Three months ago I decided to immerse myself in the rapidly growing world of no-code development. This is what I’ve learned.
No-code brings developing to a whole new audience. Source: glazestock.com. Illustrated by Rudyitas.
I’ve been a product manager — either as part of a team, or setting whole new teams up or as a startup founder who also “did” product — for 10 years now. Back in 2009, it was a fairly new concept, in the UK at least and certainly in larger organisations. If product managers think they have a hard time today explaining to friends and colleagues what they do, back then it was much, much worse. For me, the big turning point came with the release of Eric Ries’ Lean Startup book in 2011. Finally, we had a method, a movement, to follow and champion, and it changed everything.
A core component of the Lean Startup methodology is the build-measure-learn feedback loop. The first step is figuring out the problem that needs to be solved and then developing a minimum viable product (MVP) to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible. Once the MVP is established, a startup can work on tuning the engine. This will involve measurement and learning and must include actionable metrics that can demonstrate cause and effect question.
The problem is it’s meant to be a super quick process. In theory, it is. In practice - in my experience - that’s rarely the case.
The Lean Startup approach is still widely used as the de facto method for building products and startups, and rightly so. Yet something that hasn’t changed has been the nature of the team composition, the people you need to bring a product to fruition. Pretty much every product team wherever you go is built along the lines of a Product Manager (PM), Project Manager / Business Analyst, Designer and a dev squad. Even for a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) — and when I say MVP I mean like a functional product rather than a landing page or an interactive prototype — it still typically requires this cross-functional team of people and at best a few months, but in reality much longer, to get it in the hands of customers.
Me, I love being a part of making new products, finding new solutions to problems, new ventures. I have come to realise this is my thing. Yet I’ve always been a bit frustrated with the time and money it takes to generally get stuff done. For early-stage startups, especially those who end up using agencies to build their product, spending upwards of £50k and 6 months to get a supposed MVP out the door can be a death sentence, or at the least a severe strain. Even if you are a techie, or are lucky enough to have one as a co-founder, the end-to-end costs soon mount up.
As a product person, with an experimental mindset, you pretty quickly learn that mistakes are simply another way of doing things. So you keep an open mind and obsess around what will best solve the customer’s problem, what will do the job they’re trying to get done. And for me, as a "customer" of product development, I needed a new way.
Maybe instead of relying on a whole team to make an MVP, I could learn to code? Well, actually I can a bit. Or rather, I used to be able to. I made a “computer game” when I was 11 for the Commodore 64 (a Hopper clone) and sold tapes of it at school. But with coding I feel you end up specialising in just one piece of the puzzle. And even that takes a hell of a lot of time and commitment just to get the basics down.
Then there’s design, I’m not a professional designer, nowhere near, but I know the core principles. And I’ve made interactive prototypes, which are fine for getting some initial feedback, but at the end of the day, they’re not a proper product.
Fortunately, something is now happening in the world of product development which is answering my prayers and those of many frustrated makers around the world.
About 4 years ago I came across Webflow. It was (and still is) a Wordpress competitor, and I used it to make websites without having to learn code, and save a bit of cash on having to hire someone else. It’s evolved so much since then — it’s a serious piece of kit. But it is still at the end of the day just a front end. You still need a back-end database and workflows in the middle to build a “full-stack” functional product. So like, if you wanted to build a Medium clone, with a membership plan and tiered pricing and so on, you can’t just use Webflow (many, many websites and CMS platforms are available!).
But in the past 12 months this idea of using a kind of drag-and-drop platform, a visual development approach where non-coders can make stuff, has simply exploded.
I’ve spent the last three months immersing myself in this brave new world of no code. And I’m having a ball. Make a marketplace? Check. Make internal apps to help with data collection and visualisation? Check. Make a voice bot? Yup. Keep it coming.
Before you rush out and start expecting to quickly be able to knock out a decent app that does everything you need it to, there’s still a chunky learning curve. Every platform has it’s own tricks of the trade, and it takes a while to figure out what’s capable of doing what.
And the real trick is knowing how to combine different no-code tools to work with each other. Basically building your no-code stack.
It will be different for every project so getting to the point where you instinctively know a way of doing what you want to achieve is where the real skill lies. (Massive kudos has to go to the legend that is Ben Tossell of Makerpad who is a shining light in this space, a true inspiration and someone I definitely owe a beer or three.)
But the good news is this whole no-code thing is not a sham. The possibilities are seemingly endless, and new no-code innovations are springing up quicker than you can say Ruby On Rails. And only this week a no-code product was the #1 product of the day on ProductHunt.
For now, for me personally at this stage in my “maker” journey, I’m focusing on making MVPs. I think that given what’s available now, in terms of no-code tools and what they offer, is perfect for making rapid MVPs that do what they need to. You can make web apps or native apps, backends, manage workflows and trigger events, incorporate payments, and much more. But really soon I’m certain pretty much anything will be possible; anything that could be done with code will be done without.
Inevitably the no-code movement, like every good revolution, has its fair share of critics and cynics. You might assume that coders are the big haters. But actually I’ve not witnessed much of that. And the reason is that coding, in its purest sense, can never become obsolete. Somebody will still have to code all the platforms and tools that will innovate the no-coding world. And in fact, I can see developers wanting to embrace no-code and learn the skills themselves. Same goes for designers. We really are moving into a new age of how things get made.
So now product managers everywhere have a pretty exciting opportunity. That is, to be able to combine their tried and tested methods for identifying which products and features should be made, with actually making them. Delivery times will come right down. Costs will drop. New careers will be made. New unicorns? Just maybe.
I for one am just happy to be along for the ride.
Martin has co-founded several startups including the UK’s first mobile-only share dealing app, Dabbl. He loves making new things to solve big problems.