I made an app for that

What’s new?

JD Shadel of the BBC recently reported on the company AirDev. In 2015 entrepreneur Vladimir Leytus used Bubble, a drag-and-drop tool, to create a clone of Twitter; he accomplished this task in a week with no previous knowledge of how to program.  In 2020, he repeated the exercise, creating a new clone of Twitter, using updated tools, called no code tools. Leytus founded AirDev to help companies use these no code tools.

What does it mean?

Every piece of software that you use on your computer required a programmer – actually a legion of programmers – who wrote, line-by-line, the detailed instructions to tell the computer exactly what to do based on the input from you, the user. The history of coding includes great progress in making that programming task easier and easier, building up from assembly language, through Fortran and similar languages, to modern languages now in demand: Python, JavaScript, Java, C#, etc.  Important concepts have been developed and applied: interpreters and compilers, typing of variables, object oriented programming, data structures, algorithms, graphic interfaces, and more. A key idea is that programming languages build on top of other programming accomplishments. For example, one step in the progress of programming was the ability to call functions even as simple as print – print(‘Hello, world!’) – instead of having to tell the computer step by step how to print. To print the document I am writing now I can click on an icon labelled print, which will start a cascade of calls to other functions and capabilities, about which I need to know nothing. I can print! Just as anyone can print, as coding languages have improved, anyone can code, or so this article would have you believe.

I have a troubled relationship with coding and I probably should get over it. To me, “girls who code” (“we’re building the world’s largest pipeline of future female engineers”) smacks of “girls who make coffee.” During my long career as a woman in a man’s field, I have avoided taking on tasks that someone may be trying to use to demean me. Hard work on unpleasant tasks is fine with me, as long as we are all doing it, but don’t single me out to make the copies or make the coffee.

But coding has changed – a lot – since I learned Fortran in 1965 on an IBM 360. A task that used to be merely the tedious implementation of an engineer’s vision and design now may be integral to the design process itself. E. M. Forster’s statement “how can I know what I think until I see what I write” now translates to “how can I know what I design until I see what I code.” Certainly in mechatronic devices (mechanical plus electronics gives you mechatronics) the logic of the control part of the device is often the most difficult part of the design. Being able to make prototype programs and test them out quickly is the central part of the process of design in some products.

The ability to code may be the key that enables you to be the lead person on a new project. I am reminded of my father’s story about getting an assignment involving a trip to Geneva because he was the only one in the room with an up-to-date passport. The ability to code has become the ability to travel far and fast. 

My other issue with coding is that many people hear “technology” and think only of computer technology when there is so much more to the word; engineering and technology are about how the world works and must be solidly based in physics, not just computers. I perceive the word “engineer” as having been stretched in the phrase “computer engineer” to include people who do not have that fundamental knowledge of how things work (the BS in Computer Science from the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California does not require any physics courses). You are not an engineer because you wrote a new app.

Thank you, I do feel better now.

But, despite my issues, no code coding is very cool. Opening up the ability to create an app (application) without needing to know how to code is a game changer. As the article says, “… early no-code adopters saw a more radical future in which anyone could make their own apps, and a movement that could redefine what it means to be a developer and diversify tech entrepreneurship.” Someone with an idea for a new app can create a prototype and test it out with ease and without spending a lot of money and time for the coding.

But here is another important quote: “Leytus compares the no-code trend to the emergence of PowerPoint, which mostly eliminated the need for in-house presentation designers since everyone could design their own.” I probably don’t need to spell out to you that the emergence of PowerPoint allowed some people to design perfectly awful presentations. I – and probably you too – wish that some people had had to work with a designer. Do an Internet search for “death by PowerPoint” to find examples. Probably similar arguments can be made about WordPress for webpage design (guilty, guilty, guilty) and other tools that enable people to do work that we used to have to pay for.

What does it mean for you?

I’ve written before on the enthusiastic and helpful response that led so many people to make face masks for COVID-19 protection, but I cautioned about the need to respect expertise. Arguments are still underway about the best type of fabric of how many layers and with what construction that should be used for a simple face mask. Caution is in order here also. You shouldn’t – and wouldn’t – let your niece code your computer security system using a no code system just as you wouldn’t let her set up a Ring system from Walmart to provide security for your warehouse. The no code movement doesn’t eliminate your need to use experts where expertise is crucial.

The no code movement empowers the individual entrepreneur. The ability to take your new idea and code it into a working prototype, on your own, in a reasonable amount of time, and at a reasonable cost opens possibilities for entrepreneurs everywhere, or least those with access to the required computer technology and Internet connection. But the fact that Leytus, who coded Twitter twice in no code tools, founded a company to help you use no code tools certainly brings some irony to this vision, suggesting that expertise still helps. The best argument for no code tools for me is to eliminate the need to translate what I am thinking for someone else. I’m back to “how can I know what I design until I see what I code.” An entrepreneur can develop the idea while coding, instead of having to try to explain a complete idea to the person paid to do the code. Tinkering is an important part of invention.

I am excited by the use of the tools in social movements, nonprofits, and community organizations. Many communities are struggling to match food opportunities with food needs, housing opportunities with housing needs, and so forth. While many will have said “there should be an app for that” now more people can say “I’ll write the app for that.”

Where can you learn more?

Wired has more information on how the no code movement reduces start up costs for entrepreneurs. KissFlow argues for using no code tools in the IT department of an organization because it speeds up coding even for experienced programmers, and KissFlow will help you with tools.  But Bob Reselman makes a good case for expertise instead of no code platforms.

The no code movement is new for me, so I used an Internet search to find some lists of no code platforms. Webflow offers their own product but also this list. Same for budibase, which has a product and a list. Cenario doesn’t have a no code product and their list is the longest I found. The folks at App Development Cost made a list of the “top 12 native, open-source, hybrid, and rapid mobile app development tools.” They also offer a tool to help you estimate the cost of developing an app.

Different no code tools allow different types of functionality; you are limited by the types of tools programmed into the no code tools. The best tool to create a new game will not be the best tool for a new business app. BettyBlocks claims their integration with programming languages gives the best of coding and no code worlds. They also are clear about the types of applications that can be built on BettyBlocks.

Some argue that no code is still coding; just with a much friendlier interface. Others argue that even using a microwave requires a form of programming. And others that so much that programmers do is routine and no code tools make all that work much easier.  You can see some recent debate on this page at Quora.

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