code development route allowed them to focus on the product and prototype quickly, without needing to worry about funding or spending money on external developers. While he has now transitioned to a code-based technology stack to deal with performance issues as it’s scaled, building initially on Bubble, “showed me that I could develop SaaS products before I knew enough code to build a more traditional full stack app.”
So then, who shouldn’t learn to code?
Certainly for those who are entrepreneurially-minded, no-code app development might be the single best path forward. In terms of getting a working application out into the world as fast as possible and collecting feedback, learning to build without code can save an immense amount of time and money. This is especially true for the inevitable cycles of changes made to the app, as entrepreneurs can make these changes themselves on the fly. Add to this the growing ecosystem of no-code templates and courses, which you can chop and change till it fits your use case, and there’s little that can rival this speed to market.
Even if you’re not looking to make money with your app directly, no-code provides a means to scratch your own itch in a way only you can. It might be a custom tool to keep track of the vegetables in your garden, or an inefficient process you’re putting up with in your job that could be fixed ‘if only there was an app that could do x’. When you can build your own tools to help yourself, the solution is always going to be better. You understand how that solution should look and feel better than anyone. If you go the coding route to build an app which provides that solution, you might just be using a chainsaw to open an envelope, when much simpler, and easy-to-handle tools will work better.
There is also every sign that being a no-code application builder will be fantastic for your career. John Rymer, the Lead analyst at Forrester Research, recently discussed the “profound” no-code movement with Chris Obdam, the CEO of another no-code builder called Betty Blocks which is focused on enterprise use cases. Rymer claimed that workers within organisations are the best placed to deal with the automation sweeping the corporate world. Not only do they understand the operations processes better than anyone, but, “there are not enough developers to deliver all that software. It has to be delivered by business people.” Such a strategy is not just about doing things faster, argues Rymer, but about building the next generation of their business.
For those looking to find work as a developer, there is also a long-tail of small businesses ready to benefit from a custom apps, but not able to afford hiring a code-based development agency. Perhaps they want to streamline an internal process, or offer a new product or service. No-code development agencies are becoming the first to realize as they offer to build for these businesses at a much lower cost than going to a traditional agency. The reduced price is a direct outcome of the reduced development time, made possible by tools like Bubble, and the short-turnaround with feedback, which translates to less effort and money spent building things that aren’t quite as the client envisioned. There’s no reason to think that as more and more businesses become attuned to the benefits of no-code app development, that demand for no-code developers won’t also rise in tandem.
So, does this make learning to code useless? No, of course not. But it does likely change the nature of the work that coders will be doing. The ability to build apps without code is only an abstraction of the background processes, in code, that are running underneath. No-code will always be dependent on code, which means coders will always be needed for no-coders to exist. But more than that, coders may find themselves working more and more on innovative, technical problems. Any old no-coder can build a web shop for a business, but they can’t easily create an algorithm for the related recommendation system. If the application is running slow, there are hard limits to how much a no-coder can optimise the performance, while someone who understands code can go under the hood and get things running faster.
Seen this way, the no-code movement is just a new chapter in the division of labour. The definition of a developer is being broadened, and in the emerging space are huge opportunities for creative people to leverage the power of software for the first time. As Github CEO Chris Wanstrath put it: “Coding is not the main event anymore. Building software is the main event.”
Hey there — thanks for reading. We’ve been working in the No-Code space for a few years now, and have created a pretty impressive set of No-Code tools, templates, and learning resources — all to help people like you kickstart their No-Code projects. Check us out at Zeroqode.com.