Salesforce sees low-code as a key way to drive digital transformation in a new normal of remote work


Ryan Ellis, SVP of Product Management for Platform at Salesforce, talks to Bill Detwiler about how the company is helping its customers accelerate their digital transformation efforts using a low-code philosophy.

For years, companies have been talking about digital transformation, but in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies, government agencies, and organizations are accelerating their digital transformation efforts. In the run up to the Salesforce TrailheaDX 2020 virtual developer event, I had a chance to talk with Ryan Ellis, SVP of Product Management for Platform at Salesforce, about how the company is helping its customers accelerate their digital transformation efforts using a low-code philosophy. The following is an edited transcript of the interview. You can also listen to the interview on TechRepublic’s Dynamic Developer podcast.

Bill Detwiler: So let’s start with this acceleration of these digital transformation plans that companies have been talking about, how has Salesforce been working with its customers to make sure that they can adapt quickly to this new environment that we all find ourselves in?

Ryan Ellis: Yeah. Bill, we’ve been speaking with our customers for years about digital transformation, lots of companies have been seeing how the world around them is evolving and changing, and they’ve been trying to prepare themselves and get ready for those changes. Sometimes that’s been because of a change in technology, sometimes it’s been a change in their industry, and what they had been previously thinking about for maybe spending a couple of years and maybe a lot of different engineers developers working on that to create this transformation that they were looking for, now with this pandemic, with COVID-19, they’ve basically had to change those plans and really accelerate and now do this essentially as an imperative for their very existence at times.

One of the things that we’ve been seeing is that during that time, people have really pivoted to start to embrace low-code even more than they had before. Certainly it was a popular movement that was gaining ground, but during this time, people don’t have time to spend years with developers building hard-coded experiences. They need to be able to act fast. They need to be able to use people who have sort of non-traditional development skills, who can conceive of an application or a process that they’re trying to roll out and be able to build those things quickly using low code.

Low-code can enable rapid application development

Bill Detwiler: You hit on something there that I think is really important, which is the limited resources, the time constraints that a lot of IT departments, a lot of organizations are facing right now. Talk a little bit about how low code helps with that and how building on maybe the Salesforce platforms helps companies do that.

Ryan Ellis: Yeah, absolutely. Salesforce, and low code in general, this really enables people who are not professional coders to be able to create applications. The way that they do that is that these tools basically are more like drag and drop. So imagine that you had a process that you wanted to lay out, suppose, for example, that maybe it was like our customer Academy Bank. Academy bank is a community bank, and when the government passed the CARES Act, they suddenly found themselves in a position to be able to potentially help hundreds of thousands of different small businesses around the world. But they were doing this through receiving tons of loan applications for PPP. This was a huge influx into them and they needed to quickly pivot overnight. In five hours in one weekend, one of their, IT people basically used Salesforce to create a process to capture those loan applications and to be able to then provide visibility for the organization overall, what’s going on with those loans, and ultimately get the money in the hands of small businesses more rapidly.

Credit: Salesforce

This was something that they had been previously really struggling with. They were just basically capturing files that people sent in as PDFs, they were put into different folders that would represent the statuses of those loans and move them from folder to folder as they were changing them. As you can imagine, that’s a pretty error prone process, a pretty manual one, and really didn’t give them visibility into what was going on overall. And so with Salesforce using low code, they were able to transform that process and make a huge difference for small businesses on their region.

Bill Detwiler: Expand on the current situation that we’re in, or given the current situation that we’re in, where a lot of people are working from home now. We have a very spread out, a very distributed workforce, and there are differing opinions about how many people will come back into the office versus how many people will continue to work from home. In a world like that, when you have teams spread out all around the world and that have to collaborate, how does sort of low code help improve, I guess, that collaboration or help make that collaboration easier? Software developers, maybe even more than any other business unit that I know of, tend to be spread out. You have developers that work across the country, around the world, different language barriers, different times zones, and so they’re accustomed to dealing with that. But there are a lot of, I think, business units that maybe aren’t. Or even if software developers are used to doing that, now they’re dealing with everyone else on every other team is now distributed from product managers, to project managers, to line of business owners and users. How does low code fit into that new normal when many more people are just working physically apart?

Ryan Ellis: Well, in many ways, low code development is not actually that different from professional development. It’s just faster and more accessible to a broader cross section of people. And so in many ways, like that type of professional development, people can collaborate, they can collaborate through the software itself. As an example, we have a tool called the Lightning App Builder, which allows you to basically drag and drop and create what a screen should look like, where all of the various components should be laid out across that screen. And using capabilities like dynamic forms and dynamic actions, which are capabilities we’ve rolled out in the last couple of months, you are able to actually tailor that experience so that, for example, maybe one type of role within your company should see one of those components at a particular time and maybe another role it’s not really relevant to them whatsoever. Maybe when you’re on your mobile device, you want to see some of these components or fewer of these components because you have much less real estate on the device. And so these capabilities allow people to rapidly iterate and see what they want to evolve that experience to be.

