Housing Technology interviewed low-code experts from Civica, Meritec, Mohara, Northgate Public Services and Rapid Information Systems on why and how housing providers should consider low code (or even ‘no code’) as a useful addition to their software development plans.
What is ‘low code’ software?
Benji Fisher, Mohara’s engagement lead, said, “Low-code tools are pieces of software which allow non-technical people to build solutions. As the name suggested, they need little or no code to implement and use. With drag-and-drop functionality, an intuitive user experience and easy visual guidance, anyone can take ownership and build out applications for their internal and external customers.”
Gareth Edwards, managing director of Rapid Information Systems, said, “We talk about low code as being akin to a Lego set of pre-built parts that allows you to quickly assemble exactly the software you want. If you think about hard-carving a model ship out of wood or snapping one together with Lego, that’s the difference between traditional software development and low-code.”
Meritec’s director of digital solutions, Phil Baron, said, “Low-code platforms allow trained users to build and evolve their own workflows and applications without the need for developers. With some understanding of Boolean logic or, for example, the ability to create Excel macros, any user in any service area can ‘programme and configure’ some new business processes.”
Northgate Public Services’ housing product director, Trevor Hampton, said, “Low code is a way to build bespoke applications quickly and cost effectively. With a low-code development platform, you remove the need to code line by line. This is a far more visual approach because the user can drag and drop data input fields, dialogue boxes and design screens, with the code is automatically generated in the background.”
What are the advantages of low code?
Civica’s product director, Helen Rogers, said, “Low code empowers housing providers to configure the software to fit with their working culture and processes. It enables agile and innovative ways of working so that the software can be reconfigured when business processes or working practices change from time to time.
“For example, our Cx Housing customers have achieved efficiencies and cost savings from using low code because they can configure, tweak and improve their workflows and business processes as needed. Of course, ‘no code’ is even more useful to businesses and promotes agile working and innovation in even more intuitive and cost-effective ways than low code.”
Meritec’s Baron said, “Housing providers can remove the need for business users to rely on IT development resources to build the workflows and processes that they need their digital services. A good low-code digital platform should enable the configurator to build a process once and then ‘surface’ that process to multiple channels, such as self-service, back office and mobile.”
Rapid Information Systems’ Edwards said, “If you think about those Lego blocks again, they’ve each been designed and tested to work together in stable and secure ways. They can be quickly arranged and re-arranged in less time with less skill, and since fewer new lines of code (typically none) are introduced, there are fewer bugs and vulnerabilities. A good low-code toolkit will support solutions across the desktop, offline mobile, forms, portals, dashboards, and APIs, allowing completely joined-up and integrated solutions, all on the same platform.”
And the disadvantages?
Meritec’s Baron said, “Although the advantages of low code generally far outweigh its disadvantages, there are certain scenarios where a more experienced developer would be needed, such as for complex integrations with third-party systems. Also bear in mind that there is naturally a learning curve for configurators when adopting low-code platforms.”
Civica’s Rogers said, “Exactly – keep in mind that not all software has extensive APIs so when a complex integration is needed to another piece of software, some coding would still be needed.”
Northgate Public Services’ Hampton said, “One concern in a housing context are the increased regulations around transparency to citizens; there’s more pressure than ever to deliver a single view of customers and assets. Organisations using low code run the risk of no longer having a single view of a person or asset because these types of tools don’t always integrate into the bigger IT landscape so compliance can become an issue and there could be a risk of not knowing where all the data is.
“GDPR is also a concern. An IT department has all its security policies and digital protection impact assessments (DPIA) in place but if lots of new applications are being created beyond the main IT structure, it may undermine GDPR compliance, so housing providers need to have strict guidelines on how low-code applications fit within their overall IT strategies.”
Low code vs. off-the-shelf software?
Mohara’s Fisher said, “Off-the-shelf software is never really as simple as it sounds, as if it can be bought and used straight away. In reality, off-the-shelf software often requires integration experts and extra lines of code to be written. While some low-code software requires a little upskilling, it’s still far easier than off-the-shelf software to set up, integrate and build – after all, many people make a living out of being integration consultants for Salesforce, Oracle or SAP products, for example.”
Civica’s Rogers said, “The flexibility of low-code software such as Cx Housing’s ‘cases and tasks’ engine means you gain the benefits of a framework approach and can tailor from a drag-and-drop interface. Some off-the-shelf-software restricts functionality so you have to adapt your processes to how the software functions, which can be very limiting.”
