IBM i Developers: It’s a Great Time to Embrace Low-Code App Builders

Recently I’ve had some fascinating conversations with people regarding Nitro App Builder, the low-code app builder included with Valence.  In case you’ve never heard of it before, Nitro App Builder is a tool that’s quickly taking over as the development method of choice for many apps that would have been coded manually in Valence just a year or two ago.  It creates really useful apps by configuring them interactively, with little or no programming required.

I’ve found that some people love this tool while others seem a bit suspicious of it, and I think I’ve figured out where the divide is coming from.  If I’m talking with managers, directors and C-level types, they LOVE Nitro App Builder.  Anything that helps get useful apps into users’ hands faster and cheaper they are all for.

However, developers are often another story.  I won’t say all developers, but many developers tend to have a cold disposition towards tools like Nitro App Builder.  Their reasons go something like this:

  • This tool is basically going to take over my job!
  • If I do an app with a “builder” I won’t have control over the fine details of the app any longer!
  • If I can create an app 10x faster, what will I do?  Work for 1 day and take 9 days off?
  • My users are very picky! I can’t have a low-code app builder do the work — I need to have full and complete control over everything.

Let’s take these points one at a time…

“This tool is going to take over my job!”

Relax!  App building tools may certainly change your job (arguably for the better), but they’re not going to take it over.  It still takes a person who understands the database and has a good handle on the analysis involved in business applications.  Remember, many IBM i developers are “Programmer Analysts,” a job that demands a much broader skillset than merely entering code.  Low-code app building tools will speed up development, but they are never going to take over the integral role of knowing your business and understanding your user’s requirements.

“If I do an app with a ‘builder’ I won’t have control over the fine details of the app any longer!”

This is where you must distinguish between a low-code app builder, designed to accommodate people with a programming background, versus something akin to a report writer or query tool.  Nitro App Builder was created by IT professionals with developers in mind.  In fact, our own programming staff uses Nitro App Builder wherever possible when working on custom coding projects for our customers!  The kicker is that with Nitro App Builder you can integrate front-end and back-end code wherever necessary to feed or supplement the apps, ultimately allowing you as a developer to focus more on the “meat” of the application — the business logic.  

Of course, there will always be certain highly intricate or unique application requirements that are best tackled with heads-down, hands-on-the-keyboard coding.  But for all the ancillary support that goes with such projects, such as maintaining new master table data that goes with the app, using low-code tools to bang those out will afford you much more time to commit to development of the primary application.

“If I can do an app 10x faster, what will I do?  Work for 1 day and take 9 days off?”

You wish!  In our experience, successful achievement simply begets more demands.  Meaning, once your users figure out how fast you can deliver new apps it will prompt many more requests.  At most companies we visit, users would love to get more apps out of IT but hold back because they know the staff is swamped with a backlog of projects and daily firefighting.  So they wind up only asking for what’s absolutely necessary.  

So you can forget about it — you won’t be any less busy with a low-code app builder; you’ll just get a LOT more work done, helping the business and increasing your personal value to the company to boot!

“My users are very picky! I can’t have a low-code app builder do the work — I need to have full and complete control over everything.”

A couple points to address here.  First of all, if forced to choose between having nothing or something, most users will take “something” even if it’s not 100% aligned to the top-end specification they may have in mind.  At a minimum, Nitro App Builder apps can be quickly deployed as stopgap applications until the IT staff can get around to developing a more full-blown app explicitly catering to the requirements that require highly customized code.  As mentioned earlier, it’s also possible to integrate custom code in specific points of Nitro App Builder apps, or even launch other apps where appropriate.  Likewise, your custom apps can trigger a Nitro App Builder app to appear as a pop-up at specific points, i.e. when a button is clicked.  

It’s important to understand the massive benefits to the business that low-code app building tools provide.  When used properly, these tools provide a way to leverage your vast knowledge of how your system and business processes work into quality applications that put the underlying data to work.   

Beyond the quality of the app, it’s the speed of development that’s another key value.  It often takes far too long to create and deploy useful, modern web and mobile apps to your IBM i users.  I’m fond of saying that businesses need apps delivered in hours or days, instead of weeks, months or even years, because it’s true!  When coding manually, apps with truly modern user interfaces take longer to create and require a super high skill set that typically has a long learning curve.  And good development resources that can deliver on these tasks are scarce, expensive, or both.  It boils down to companies needing to do more with less.

I get to interact with a broad spectrum of talented developers all the time working with Valence.  Without a doubt, the developers who are putting Nitro App Builder to work the most are the happiest and most successful.  I believe this is because the Nitro App Builder low-code solution is making their jobs more interesting.  A large part of the otherwise “boring” apps they need to create can often be started and completed in a matter of hours, leaving them to focus on the more fulfilling aspects of their jobs.  They are subsequently seen as being highly productive and their users are happy.  Keep in mind, most users couldn’t care less if the apps they’re using were developed with a low-code tool or created manually.  All they see is that you’re giving them what they asked for faster and with high quality.  

-Richard Milone, CNX Co-founder and Managing Partner