March 9, 2019

What does the rise of "no-code" tools mean for you?

Louis Nicholls @louisswiss

Some awesome founders like @bentossell and @rrhoover are bullish on no-code.

Here are my thoughts on the challenges, opportunities and future of no-code tools...


  1. 12

    My issue with the no code movement is that people think Code is the hardest part of writing software. It isn’t.

    Understanding the problem and breaking it into solvable chunks is the hard part. So unless codeless systems are teaching people problem solving, I don’t think it’s going to have staying power.

    1. 1

      Spot on.

  2. 10

    I don't think we're at any kind of inflection point. It's always been possible to build various websites, apps, and tools without code. There were drag-and-drop website builders and hosts in the 90s. In addition, these no-code tools have always steadily improved without any great leaps forward in recent years.

    Of course, what rarely gets mentioned is that other things are improving as well:

    1. Developer productivity. It's never been a more productive time to be a developer. It would've taken a team of 20+ developers to build IH in the 90s. I built it "by myself" today. Higher level programming languages, better tooling and standards, cheaper hosting, more resources, the open-source community, and many other factors are improving developer efficiency just as fast (if not faster than) non-developer efficiency.
    2. The technology ceiling. Every year there are new technologies created that raise the ceiling on how much you can accomplish with code. The creation of new platforms like Android and iOS, tablets, browser extensions, and other devices requires writing more code, not just to develop on those platforms but also to sync between them. AI and ML are creating new opportunities for features and apps that programmers will be building, not non-programmers. AR and VR will one day be huge. New browser technologies are resulting in new programmer-created companies every year.
    3. Consumer expectations. The programmer-created apps of yesterday have a longer shelf-life than the no-code apps of yesterday. The same is true of the apps being created today. Consumers tend to expect higher levels of performance and functionality over time, which is something programmers will always have the edge on (see #2).
    4. Competition. Most successful businesses exist in competitive industries. In other words, they solve problems that other businesses are already solving. Competing with others in the same problem space requires differentiating yourself by delivering a custom solution. Programmers can customize things. No-code people are limited in their customization options and end up making tools that others can clone trivially. Would you still use IH if it looked and functioned the same as every other Discourse forum or Slack group on entrepreneurship?

    I don't say this to discourage non-developers. I think you're at a more advantageous point than ever before. You can get very far without writing any code of your own at all.

    But if you imagine a startup as a staircase, where each steps grants you additional height that you can use to your advantage to help n reaching the next step, I would caution you against trying to make it more than than a few steps on a code-less solution.

    If you're delivering a tech-based solution to your customers' problems, eventually you'll want to bring in programmers to customize your solution, or you risk others catching up to you and cloning you, and you'll have no real differentiation. (This doesn't apply if you're offering a service and you can differentiate based on that, or if your solution is not tech-based e.g. you have a blog, and you can differentiate by hiring better writers or choosing different topics.)

    1. 2

      Thanks Courtland, that's great advice.

      Agree with pretty much everything you say.

      I don't think we're at any kind of inflection point. It's always been possible to build various websites, apps, and tools without code.

      I see things a bit differently here though.

      Yes, Wordpress, Geocities etc have been around for ages. It has been possible to build web stuff with no-code for a long time and this hasn't changed.

      But I think that misses the point slightly.

      Until recently, I could build stand-alone front-end (and sometimes backend) features with no-code. A Shopify store, for example.

      But I'd need a developer to do the plumbing. To move and manipulate my data, connecting (for example) my newsletter sequences, ecommerce store and accounting software.

      For many web-devs I know, this is their bread and butter work.

      And tools like Zapier are rapidly making even the most difficult of these 'plumbing' tasks possible without code.

      That's the real inflection point I see.

      Your points are still spot on - but I think we're underestimating just how impactful it will be that we're freeing up so much dev time to work on 'more serious' problems.

      1. 2

        Will be interesting to see how things play out over the next 5 years or so!

  3. 4

    I have built my app on Bubble's "no code" interface. For me, as someone who hasn't coded since visual basic in the mid-90's, it dropped the barrier to entry to put together my app. I am currently working on another project on Bubble as well. I view the "no code" interface of Bubble as a way for me to get my MVP to market and iterate it very quickly. The tradeoff is that I can't create advanced features (or sometimes I can but they're very hacky) and I still don't know how it will scale (that's a high class problem...). My $.02 from the other side of the fence.

