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ServiceNow’s low code pitch - uniting business and IT to avoid shadow sprawl

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 18, 2021
Low code development feels like it’s at peak hype. But, why? We speak to ServiceNow’s Creator Workflow chief to better understand the rise of the citizen developer.

Image of someone designing an app workflow on paper
(Image by Firmbee from Pixabay )

Speaking with ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott recently, it was clear that he is very enthusiastic about customer demand for the company's Creator Workflow offering - where line of business users can build their own apps and processes on the Now platform, with little involvement from IT. Low code certainly appears to be at the very peak of the hype cycle at the moment, with vendors left, right and center telling us that it will solve enterprises' rapid transformation needs. 

However, during the call with McDermott I mentioned that I still didn't fully understand where the true value from low code - or Creator Workflows - is coming from and that I had seen little evidence on the ground of how the low-touch development approach is being used by customers. 

Equally, I expressed concern that buyers could be walking down a path to more ‘shadow IT', similar to what we saw with cloud adoption, and that governance should be at the forefront of the discussion around low-code. 

As such, McDermott and team set up a call with Josh Kahn, SVP of Creator Workflow Products at ServiceNow, to get a better understanding of how the vendor is approaching its go to market strategy for low code. 

Kahn says that what attracted him to ServiceNow in the first place was the Now platform and the CMDB as an extensible repository, as he saw the potential for organizations to build any kind of app that they needed on top. Over the years ServiceNow has indeed seen a growing ecosystem of partners and SI vendors building apps on the Now platform, but this is now being adopted by buyers themselves too. Kahn says: 

If you want to build something we haven't yet envisioned, that's what Creator Workflows is really all about.

Where's demand coming from? 

Before getting into the technical aspects of how ServiceNow is approaching low code, Kahn was keen to explain where the demand is coming from. And there are two key drivers. Firstly, COVID-19 has accelerated the need for change in the enterprise, where speed is essential. He says: 

There's, for a long time, been an unmet need of transformation, because IT was typically the provider of applications to transform. In some cases, bigger companies have IT centrally, they have IT in the lines of business, but it was people who are developers that built apps that drove transformation. 

But COVID-19 just caused so much pressure for organizations to change quickly. And at the same time, there was this technology to empower people to meet their own needs, so that spark really is what I think caused it to take off.

Equally, there is a skills gap in the market where companies simply aren't able to find enough developers to drive the necessary changes taking place. And, as such, enabling business line users to roll out new apps and processes quickly, goes some way to fill this gap. Kahn says: 

There's just not enough developers out there. This makes new people able to not only do something without coding, but it creates an on ramp for new developers, right? The more you start doing this, the more they say:oh, maybe I'll write a little script, or pop a little script in there. And pretty soon a person who wasn't a developer before, is a developer now and they're writing code. 

They're not just citizen developers anymore. I think low code tools give, if they're done in the right way, an on-ramp to new developers - and that's what we've tried to do.

The new shadow IT? 

Front of mind for Kahn and ServiceNow is that for organizations that don't respond with the right tooling and governance features, a shadow IT scenario could soon emerge, as business users take it upon themselves to build things themselves without the involvement of IT. He says: 

It's a little bit like the new shadow IT. Remember when shadow IT was people going to buy infrastructure in the cloud to build apps on top? This is very similar in many cases, because it's the Director of Legal going off and buying some web service to build an app to manage their legal workload. So, I think what's happening is that's starting to cause IT to sit up and say, wait a minute, if that's happening, we have a tonne of risk out there. There's a lot of apps out there that we might not want, having data we might not want, that we're not sure are safe.

We see the customers that are going in and getting their own tools tend to just want their needs to be met. And so if IT comes to them and says: hey, I have a set of tools that are as easy to use and just as powerful, but it's also safer and more secure, and you're going to be working with us instead of against us…the lines of businesses say that's, that's fantastic, we're in. 

Key to ServiceNow's approach is that the platform remains central to enabling low code. The aim is to create environments where ‘citizen developers' can go off and build what they need to, without heavy involvement from IT, but with effective governance controls in place. A proactive approach from IT to allow the business to go off and do what it needs to, ServiceNow hopes, will accelerate the growth of these citizen developers, but in a controlled way. Kahn says: 

What we're doing is focusing on helping IT be successful and empowering everybody in the business. What we bring to IT on the technology part is a platform where they can take requests in from a citizen developer who might want to build and then they can see the status of that application all the way through. They can approve the requests, they make sure the developers have gone through the right training, they can see the applications as they're getting created and published. 

They can also give the developer a secure container that limits that citizen developer's access to certain types of data that prevents them from creating an application that would disrupt other mission critical applications. They're then able to monitor the ongoing operations of that application as it's published. And we do that with our governance tools that we provide to manage the applications built on the platform.

Kahn explains that ServiceNow is continuing to see opportunities for business and IT to work closely together; IT wants and needs applications faster than ever before, at scale, whilst lines of business need the tools to create "really powerful workflow applications". 

He adds that this approach, which aligns the IT and business functions, means that citizen developers can build in complexity to what they need, going beyond what some of the more simple drag and drop low code systems provide. Kahn says: 

I think one of the things that makes our platform unique is we support IT developers writing code and people who don't write code on a single platform. And part of the reason we do that is we've seen that if you only support no code developers without writing any code, they often hit cliffs. They're limited to somewhat simple applications - build the form, populate a database - which may be useful for some small set of applications. 

But when you start wanting to route approvals, or automatically update three different systems with data at the same time, that gets a lot harder. And that's where you sometimes need the citizen developer to work together with an IT developer. On our platform, we made that work. We allow IT developers to build reusable components, integrations to other systems, specific widgets, or units of business logic that can be encapsulated; and then a citizen developer can just drag and drop them. 

So you get a lot of reuse and you help those citizen developers get over the cliff and build things that they couldn't build without help.

My take

IT and business working closely together (or not, as often the case may be) is one of the oldest stories in enterprise technology - and one that continues to present itself today. This time, the low code opportunity, and challenge, is at the forefront of this. ServiceNow continues to expand in the enterprise, and workflow speaks to the heart of what many business users need today, which may make its approach a compelling proposition for buyers. However, it will be competing with a number of other cloud platforms that have traction in this space too. In reality, it's unlikely that an enterprise will use just one platform for its low code approach, but stick to the ones that do allow for effective governance and controls, whilst enabling speed. But there's one thing I'm calling from all vendors that I speak to on this topic - use cases! At present, I don't feel like I've spoken to enough users to have a clear understanding of how widely this is being adopted, nor the challenges that it brings. We will keep pushing for those conversations. 

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