“No-code changes everything,” the market experts tell us. No-code is a hot new trend. The term generally refers to the new generation of tools that allows the creation of technically sophisticated apps and automation previously thought to be the sole and secret dominion of extras in The Social Network. Now everyone can be a Zuckerberg! Or so goes the theory.
But, of course, we hear about something new changing everything once per year. Always a new trend, and is this one different?
Yes - ish. No-code is mechanically a matter of tooling, but the story is about the jobs to be done. Those four words were the innovation of the late Clay Christensen at Harvard Business School for understanding market innovation. We focus not on what makes it cool or unique, but needs exist that cause us to adopt the new technology or modality. In this case, what are the problems for which we “hire” no-code? Understanding those jobs will give us insight into the market and the opportunities before us.
To be sure, the tooling part is a significant improvement. A quick definition of tooling will help here. Tooling is a spectrum of support, making impossible tasks hard and hard ones simple. The simple, in turn, is increasingly automated away. Increasing returns on tooling are shifting work in remarkable ways. No-code pushes us down this spectrum. A couple of examples come to mind.
First, the most popular use of no-code is for websites. Static marketing sites - and most web-based applications - don’t need a dedicated technology stack to run anymore. Relatedly, one does not require specialized knowledge to make that stack run. Instead, one can use sensible templates and easy tooling to generate fairly intricate web presences. Example tools include Squarespace, Webflow, and other newer tools like Carrd and Umso. And the results look good - often much better than the site you have been keeping up for the last ten years on Bluehost! The days of needing to hand over root credentials to a WordPress developer you met on Upwork are long past.
Second, I continue to be impressed by the rapid evolution in business process automation available. At a guess, a key to these tools’ success is the deployment of quality APIs by cloud-hosted services. For the user, the result is transformational - from “somebody oughta do it” to creating as if with Lego pieces. Those who have enough understanding of their business processes to write them down have an opportunity to move the labor required to near zero. Zapier, Integromat, IFTTT are all in this space. More specialized tools like Phantom Buster and PixieBrix point businesses toward more significant opportunities.
These categories come up most often when discussing no-code. But we should put them in perspective with the no-code tools that have driven incredible returns without being called “no-code.”
One example is in marketing technology - known in the industry as “MarTech.” Segment, the Google Marketing Platform, Mixpanel, and others give insight into user and prospect behavior. They require only a tiny snippet of code at the top of an application or site. This snippet is the only piece that requires a developer. And if one has built the site itself using one of the no-code tools described above, even this step is developer-free!
These tools provide control and insight without changes to the codebase of your valuable property. After deploying the snippet, one exercises decisions through non-code control panels. This complicated decision-making without writing code is an important domain. Like so many novelties, it has old roots. I have met consultants who have years of experience optimizing dashboards and settings for maximum insight.
This whole ecosystem changed the way I thought about no-code. The existence of the consultants didn’t invalidate the value proposition. Instead, the job showed its face.
The job of MarTech is marketing. The people who want this technology spend their time thinking about acquiring customers, content, and brand - among other concerns. They do not think of themselves as technical. Key domains include analytics, decision support, and automated targeting. The technology, manipulated by marketing professionals, generates value.
This analogy points me to the job of no-code. The job is the job, and the revelation of no-code is how little specialized expertise one needs to connect business value to the capabilities of machines. Put differently, no-code permits domain experts to express their ideas in tools without intermediary an engineering expert. The MarTech consultants understand the tools deeply, but more than that, they know marketing.
This pattern repeats in other domains: Business process owners express their flows through Zapier and the like. Salespeople and designers implement their ideas through Webflow and Squarespace. Even many engineers use no-code for prototyping and taking care of marginal concerns. More innovative technologists look at applying no-code to solve more business problems at lower cost and with greater control.
None of these tools are perfect for this mission, and the user experience is a work in progress. Sometimes we see weird tics that decrease usability. However, the preponderance of evidence seems clear. The secular trend is toward doing the job.
What does this mean for working with no-code? First, focus on creating value in your domain. Second, be an expert in your business area. The more expert you are, the more you will see the opportunities to make the impossible difficult or the difficult easy. Which domains have more processes ready for automation? A good heuristic for that readiness is whether people can do this task in their sleep. Another is whether the rate at which we perform that task is throttling our ability to do our jobs. When the procedure is well-known and profits from doing more ofo it faster, that is the sweet spot for automation. Where does the data flow that if you could access, you might make better decisions?
In particular, designers should celebrate this news. No-code tools reduce the relative work of implementing rich designs that drive customer value. The skill of expressing these ways of working to business users will be the most critical human part of the value chain. The designer is therefore creating the lion’s share of business value. Put a different way: they have more leverage for decision-making and - likely - compensation.
Which domains will respond next? The MarTech experience is telling: these domains are already using no-code by another name. Look for these domain-specific tools. Business intelligence is a big area. Finance is another - Excel is the “OG” low-code tool.
There is more to be written about no-code opportunities, but any analysis starts with the job to be done.