How to App Dev in the Age of Digital Transformation

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Look around you and ask yourself this: How far away am I from a software application? Software is everywhere and we live in an age that is increasingly enabled by software. Some might even go as far to say driven by software. Whether at work or play, we're actively or passively using software. According to data highlighted by the Huffington Post, we check our phones a third of our waking hours, while TechCrunch state that 85% of the time we spend using our smartphones is spent using apps. Technology such as Nest thermostats means that software is monitoring our living patterns and adjusting our heating accordingly.

Mobile is now a significant driver to the volume of software solutions and apps created, and the coming wave of the Internet of Things (IoT) will only accelerate this trend.

The drive for software and the myriad applications it offers presents a notable challenge: there are not enough professional developers to keep up with the demand for new software solutions and apps. Add to this the perennial problems of a shortage of time and money and one begins to understand the headache that is befalling many organizations across the globe.
And it is set to grow.

A successful story with growing pains
As the digital economy grows, IT functions will be faced with the demand for more applications which in turn will see a rise in the need for more app development. How IT teams come to address the growing demand for application development will determine whether their organizations succeed or fail.

A recent research report published by OutSystems into The State of Application Development (2017) said that 62% of organizations surveyed are already experiencing backlogs, primarily with respect to mobile apps. One major concern is the time it takes organizations to produce new applications. 76% of respondents said that it takes them over 3 months while for 11% it’s more than a year.

The fuel of Digital Transformation
This drive towards ever more software is part of the digital transformation that organizations across the market landscape are undertaking to ensure that they can participate in the growing digital economy. In a Creative Intellect Consulting (CIC) study conducted in the second half of 2016, this change was defined as “The transformation of business activities, processes, competencies, and models to fully leverage the changes and opportunities of digital technologies and their impact across the organization in a strategic and prioritized way.” 97% of the 350+ senior business executives and technical leadership roles agreed with this definition with some going further stating that it engendered a new type of thinking that goes beyond technology.

Three impacting drivers
The primary driver cited in CIC’s study was speed, a common criterion cited across many other related studies. Organizations recognize that they must move faster if they are to survive the wave of disruption coming from smaller, more agile competitors.

The volume of software combined with a desire for increased velocity only exacerbates the lack of skills challenge. And this skills shortage is not just in traditional developer skills but in new capabilities such as user experience (UX). The same CIC study recognized experience as being another of the top 3 drivers for Digital Transformation. This shortage is especially acute within enterprise IT functions as they have traditionally ignored UX.

The third key driver in our study was integration as organizations recognize that the apps that realize the greatest value are tightly integrated with existing systems that run the business.

The OutSystems study report cemented the drive for integration further, finding that 58% of organizations need to integrate with 1-5 cloud based or on-premises systems when building mobile apps. Surprisingly, 13% have to integrate with over 20 systems.

Remedies that deliver tangible relief
There are solutions to these challenges. One is to use non-professional developers in the creation of software apps. The basic principle is not new – business users have written macros in Microsoft Excel for many years to create very basic applications.

However, a new breed of low-code tools – that require little or sometimes no code – offer non-professional developers far greater capabilities than Excel and ensure that they sustain the governance directives of the IT organization. Such tools often enable applications to be built in ways that are secure, create good experiences, integrate with multiple systems and can be deployed across desktop, web, and mobile.

CIC’s recent studies also found that a major concern for IT is a lack of developers with domain knowledge. By enabling business users to build apps one is placing development into the hands of those with that domain knowledge.

A business and operational friendly way forward for the citizen developer
There are of course challenges. Non-professional developers are inherently not skilled in basic development principles and that can place limitations on the types of applications they can build. There are concerns within IT regarding low-code tools such as security, lock-in, lack of capability and scalability. Some tools have gone a long way to addressing these concerns. More importantly, organizations looking to empower non-professional developers with such tools are putting in place supporting architectures.

For example, the new evolution of Application Platform Interfaces (APIs) has changed software development by providing lightweight Internet standard based integration protocols that open up the way for non-professional developers and low code tools to gain access to and communicate with legacy systems. APIs abstract internal and external systems providing an added layer of simplicity and security and enabling new apps and functionality to be easily created without compromising the integrity of other participating software systems.

A recent CIC study found that almost two-thirds of organizations already have an API strategy and so are well placed as a solution of choice.

We’re all in this together
If IT has the processes in place to support non-professional developers and low-code tools, then they can allow these users to prototype new solutions on their own, saving IT time and budget. When an application proves its value to the business then IT can apply resources in order to industrialize it, thereby removing any possible concerns that they or the business may have. Robust low-code platforms, like OutSystems, can make the process of going from a prototype to an industrialized application incredibly fast and seamless.

The world demands more software applications and solutions and as OutSystems’ State of Application Development 2017 Research Report succinctly highlights, there are insufficient professionally skilled developers with the right tools and processes to meet that demand. Organizations will need to find ways to address this challenge. Expanding the numbers of staff, who with their front-line knowledge and insights, can participate in the application creation process, offers a viable way forward. To this end, low-code tools offer a powerful opportunity to be part of the solution.

Clive Howard is a technology consultant and Entrepreneur.