  4. 4

    There’s no such thing as “no code”. There’s just “different code,” or, “simpler code,” or, “the kind of code I understand the way I understand it.”

    SquareSpace is a “no code” solution. Except to use it, you have to undergo the learning curve to comprehend the interface to make the things happen that you want to happen. Once you pass through the learning curve, you know “the code.” Same goes for MailChimp, JavaScript, PHP and Assembly.

    The level of complexity and originality a person can get out of a code is dependent upon the granularity and flexibility of the code base, and the user’s understanding of it. That is to say, one can only get so far with “no code” solutions; they lack the required nuance to compete. And once they gain the required nuance to compete, the learning curve gets steeper.

    And then you’re back to “coding.” It might not take the form of typing parentheses and semicolons, but any complicated architecture of input used to generate a particular output is “coding.”

  5. 4

    Hah, well, I don't get this 'rise of no code', lol. My business started on a foundation of no-code, this was 12 years ago. Sure, every year it's getting easier and easier to do stuff online, there are many more options. It also means it's super easy to quit. Or, it can mean that your business can easily stall if you rely on a platform that doesn't grow with you.

    I do think that the ones that survive, will be the ones that gain traction and end up being able to invest in proper tech. But also, success isn't always about growing bigger.

    There is such an annoying emphasis on 'coding'. I do wish I were more technical, but I also know that my heart lies in all things community, marketing and sales - and these things are so under rated in so many businesses.

    1. 1

      hear, hear

  6. 3

    In practice, the "no-code" solutions solve specific business cases, like creating a basic website by using a drag-and-drop platform that generates HTML from pre-coded templates.

    It can never be a universal solution because you can't create a new feature from a template. You need a programmer to analyze the problem, determine the best way to solve it & create the solution.

    It can be a cost-efficient way to start but you can never grow on such a solution.

    1. 2

      You should check out tools like Zapier, Airtable and Retool if you haven't already.

      It's amazing what you can do with them (and I say that as a developer).

      1. 1

        I do use them but still they are built for specific business cases.

        Code is written to perform specific task. There is no piece of code that can do everything. And the tools you mentioned are engineered & coded to be SaaS (Software as a Service) in the first place. So technically we can say that there is nothing such as no-code.

  7. 3

    The link says "Error establishing a database connection". That is why you need coding!!!! :D

  8. 2

    There's definitely an increase in no-code tools becoming available and lots of publicity about them, but really it's just one facet of an increasing drive to decrease time-to-market.

    It's all about using things that give you leverage and remove inessential effort, so you can focus on the things that make your business tick instead of worrying about how to host a shopping cart, or how to make sure spammers don't hijack your PHP contact form, or whatever.

    Any growing business will eventually hit a point where the more generic, "no code" or "simple <X>" tools will need to be replaced with tailored (or just more expensive) versions - but for a lot of businesses there's a lot of mileage in focussing on where they can really differentiate, and just plugging together tools as fast as possible to cover the gaps.

    e.g. if you want to sell stuff on your website, don't rebuild the whole site in Magento, or host a WordPress with WooCommerce and spend your life patching it. Instead use something like Trolley [1] to get you selling fast with very little hassle by copy-pasting an HTML button into whatever you use for your website right now.

    [1] my product Trolley - a popup cart designed to work on any website.

  9. 1

    Fully agree with @jsfour comment. The difficult part is modeling the problem and the framework you choose to solve that problem is secondary. As a "non-technical" person, no-code has really changed my life in terms of the tools I'm able to build for my community. I also wrote a bit about this referencing Ben and Ryan's posts:

  10. 1

    No code is going to take another 3 - 5 years at least to take off, and currently learning to code well enough to build substantial products takes 2 - 3 years. So if you want to build something today, you're still better off just learning to code. That might change at some point, but it hasn't changed yet.

    1. 1

      Interesting, what makes you say that?

      I think there are fields where this is true, but no-code is rapidly catching up.

      1. 1

        What's the most successful no-code software startup right now?