One of the great things about the low-code world and people working remotely from one another is that you could make those changes, and then I could just refresh my browser over here and see them, and I could verify them with you, we could be chatting about that experience and quickly, in real time, iterating on what we want it to actually be [in deck].

SEE: Hiring Kit: Python developer (TechRepublic Premium)

Tipping point: COVID-19 has increased awareness of low-code’s benefits

Bill Detwiler: Another thing that you touched on is this ability to lower the barrier to entry to making these changes, to doing this development work, and I think that’s also something. We were talking about in the context of allowing companies to iterate more quickly because you don’t have to have a large background in say, languages to know how to make some of these changes or to develop on the platform. How does the low-code movement fit into making development in general, or whatever we want to call it, more accessible? I guess, to people from a wider array of skills and backgrounds, as we look to sort of improve inclusiveness, to help to sort of fight against some of the social inequities that exist as we look to bring more people into the software development community, how does low code play into doing that?

Ryan Ellis: One of the great things that we’ve done here at Salesforce is we’ve created this entire platform and community called Trailhead. You’ve probably spoken with some of my colleagues about Trailhead before, and we really believe that it’s been an amazing uplifter of people all over in terms of helping them to learn new skills, to build new careers and really transform their lives. That’s no different with low code. We have a ton of great content related to low code on Trailhead, and we have amazing stories of people who have completely transformed their careers by learning about how to use these low code tools in a fun and sort of innovative way through Trailhead.

The great thing is that because these tools are very accessible, it doesn’t take a huge leap to get going with it. You can just take a sort of simple trail, walk through something for maybe 20 minutes, a half an hour and feel like you’ve accomplished something, you’ve learned something. And actually oftentimes bring that back to the office and enable it right then and there, and make change for your company, for your customers right there in that moment.

Honestly, that’s an addictive process. You go there and you see how rapidly you’re able to make change. People go back and they learn the next chapter, they learn more about what they can enable, come back and do it again and again. It becomes really iterative.

There’s also an exciting community around it, where people are sort of urging each other on celebrating each other’s victories. That’s something we didn’t necessarily always see in the world of professional developers where sometimes that was a little bit more of an insular sport, if you will.

SEE: 10 ways to prevent developer burnout (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Bill Detwiler: How do you see, or what do you see, I guess, as the future for low code, whether it’s within sort of the bigger picture of software development, or whether it’s within more of the admin space, or what do you see is the roadmap over the next, say one to two years for low code and then maybe even beyond at a more long term view after that?

Ryan Ellis: I think one of the big things that this pandemic has done is it’s really opened people’s eyes to low-code built awareness in really dramatic ways. I think that because of that, we’re going to see a tipping point in terms of that awareness, that people are going to adopt low code for more and more of their use cases going forward and understand that it also gives them a huge deal of flexibility and agility to change as the environment, as their business, as needs change.

A big thing that we’ve seen for a long time with low code is that people found that it was a way for them to sort of rapidly get a leg up. And they were doing that sometimes for maybe a very internal facing type of experience. Maybe it was changing a process and how their business operates, and certainly people will do that and do that and more and more, but now we’ve also seen people doing it in large ways for their customers, as well.

Credit: Salesfroce

As an example, we saw a huge uplift in the usage of bots during this whole pandemic. People of course, have questions and they want answers about whether or not services are available and how they can get them in these changing times, and people turned to bots. Again, another low code. AG, great tool to help enable those questions to be answered in rapid scale. And this is a way that they’re recorded going direct to consumers with low code or with communities. Another great example is that the UC Berkeley genomics lab, they do amazing work on CRISPR and all sorts of incredibly important work, but they decided during the pandemic that they had to shift gears entirely and become, essentially, a COVID-19 testing lab. They did this overnight, they did it on a weekend where they brought in a Salesforce and its low code capabilities, and they created a community and they use low code tools to do that. And with that community, people are able to go in and be able to fill in questionnaires and get information about COVID and about testing. Actually at this point, they’re now able to process a thousand COVID-19 tests a day, oftentimes for first responders or underserved communities like the homeless. It’s just been really, really an amazing experience to see how these low-code tools are being able to make a difference in the world, not just for businesses and how they operate, but for broader constituents as well.

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Is low-code/no-code the future of application development?


