Using low code to sidestep the disruptors - a market survival strategy from OutSystems?

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks July 29, 2020
You wake up one morning and a disruptive startup has suddenly cut a swathe through your core market, and you realise your business does not have the skills, the expertise  or the applications to fight back. Time to climb on the low-code bandwagon?

chess pieces

It’s one of the facts of modern life that developments in tech can rapidly enable a disruptive start-up to come like a bolt from the blue to cut away the market from established businesses and simply run away with it.

For many of those businesses the biggest problem is not so much the being taken by surprise aspect as the lack of capability in being able to respond….at all in most cases, let alone fast enough. Many are geared to established legacy applications that underpin the business, and therefore trapped by the up to three year applications development cycles which mean that their marketplace and their business will be lost by the time they are ready to adapt.

This is one of the scenarios that underpins the growth in low-code applications development tools, which Gartner suggests is likely to account for more than 65% of all applications development by 2024. This potential is why most of the major software vendors are starting to take a serious interest. Even Microsoft announced last year that it planned to make a play for a share of the expected spoils.

The reason is that every business now needs to be far more agile and flexible in its ability to develop new applications to meet upcoming changes. And of course, as Mike Hughes, Senior Director of Product Marketing at low-code development platform vendor, OutSystems observes, the COVID-19 pandemic has also significantly changed the rules, creating almost overnight the need for every business to have a ‘digital’ workforce. 

Disruption is now coming at businesses from every quarter and for the majority that means trying to move the business in new directions while at the same time having to accommodate the constraints of the technologies they have invested in and remain committed to. Very few can afford a regime of wholesale rip and replace.

Upskill what you’ve got

This is where Hughes sees low-code offering a bridge between established legacy and a new world of cloud delivered services and mobile end-points. It is also a tool that can help businesses keep hold of their existing development talent by effectively upskilling them, rather than lose them to heavily bankrolled start-ups:

They're able to recruit top talent. A lot of them have a location that's considered desirable, they're offering equity and so on. So they are desirable locations for a lot of the top talent that exists. But that's not really the reality for most organizations, which have old systems and don't have access to the talent. They're slow to adapt their challenge to compete over customer experience and that gap is growing.

But he sees their perspectives shifting almost in real time. A recent survey the company conducted showed that fear of competitors is dropping off the bottom of the chart in terms of motivations to transform as an organization. By contrast, an understanding that their very existences were closely geared to customer experience came up rapidly up the list:

So, while pre-COVID it was the disruption from the digital leaders, the situation now is their very survival. But that is equally disruptive. 

That means being able to change or add applications and services at near the speed of the start-ups. Hughes gives as an example a Fintech company that was failing to hire the talent it required to develop a new mobile app, so instead used the OutSystems platform to develop it, in seven weeks, using the existing developer team. The effort resulted in an increase in customer onboarding conversion of 30%.

For some businesses, this increase in disruption will coincide with the end of life of major legacy systems. One of the available options then is to use a platform like OutSystems’ to build a new version of the legacy app’s relevant functionality plus any new functions that are required, working with the existing datasets and data formats. This maintains full data compatibility together with optimizing operations to meet the latest requirements, while improving performance and reducing costs.

According to Hughes, this should also mean staff can spend more time improving the customer experience and services levels with improved delivery logistics and mobile payment services. 

Where the legacy applications have not reached end of life, it is possible to effectively build new functionality round them so the legacy application becomes integrated into the expanded environment. In addition, the platform on which these applications are built comes with built in scalability, providing user businesses with scope to expand.

Prakash Vyas, the company’s Senior Director of Global Sales Acceleration, expands on the subject of staffing and the ability for businesses to bypass stalling new development projects over lack of suitably skilled staff:

It's fair to say that the speed in which we deliver applications, and the fact that we can use the customer's team to do that, means that there's a little bit of a shift in in terms of the way in which customers can approach building software for their digital channels. I've been in DevOps for many years and this is the first time I'm actually seeing businesses truly having a dialogue with it.

Top-down talking

Vyas sees the company now engaging with businesses from top down as the C-Suite recognises the opportunity to drive the direction of digital transformation with the development staff that they already have, often working in conjunction with a growing business value consulting team provided by OutSystems. This is normally based around the common theme of addressing the customer's limitations around the pace at which their business can move. 

The company also provides training programmes designed to upskill developers with traditional coding skills and languages, and as Hughes points out, at its last user conference began the process of extending this programme to target non-IT roles. The idea here is that currently non-tech-savvy staff can learn enough to combine this with their other knowledge and experience in a programming environment. The theory here is that such a combination could end up producing more focused, relevant applications to meet the specific needs of a business:

There are a few a few caveats around that, such as we don't want to recreate ‘shadow IT’. We believe it needs to be within a single platform - it's a continuum. So instead of creating that Excel macro that the business then depends on right now, if they use our systems, they'll solve a problem using part of that platform and then if that if that particular solution starts to become a much more business-critical function, it's all within the same platform. It can then be taken by your friendly, professional developers and evolved to become massively scaling and secure.

Hughes feels emboldened to pitch the OutSystems platform as an enterprise prototyping environment for more complex production services or applications. This way, the staff of an organization have the skills and tools required to solve and develop the applications needed to solve small, local process problems, and can also use the same tools initiate development of solutions to much bigger problems that can then be evolved by the development team. And that team will be able to address all tasks across the full applications stack using the platform, rather than having development bottlenecks build up because of a lack of staff with specific skillsets.

My take

The combination of an ongoing shortage of skilled development staff and even more pressure being put on all businesses to change, and change quickly, can only be met by some near-instant miracle happening in education. Failing that, there’s the option of ever-greater democratisation of the way applications and services are developed, and that is the route that OutSystems is plying. While it is a route that might not allow a business to launch out on a whole new, cloud-native enterprise, it is probably a feasible approach for an existing business serving a good market, but now looking over its shoulder with some degree of fear.  

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