Software is not like Lego. Of course, it’s not i.e. Lego blocks are physical real world pieces of plastic and, conversely, software applications (and data services) are built out of sections of code, which make them a fundamentally digital entity. Despite this obvious truth, people like to talk about the contemporary approach to software composability as if it were some fabulous virtualized version of Lego, or some other children’s modular building toy.
What we can justifiably say is that software does have a core ability to exhibit componentized composability, especially in the new age of cloud with its essentially distributed nature, which does imply an inherent degree of interconnectedness. Okay yes, there are building blocks, but the analogy is to Lego is sometimes too simplistic, even for CEO keynote fodder.
Snap-on functions, spin-up clouds
Despite our best efforts here to push beyond Lego logic, the rise of low-code/no-code software platforms gives us shortcuts, accelerators and Machine Learning (ML)-based models which will ultimately deliver more snap-on functions all the time. Add that snap-on connectivity to the immediacy of spin-up cloud instances that can be brought into virtualized being in seconds… and you can see what the snap-on spin-up age of software is enjoying such widespread popularization and proliferation.
Properly controlled, snap-on spin-up software works really well if created within an appropriate environment where guidelines surrounding regulatory compliance exist. Equally and concurrently, policy controls also need to exist to corral new composable software within the confines of established business rules that an organization codifies its operational practices to.
Done right, we can create these types of software application development lifecycles and pipelines without creating a separate shadow IT underworld of unwanted unregulated software code and applications says Rahul Pradhan, VP of cloud products at Couchbase – a company known for its open source, distributed multi-model NoSQL document-oriented database software package optimized for interactive applications.
“But [as we enter the low-code/no-code era of componentized software] as with any evolution, the real software engineering process going on is a lot more complex, a lot messier… and involves a lot more moving parts and potential dead ends than a simple timeline might suggest,” said Pradhan.
One important consideration or question is what will happen to the enterprise’s current development team in the face of compoentized Lego low-code?
Ideally, they’ll be freed up to focus on more strategically valuable projects, instead of having to support every single need of business units. This would certainly relieve a lot of the pressure on developers – according to a 2021 Couchbase survey, developers were being asked to do too much in too little time in 49 percent of organizations. A further 40 percent were behind schedule with their modernization projects.
However, with all that we have said so far here, simply adopting a new approach to software without understanding underlying issues will only either add to existing problems, or create new ones. For instance, Couchbase also found that 40 percent of organizations struggled to set clear, measurable goals for development teams; and almost a third struggled to ensure development teams clearly understood the organisation’s strategic objectives and goals.
Citizen developer rapid response
“Empowering citizen developers without addressing these issues will simply cause extra confusion: especially as it’s highly likely that one extra role the core development team will need to take on is as a rapid response unit when citizen development projects don’t quite work out as planned. For instance, if a project creates unforeseen security or compliance consequences, professional developers who know what’s needed to plug those gaps will need to both recognize the issue and spring into action,” explained Pradhan.
Looking at how the move to low-code/no-code is now developing in parallel with the shift to more composable IT infrastructures, Pradhan says that both have similar benefits and similar issues to be aware of. He himself has admittedly previously referred to composable infrastructure as being like Lego, but he warns us to think out software provenance, source and longer-term implications.
“As in Lego and and in software, the end user will see an easy-to-use interface that lets them create with confidence, but that’s because a lot of work has happened behind the scenes – whether in a design workshop in Denmark (where Lego was invented), or in an IT department,” said Pradhan.
Questions for citizen developers
What all this means for the Couchbase team is a central piece of advice; above all, an organization needs to make sure that its infrastructure and processes are strong and flexible enough, to support citizen development.
- Will citizen developers know how to use the tools at their disposal and what is and isn’t possible within the confines of an organization’s own systems?
- Will citizen developer training be continually refreshed so that they’re aware of any changes in technology or process?
- Will citizen developer be subject to rigorous processes to ensure the organization retains oversight of citizen development projects and can predict precisely what impact they will have?
- Will the organisation’s architecture, from databases to security to storage, operate in a way that will admit whatever citizen developers create (within reason)?
Bringing these thoughts together, Pradhan advises that as more IT functions become Lego-like commoditzsed, IT needs to be comfortable handing control of those functions over to individual business units, instead of keeping them centralized. This doesn’t mean abdicating all responsibility – after all, IT will still have the best understanding of how functions should operate and how to maintain compliance, security, and performance.
“Instead, IT’s role will keep shifting away from the practical to the strategic. Instead of building infrastructure and creating applications and services directly, IT will be advising business units on what choices to make in order to follow business strategy, as well as educating and coaching the likes of citizen developers as they use low- and no-code tools to develop the applications they know they need,” said Pradhan.
This will also mean a change in skills: with technical skills becoming more specialized for individual roles and management and interpersonal skills becoming a lot more necessary as IT increasingly collaborates with other departments.
“Above all, communication will be key. If an organisation’s core developers can’t understand its strategic goals, there will be some way to go before IT, developers, and citizen developers can act together in harmony,” concluded Couchbase’s Pradhan.
A paradox in Lego blocks
There is little doubt then that componentized software in all its forms with the influx of low-code/no-code accelerators out there needs a few controls. Nobody wants to accidentally swallow a Lego brick or get one stuck up their nose – and the same health and safety warnings do apply to the composable componentized software in basic terms.
Paradoxically, Lego itself now markets a more complex set of its own products to adults and enthusiasts. The most complicated sets are said to include the Millennium Falcon, London’s Tower Bridge, a rollercoaster, a Bugatti, Sydney Opera House and the Taj Mahal.
Perhaps we’ll eventually see the same envelope folding back upon itself in software with low-code/no-code tools ultimately coming full circle and presenting themselves as more complex overall systems. Whether it’s low-code software of Lego’s new Dark Vadar, just make sure you don’t step on either with bare feet please.