Northgate Public Services’ Hampton said, “It’s not a case of choosing either low-code or off-the-shelf software. Off-the-shelf software provides the specialist things that housing providers need for strategic areas such as compliance, gas safety and rent collection, whereas low code is a good option when there is an immediate, short-term need or if a housing provider wants to test something first.
“For example, a housing provider might want a simple system to log FoI requests but they don’t want to build this into their CRM system without trialling it first. Low code lets you build a solution quickly, test the design and prove that it works first before it’s added to the CRM system. Many commercial off-the-shelf providers, including us, use low code to deliver solutions to customers quicker for exactly that reason.”
What IT skills are needed for low-code projects?
Mohara’s Fisher said, “There are no technical skills needed for low-code projects; that’s the beauty of low code, because it’s accessible to everyone from all backgrounds and starting points. Of course, there are a plethora of soft skills that might be useful because sometimes it might take a few hours of Googling or watching YouTube tutorials to get your head around the way low-code software works, so the soft skills that you should build are patience, dedication and a tenacity to make your solution work.”
Rapid Information Systems’ Edwards said, “You don’t need that many IT skills; the right low-code software is easy to set up and has a gentle learning curve, significantly reducing the skills required for development. Low code goes really well with Agile and rapid prototyping, where good project management helps solutions stay on track. Since development takes place much closer to the users (or even by the users), it all happens much faster and with fewer people so less management is needed.”
Northgate Public Services’ Hampton said, “Aside from the skills aspect of low code, it’s really important that your IT department approves the chosen low-code platform: how will it integrate; is it secure; and what will the new application be used for?
“For example, if it’s a cloud service, it needs to be given the appropriate permissions so it can connect through any firewalls or security systems, then IT can step back and it’s just about good project management skills to manage the scope and make sure the application is simple and focused on the outcomes and objectives throughout its development cycle.”
Rapid Information Systems’ Edwards said, “Low code offers flexibility and freedom for housing providers who know exactly how they want to improve their operations but haven’t been able to find the exact fit – it doesn’t those who just want to remain middle-of-the-road.
“Some low-code solutions are expensive and complicated so the benefits are outweighed by the cost and steep learning curve. My advice would be to start with something small and innovative and then measure the benefits.”
Mohara’s Fisher said, “Having a team that’s willing to try something new could be a barrier, not just for housing providers but for any business considering the low-code route. You need someone in the team to dedicate themselves to learning more about the low-code solution and thinking about the product vision in more detail.”
Meritec’s Baron said, “Housing providers usually have numerous back-office systems so there can be resistance to change. We would therefore always recommend setting up a project team that’s focused on taking the end-users on a journey with them, rather than applying low code-based digital transformation ‘to them’.”
What are the risks of low code?
Civica’s Rogers said, “Low code often enables non-technical teams to configure software, since no development or coding skills are required. However, this can introduce its own risks around business continuity and security when rolling out new software without training or qualified expertise.”
Rapid Information Systems’ Edwards said, “There is perhaps a risk that because low code can ‘glue’ together many existing systems, a housing provider’s software estate could become (and remain) too diverse. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se as long as it’s taken into consideration before embarking on any low-code projects – after all, each part of the business should be allowed the tools that are best for them, alongside the right degree of integration.”
Could housing providers resell their low-code solutions?
Northgate Public Services’ Hampton said, “It would be a great for innovation if housing providers could share their learnings, code, and experience, but the challenge would be around standardisation because each housing provider has their own service challenges based on aspects such as geography, size and demographic mix, plus support and maintenance would need to be carefully considered to ensure a solution remained legislatively compliant and secure.”
Rapid Information Systems’ Edwards said, “Yes, housing providers can export, transfer, rebrand, modify and extend any apps made with our low-code tools. They could also share them (and their expertise) with our community or collaborate with other housing providers on larger projects.”
Meritec’s Baron said, “In theory, a housing provider could resell its own low-code solutions (subject to any licensing terms from their low-code provider) to its peers, but we believe that they are probably better off focusing on their own core deliverables and leaving any reselling activities to a specialist low-code supplier.
“That said, our platform does have the capability to export workflows and process templates which could then be imported into other housing providers’ systems, thereby facilitating knowledge sharing and the rapid deployment of common housing-related processes. This is something that has been extremely popular among our local government customers who frequently share process templates among themselves and via our process library.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Helen Rogers (Civica), Phil Baron (Meritec), Benji Fisher (Mohara), Trevor Hampton (Northgate Public Services) and Gareth Edwards (Rapid Information Systems) for their comments and editorial contributions to this article.