The rising tide of no-code tooling inevitably raises the hackles of IT professionals, threatening a deluge of unmanaged apps created with no professional oversight. But what if, instead of resisting it, they could embrace the movement to no-code? Demand for automation has never been higher and yet skills and resources are in short supply. No-code tools that work alongside, rather than in contention with, professional tooling offer a workable alternative, with the right governance. At its Impact conference in Oslo, Norway, this week, Neptune Software unveiled a new product designed to please professional coders while appealing to non-technical business process owners.
The new App Builder uses AI-augmented workflow to support anyone in creating an app either from scratch or from a library of customizable templates and components. One way to start an app is to sketch out a form or screen by hand and then import this image for automatic conversion into working fields and components that can be further edited. Other starting points are an existing dataset or an AI-augmented search of a library of templates based on apps others have created.
The vendor believes these shortcuts will appeal to professional developers too, and held a hackathon a day before the conference in which teams from customers and partners tried out the new capabilities. Having a tool that both pro- and no-coders can use will foster valuable collaboration as apps are created, as Matthias Steiner, Chief Product Officer at Neptune Software, explains:
We believe by bringing together the business people and developers in so-called fusion teams from the get-go, and allowing them to develop applications all the way from idea to sketch to prototype in record time, all without friction and waits, this is the way forward.
The no-code tool is an add-on to the existing Neptune DXP product, and therefore connects to its extensive API Factory, with links into core SAP systems and other enterprise application stacks, while producing modern digital web and mobile apps. The Neptune platform is already popular with organizations that need to rapidly develop web-native apps that connect to SAP core systems.
As is customary at Neptune Software conferences, there were several presentations by customers talking about their experience of using its tools. These included Dussman, a provider of professional catering, facilities management and technical services based in Germany with 65,000 employees across 21 countries. With three months to go before going live with a new SAP HR system, its team built an employee portal on the Neptune platform with 23 different apps to provide digital alternatives to previous paper-based processes. Another speaker from cement maker Secil told its story of rolling out 17 apps since starting in March 2020 with a proof-of-concept for vacation scheduling and approval. The apps in use now cover processes as diverse as a customer portal, PO approval, vendor management, and even explosives tracking in its quarries, many of them replacing formerly paper-based processes that can now be done far more conveniently using mobile devices.
Such apps are typically developed by IT professionals working in close collaboration with business process owners. Neptune Software argues that App Builder will make it even easier for IT and business to collaborate on such projects, with business process owners able to build prototypes or try out modifications themselves. According to Helder Gonçalves, Chief Product Owner, who gave a demo of the new product:
The App Builder has as a goal the technical requirement of being able to bring everyone together — business people, IT people, collaboration. The goal is to enable anyone to build applications, but without shortfalls.
AI support for users
The no-code tool has been tested with non-technical business people, leading to small changes such as describing each page of an application as a screen, because whereas developers call this a page, business users think of it as a screen. Similarly, fragments of applications are not described as UI components, but are labeled based on their function, such as contact details, leave request, favorites settings, and so on.
AI is used extensively to help support users. When adding a new component, the AI brings up a dialog showing the most likely next step or the most common properties, based on analysis of what other users have done. All pages and functions created in the company account are automatically tagged with relevant keywords, so that they can easily be found by other users looking for template examples. This also reduces duplicated effort and helps to maintain consistency across different applications.
Since this all runs on the underlying Neptune platform, IT still has oversight of what's being created using the no-code tool, while all the APIs and permissions are managed by the professional coding team. Delivered as a cloud service, it allows IT to focus on app delivery, as Steiner explains:
Ultimately, you need a platform that allows you to focus on value-creating tasks and not having to reinvent the wheel, building tech stacks, setting up infrastructure or doing repetitive code.
Speaking later in the day, Redmonk analyst and developer advocate James Governor described himself as "the low-code skeptic at a low-code conference.” All these tools are all very well, he noted, but "someone has to clean up after the puppy." That's true, but there's no holding back the tide of low-code and no-code. Embedding no-code tooling into the same environment that an enterprise's professional developers are using looks like the best solution to this conundrum, provided that the right processes are put in place to ensure that pro-coders and no-coders are working in alignment rather than at cross-purposes.
My preferred term for this kind of collaboration is co-code, one that Neptune Software has also begun to adopt. There's no need to set up schisms between business people and IT when they can achieve far more by working in harmony. A platform like App Builder that can be delivered, managed and used by pro-coders but is designed to be ultra friendly for no-coding business process owners seems like a good vehicle for achieving this. Enterprise IT can put governance in place and manage the creation of the building-block components, while supporting business users as they make prototypes, test new functionality, or assemble their own automations.
There are, of course, many other vendors offering similar platforms, from Zoho Creator, which first led me to expand on the term co-coding, through to Salesforce, whose growing family of low-code tools first inspired me to coin the term a while back. Another important player is Microsoft, whose Power Automate workflow builder got a session of its own on the conference agenda later in the day, with a live demonstration of how to create apps to run in Microsoft Teams that use the Neptune API Factory to connect deeply into SAP back-end systems. This demo was not as persuasive as the vendor probably intended — my own takeaway was how much more complicated and confusing Power Automate is to use compared to Neptune's new no-code tool. It may be fine for enterprises that want to standardize on Teams as their app launchpad, but that's not the audience here.
Neptune Software has been particularly successful with customers seeking to automate all the manual processes based on paper forms and spreadsheets that were left behind when enterprises first automated their core transactions. Most enterprises are now discovering many other gaps and exceptions that have grown up around these older systems, or between them and the newer SaaS and digital solutions that have been introduced to opportunistically fill specific requirements. All of this is leading to more and more demand for automation, while the rise of API-based integration, cloud-based microservices and the extra assistance available by harnessing the power of AI make it cost-effective to create apps where none existed before. The combined effect of these trends, given the continuing shortage of IT resources, is that no-code tools are inevitably going to proliferate. The question for enterprise IT is not whether to roll out a no-code platform, but which one to choose.