NoCode is a new phenomenon that allows people without any coding knowledge to build all kinds of software applications. Or is it? That’s what most articles on Google will tell you, but the reality is a bit more nuanced — NoCode is not the first generation of software that aims to eliminate software developers.
One of the first tools I know that was considered to eliminate the need for programmers was Excel. With Excel and its modern competitor, Google Sheets, you can model almost every process. However, you still need to learn to program it — magic does not happen on its own yet.
The Mid-2000s NoCode Wave
In the mid-2000s there was another wave of no-code application builders. It all started with the release of WordPress, which remains an extremely popular platform for building websites. After the success of WordPress came Shopify and other platforms which enabled starting an eCommerce business without paying a fortune for a custom-built shop. Many other no-code tools followed. For example, UnBounce and LeadPages quickly created landing pages, while tools like Shopify and Magento powered online stores.
The Rise of WordPress
I remember when WordPress started gaining popularity in the 2000s. At that time, I had a small web design firm with a web designer, programmer, and Macromedia Flash animator on staff. Yes, it was that long ago when animated and interactive websites were in demand! We primarily built websites for companies to showcase products and enable contact. Occasionally we also created basic eCommerce shops.
At some point we noticed a decline in the number of clients approaching us, along with lower willingness to pay. At first we assumed more competitors entered the web design industry — when I began building websites around age 15, no one else knew how. But within 5–8 years, many studios emerged and competition grew fiercer.
However, it wasn’t just about big studios. As WordPress, Shopify, and other no-code tools gained ground, freelancers used them to build websites for as little as $100. People realized they could save money by figuring it out themselves.
The Limits of NoCode
Of course, not everything went smoothly for everyone. Despite sophisticated tools like WordPress and abundant information online, skilled professionals were still needed to do things right. Yes, WordPress accelerated website setup, but customizing it required real engineering talent.
It was similar with Shopify — prebuilt apps exist, but marrying multiple plugins requires a skilled developer. That’s why services like Upwork see demand for customizing open-source websites and stores. Many are willing to help, for a price.
The situation is analogous with modern no-code tools. Once you move beyond the out-of-the-box capabilities of Airtable, Notion, Zapier, etc., you likely need an expert to solve your problem. Otherwise, you can spend time scouring Reddit, Indiehackers, and Discord for a ready-made solution. With sufficient effort, a DIY approach can work, but non-engineers often lack the expertise to implement reliably.
NoCode Requires Balancing Tradeoffs
In my view, the difference between DIYing with no-code tools and a business-oriented approach is accountability. When integrating Notion with Fibery, our central system, we code it in-house. As the engineering team, we’re confident in the integration’s reliability — it’s our core competency.
But for a one-time event to convene our remote team, we hire an expert. It’s not our specialty, so we’d waste more time figuring it out compared to focusing on our core expertise.
This relates to adopting no-code in business: you’ll likely need talent to set up and maintain it. Otherwise, staff pulled from other jobs would have to learn these tools and take responsibility.
Engineers Often Avoid NoCode
If you have a tech team, you may notice an interesting trend — engineers dislike working with no-code tools, especially basic automations. There’s a reason: they don’t want to jeopardize their marketability with skills perceived as easy or outdated.
Consider John, a full-stack engineer proficient in Python, Node.js, and React. He builds internal tools but you want him to oversee no-code tools. Compare that to Jane, a new assistant manager who taught herself Zapier, Airtable, and Google Sheets to automate processes. She has no engineering background but is eager to learn more no-code.
For Jane, no-code presents a big career boost — she can quickly become a no-code engineer. But for John, the more no-code means less time honing coding skills valued by the industry. After a year focused on no-code, it would be challenging for John to jump back into complex software projects.
Parallels to Early NoCode Movements
This dynamic reminds me of the early days of WordPress and Shopify. Most skilled engineers avoided working extensively with them to focus on transferrable coding abilities. The niche was left to a small group of experts charging high rates, inexperienced freelancers, and ambitious newbies teaching themselves through trial-and-error.
The same divisions can manifest with today’s no-code tools. Non-technical staff gravitate toward no-code to expand skills, while engineers build expertise in programming languages. Firms adopting no-code still need technical talent to handle complex cases beyond basic presets.
In summary, no-code has its place in enabling non-programmers to achieve more. But its limitations mean skilled software developers remain crucial for robust business applications. The tradeoffs should be evaluated realistically.
Originally publshed on Medium.com