By Sally Simms
TLDR: Tools to build complex full-stack products without code are reaching an inflection point this year. They'll quickly transform how products get built and who gets to build them - and open the gates to a new, more diverse wave of product creators on the web.
This overview of what’s up with “no-code” summarizes a lunch talk I gave about no-code product building and the no-code movement at the Thoughtbot (a consultancy that builds web products) office in NYC. Some of the talk and some of the Q+A is repped here - the questions came from people who make coded software for their jobs.
In the early 2000s, Wordpress transformed how websites get built, and who could build them - allowing people without much technical knowledge to customize and publish a blog. Lightly customizable website-builders (like Squarespace and Wix) are now a common approach, and Wordpress runs 30% of the web. A new phase of that revolution is happening now - and it might remake the web even more powerfully.
Tools to build full-stack complex products without coding are becoming robust enough to replace custom code and reaching a critical mass in their community of users. It'll change how companies test ideas and how products get built, transform product management and design, and open the gates to a new, more diverse wave of product creators.
The barrier to building something is getting lower. No-code is enabling a shift where the level of technical knowledge required to build something that feels like a “product” is melting away. That doesn’t mean technical/code expertise will lose value necessarily. I think of the change more like a big new band of products, that might not have made sense to create or had a chance to exist yet in a code-only world, will now come into existence - and their creators will be everyone, not just devs.
Awesomely - that also means that the definition of who gets to be a product builder changes. The barrier of technical ability (which is gated by who’s had access to education, etc.) becomes much less important as a part of the identity of “a builder”. (“Builder”, or as we more commonly say now - a developer, a coder, an engineer - but that’ll probably change!). I sometimes think of “inventors” in times past - Dick Van Dyke in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang making rube goldberg machines at home - an everyman tinkering and building solutions to his own problems. We’re reaching a point where that kind of tinkering and building will be much more possible with web technologies, for anyone. And very approachable tinkering is an on-ramp to full-fledged inventing - one that’s much more accessible than the current path to software development.
It also means that a lot more underrepresented perspectives might quickly get into the infrastructure of our digital tools. People building tech products bring their outlook into their work, and shape our experience with tech. When more diverse people from lots of backgrounds - not mostly college-educated mostly male mostly white software engineers - can start building on their ideas and experiences in earnest, that has the potential to be transformative.
No-code services are diverse and somewhat specialized still, so it's not one big cliff of a limit. It’s more like: where did you start building, and what's feasible to knit together to accomplish your goal based on that starting point? AND, what's your definition of fidelity to your vision/needs? Is it about design, function, etc.?
One could similarly ask “what are the limits of code?” But it would depend on what kind of code, and what you’re building, and whether you’ve set up the right stack, and how cleverly it is built. Right now there is such a diversity of no-code tools that there are certainly limits to what one can build, but there is not a clear, universal ceiling where “no code” stops and “code” must always begin.
The shortest answer, though, is probably: 100% customization of your product. No code tools overall will tend to allow somewhat less minute tailoring of the deliverable/experience than a clean slate code build will. The 80/20 rule often applies, as with development in general.
When a coder comes upon a problem or need, she’ll often investigate what solutions are available, and either find an existing library or package to use, learn a new skill to code it herself, or plug in another service of some kind. Same thing goes for no-code. Robust building tools (like Bubble and Webflow) have immense libraries of plugins, and active communities along the lines of Stack Overflow sharing solutions. Figuring out what you can and can’t accomplish in a given no-code tool for a certain build looks like that same process that a dev practices, and often depends on what you’ve built so far and how you’ve done it.
This is a misconception. No-code isn't the draft or the experiment - it's about appropriateness to your needs at any stage, depending on your situation. Often it might make sense to switch TO no-code from coded at some point.
Some common times when people might need to custom-code stuff instead of building no-code include:
The situations above might be helpful guides in the inverse. Also, consider when a client company that will own a product doesn't have internal technical people who will understand how the coded product works to maintain it and administer it.
Do you want to maintain it? Is it okay for it to become obsolete in X years? Who will manage it? If the owners of the product that gets built DON'T have people for this - consider no-code as a set of solutions that may be easier to train the maintainers and admins on.
Here are a few themes I've seen and am excited about, but that are not exhaustive:
The no-code space has deep roots going back a long time, but the current rapid expansion of the space means that the market dynamics are still pretty nascent. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw an expansion of open-source or academic tools for robust no-code building in the next several years. Right now there’s a shift happening in the social acceptance and common perception of how things can get built. In the tech world, that’s people beginning to accept that no-code is a legitimate and often smart way to build products.
Also - there are lots of coding languages and practices, and similarly there are lots of no-code tools/services and approaches. I believe certain tools/companies might become juggernauts that can do a lot more than others, but doubt that it’ll be to the exclusion of a wide array of smaller tools. The whole thrust of this movement is democratization and diversity - of tools, of builders, of use cases, of purposes.
Furthermore, it’s not about capturing market share away from developers who are currently building products (though some of that will happen) - I believe no-code building will dramatically expand the market for custom-built tech and bring in huge new populations of buyers and builders.
No-code tools are a new branch of tools to build with - just like the loads of coding languages and tools that exist. Proficiency in no-code tools is gaining importance for anyone building products, and joins the ranks of skills required to be a good product building team. Just as there are times when you need a front-end-focused dev, or a back-end-focused dev - there will increasingly be times when you need someone who’s great at no-code.
In pop culture, there’s a lot of attention paid to groundbreaking technologies - new tools that do completely new things. We’re obsessed with AI, innovative biotech, robots. But appropriateness is the key to a transformative technology: does it suit a need in people’s lives. (In startup jargon, that’s the heart of “product-market fit”.) Sometimes groundbreaking tech suits a profound need, and transforms lives. That’s really hard to accomplish. But lots of transformative, successful technology is not about new cutting-edge science. It’s about someone who had an insight about what they were missing, and compiled existing abilities into a new shape to fill the gap.
This is perhaps what’s most thrilling about no code. What would the world look like if every person, every business could build the tool that fits their hand? What if the privilege of doing that were accessible to anyone?
Sally is the founder of Group Project, a software company that helps managers support their teams and understand what their people can do. She's also a product consultant and advisor, usually building apps nimbly without code. She speaks about no-code, ethics in tech, and the human future of work.