Content By Devops .com
Digital transformation can be a bogus journey. Here’s how low-code and dual-track transformation efforts can help.
Large-scale enterprise digital transformation can take a while. Transformation initiatives like cloud migration, mainframe upgrades or refactoring monolithic systems could easily take five to seven years. Yet, this slow pace is at direct odds with today’s digital innovation standards and the pressure to release software rapidly.
COVID–19 has amplified this drive to innovate, especially complicating matters for non-cloud-native companies, which struggle to attract and retain talent amid a developer shortage. Not to mention, developers are experiencing surmounting pressure to perform, which could result in burnout if not supplemented by new strategies.
To maintain agility while diligently advancing multi-year digital transformation projects, some proponents argue for a dual-track approach. This approach uses low-code platforms to increase operational agility (the fast track) while digital transformation initiatives (the slow track) progress methodically on the side.
I recently sat down with Jay Jamison, chief product and technology officer at Quickbase, to discuss today’s digital transformation concerns. According to Jamison, implementing a dual-track approach affords great rewards, but it requires an organizational cultural shift. He recommends establishing centers of excellence (COE) to evangelize low-code practices and encourage citizen development, enabling subject matter experts of lower technical acuity to automate operational workflows and operations.
“Digital transformation is an important element for businesses of all sizes,” said Jamison. However, mainstream digital transformation projects, like rationalizing an ERP, moving to the cloud, or upgrading a network, can take an exorbitant amount of time and money. It’s hard for IT to meet business requirements. “We really need a second track of digital transformation — one that is more agile.”
Jamison likens dual-track transformation to chipping out “small rock” projects from the larger digital transformation cliff. This strategy focuses on streamlining realizable goals in shorter timespans, empowering teams of people — with subject matter expertise — with tools to transform and digitize their workflows.
Low-Code’s Role in Dual-Track
A recent study conducted by Harvard Business Review found that 80% of executives “strongly agree” that a dual-track approach is essential for digital transformation. Yet, only 31% of companies have adopted said approach.
To realize a dual-track process, Jamison recommends low-code for its “low-risk, high-throughput capability.” According to Jamison, low-code enables the edge of business to quickly adapt new solutions and run them in parallel with big rock digital transformation. For example, non-engineer government employees in a Texas county recently used a low-code platform to help distribute coronavirus vaccines.
For a citizen developer culture to flourish, “you really need to have all hands in the pile,” Jamison said. IT stakeholders and business members must collaborate and work together to bring low-code to fruition. This process combines setting goals, outlining guardrails, and forming learning groups with progressive leadership at the helm.
Introducing Centers of Excellence
Naturally, many factors can affect IT innovation (leadership commitment, collaboration, organizational expectations, etc.). But arguably, the most common roadblock to digital innovation is culture. In fact, 45% of executives report that organizational structure is a major transformation challenge.
That’s where centers of excellence (COE) come in. No, centers of excellence is not an archive of Bill & Ted’s adventures. COEs aim to fix the cultural barrier by encouraging progressive leadership, collaboration, and innovation. The Playbook for Centers of Excellence defines COE as “a concentration of expertise and resources in a specific capacity, designed to maximize the focus on a specific project.”
A COE aims to foster shared understanding between IT leadership and business leadership. In Jamison’s words, “a center of excellence provides the ability to utilize low-code to sustainably build and empower applications in a safe, sustainable way.”
Building a Most Triumphant Center of Excellence
The COE goal is to empower business users to innovate. Yet, COE is a governance framework, which seems a bit contradictory. So, how does an organization go about implementing it? Well, there is a range of how companies adopt COE, but Jamison shared some common steps:
Step one is establishing your goals. This could be increasing productivity, enhancing customer satisfaction or improving service reliability. Step two involves inviting the right people and perspectives — the key personnel to own the COE program.
Next, develop transparent policies around security. This helps preempt concerns around data security and compliance. Finally, now that goals and rules are established, communicate the initiative across an organization.
Throughout this process, investing in training is paramount. There are many project management philosophies for encouraging low-code adoption, but Quickbase recommends a training and education team to “roll out information and goals in a structured, targeted way”. They also encourage a community focus — user groups, internal events and knowledge-sharing initiatives can build excitement within the employee base.
Benefits of Low-Code Enabled COE
A COE aims to bring disparate parties to the same table. For example, companies could hold what Jamison described as an “appathon,” in which business executives present their goals, like rolling out new installations or driving 5G deployments. Then, priorities are assigned to individual groups, who apply domain knowledge to construct applications.
Setting up a COE by accelerating ground swell innovation “catalyzes the dual-track innovation that we think is really key,” said Jamison, reducing the mean cycle-time to introducing new features. Low-code could also lower the integration barrier, enabling connectivity with CRM systems, or connecting with big, heavy systems like SAP or Oracle.
Jamison also described low-code platforms as encompassing “the spirit of microservices,” as they introduce a relatively lightweight application process and easy deployment model. Furthermore, if teams are tapped into the same PaaS, they receive data reusability benefits, he said. “Everyone can utilize the same data in a way that’s relevant for what they need.”
Citizen Developers: Bogus or Non-Bogus?
Personally, I think it would be great if the future of application development ushered in a democratizing effect, allowing more people to participate in software creation. Yet, the skepticism around a fully working citizen developer model is hard to shake.
The “citizen developer” seems to have a negative connotation among coder elites, too. As one reader commented:
“So top talents are overpaid extravagance and bored secretaries working from home will be driving innovation by writing no-code workflows, am I right with understanding what is written here?”
I pressed Jamison on the reality of the citizen developer concept in practice and how he responds to naysayers. He jokingly equates it to a witch hunt.
“Saying that only people that get to participate in software development is professional software developers is ridiculous,” he said, noting the importance of subject matter expertise.
According to Jamison, companies often fail when they attempt to transmit subject matter expertise to developers. Organizations would rather teach subject matter experts low-code than teach the subject matter to programmers, he noted. It’s not hard to imagine why allowing subject matter experts to build their own workflows for specialized fields, such as accounting, natural science, or mathematics, makes sense.
Regardless, Jamison adds there’s nothing really to worry about — “The full stack developer isn’t going anywhere.”
Dual-Track Digital Transformation? Excellent!
A dual-track approach combines large-scale transformation and rapid-cycle development. By separating “small rock digital transformation” out from the larger puzzle, organizations can increase operational agility to meet business needs a bit quicker.
Establishing a center of excellence seems to boil down to bringing people together to share ideas, collaborate, and drive better productivity. If anything, this way of thinking will help operationally-intensive industries consider how they can automate parts of their business.
Ultimately, the goal here is to enable organizations to collaborate better and drive better productivity. By empowering more creators, you can start seeing creativity at the edge of business emerge too, said Jamison. If that involves citizen developers creating event-driven workflow automation, so be it. “We invite people to take on the challenge,” said Jamison.
Hopefully, then, business and IT can be excellent to each other.