As popular and robust as these tools and platforms have become, low-code/no-code is not going to replace professional developers anytime soon, experts say.


Even though most organizations have been digitizing their business processes for decades, when COVID-19 sent millions of office workers home it exposed just how hands-on many businesses actually are.

With people working from home for the foreseeable future, leaning over to ask a colleague for input on a project or to find out what happened to a proposal—even with all of the instant digital communications tools at their disposal—isn’t practical, quick, or efficient.

To counter this problem, many businesses have turned to low-code and no-code development platforms. Using drag-and-drop interfaces, these platforms give non-programmers the power to develop business workflow applications and then integrate them into larger business processes.

With so much coding capability now available to so many new business users, it calls into question how business applications will be developed. Specifically, if low-code/no-code is the future of programming.

The answer is yes and no. Given the difficulty many business users have getting IT to change existing applications and workflows, the use of low-code platforms to solve point problems like tracking work-from-home laptops, makes a lot of sense. But, building large-scale, enterprise-class applications that power entire organizations still requires high-skilled programmers, said Thomas Stiehm, CTO of Coveros, an Agile and DevOps consultancy.

“No, it isn’t the future of code,” Stiehm said. “It certainly has a place in the future and will be leveraged to make many applications. It will not replace other ways of creating software because low-code breaks down when the complexity of the solution increases. We saw the same thing with Visual Basis in the ’90s. VB was valuable and a lot of software was written in VB. In the end, it was complexity required by some applications that caused VB to break down and no longer be a good solution. Low code will be the same.”

Low-code platforms typically require users to have some rudimentary knowledge of programming where no-code platforms are 100% drag-and-drop with no programming knowledge needed. The difference between low-code and no-code platforms is minor and sometimes just a matter of semantics, said Amit Zavery, vice president and head of platform for Google Cloud. Google recently acquired low-code platform provider AppSheet.

SEE: Hiring Kit: Python developer (TechRepublic Premium)

“Many times people just use [the terms] interchangeably because you can do some things with no-code in a low-code tool anyway,” he said, “and, in a low-code tool, you can do everything you can do in no-code.”

Even before COVID hit, use of low-code was growing. According to IT research firm Forrester, in 2019 just over a third of developers said they used low-code platforms and products. Forrester predicted (pre-COVID-19) that number would increase to over half of developers by mid-2020. They attributed this rise, at least in part, to Microsoft promoting the use of its PowerApps, Flow, Power BI, and Power Platform products. 

“Microsoft’s ‘free’ and good-enough products will be adopted both in straightforward and sophisticated use cases and serve as catalysts for further growth—and consolidation—in the low-code market,” Forrester said.

SEE: 10 ways to prevent developer burnout (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Just because low-code isn’t useful for building enterprise-class applications like ERP, it doesn’t mean that low-code can only be used for simple applications either, said Karen Panetta, IEEE fellow and dean of Graduate Education at Tufts University’s School of Engineering. By standardizing application development across different developers, low-code can give developers the prebuilt blocks they need to create complex applications. Low-code also reduces the learning curve for training new people to maintain and modify the code.

“Low-code allows businesses to be more responsive to customers by implementing new features or implementing new technologies and security protocols,” she said. “This also supports a new breed of developers, who may no longer need to be low-level experts in coding or numerous programming languages.”

A good example of low-code allowing non-coders to develop complex applications are website development platforms. Not that many years ago, developing a website was an expensive, time-consuming task that required specialized skills and coding knowledge. Today, platforms like Wix and WordPress themes like Divi allow anyone to build very interactive and feature-rich websites.

With the COVID-19 showing no signs of easing, Marcus Torres, vice president of product platform management at ServiceNow, believes low-code is only going to gain converts and grow in importance as business people work solve process and workflow problems the shift to work from home looks like it’s here to stay. ServiceNow has a low-code offering called App Engine.

“The adoption of low-code was limited in small organizations by the lack of skills to address business complexity while, in large organizations, it was limited due to the lack of oversight, support and maintenance over time,” Torres said. “The [COVID-19] crisis was not a pause agent. It was a change agent. Businesses, employees, and customers have changed irrevocably. Low-code will be part of the new support system because workers realized that value during the crisis. It will become a stable tool for them to draw on to be more effective inside or outside the office.”

Even so, don’t expect low-code to replace traditional programming methods anytime soon, said Zavery of Google Cloud. Big, complex applications are just that, big and complex. No amount of abstraction will replace the need to understand how an application functions at the line-of-code level.

“If I’m building a very sophisticated e-commerce website, if I’m building an Uber or an Airbnb … you are not able to build any of things using those tools. No-code. Low-code,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference. It’s going to be done by professional developers using professional tools.”

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