No-code/low-code app development evolves from loathed to loved
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Designing and staging a major event has thousands of moving parts. Whether it's a Super Bowl halftime show, national political convention or traveling rock concert tour, people, contractors, construction, equipment, logistics, lighting, sound, video and venues all have intricate task dependencies. Each has to be scheduled down to the second, with expenditures tracked down to the penny. Cloud applications -- some created using low-code development tools -- and cloud computing technology are the only way to keep it all under control.
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For Solomon Group Ventures LLC, a global provider of live arena productions based in New Orleans, its longstanding piecemeal approach to project management and budgeting was, well, falling to pieces. In addition to staging the 2016 NFL draft in Chicago, Solomon Group recently designed and managed every aspect of the Essence Festival in New Orleans, which operated up to a dozen stages in multiple venues simultaneously, including the city's convention center and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"We used one system based on QuickBooks Enterprise to manage labor and time sheets, and other nonintegrated systems for leasing equipment from staging to potted plants, developing bid quotations and generating purchase orders," said Jonathan Foucheaux, a partner and one of Solomon Group's three co-founders. A traditional system in which employees could electronically punch in for each project would never have worked with hundreds of people who could each be working on up to a dozen different client projects every day. "They'd spend all their time clocking in an out," Foucheaux said.
Choosing the logical approach
Solomon Group recognized an all-encompassing modular master system based on low-code development technology was the only logical approach. Getting there was not so easy.
Jonathan Foucheauxpartner and co-founder, Solomon Group
"We talked to several custom software companies to write something specific for us," Foucheaux said. It was not money well-spent. "We paid one guy $20,000, and what he built didn't work for us." The system was unwieldy to use, but reflected a bigger problem: the inability of an outside developer to comprehend Solomon Group's myriad functions, its interdependencies, and a need for extensibility and flexibility as business grew and new kinds of arena-scale events were taken on.
Technologies Solomon Group tried out included QuickBase for database functionality, Expensify for tracking expenses, Zapier for multivendor workflow integration and Excel spreadsheets to track equipment repairs.
"We even looked at Salesforce, but at the time, it didn't offer the customization we needed," said Foucheaux, who, with a networking background, is the most technically savvy of Solomon Group's three co-founders. To build the labor module and have it run in a way that matched Solomon Group's workflows was almost impossible, he said. "In the end, we couldn't find anything that did what we needed to do to run our business in the way we wanted to run it, so we decided to do it ourselves with a low-code development platform."
Low-code development for all
The citizen developer do-it-yourself trend is expanding as a result of low-code development tools that have simultaneously become more powerful, yet easier for nonexperts to use, in the view of Johan den Haan, CTO at Mendix, a maker of no-code and low-code tools based in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
"Every company needs to become a software company," den Haan said. "IT departments are overwhelmed, can't deliver on time, or don't have the time or budget to innovate."
Johan den HaanCTO, Mendix
Developers, den Haan said, are coming to look upon distributed development more favorably than in the recent past, when so-called shadow IT was seen as an uprising usurping their roles. "We used to see line-of-business departments circumventing IT because IT could not deliver. That led to quick-and-dirty approaches that didn't always work well or were not in compliance with the business' security policies."
Mendix's approach is to focus on collaboration that allows IT to take on a leadership and advisory role. "It's about making IT the heroes again, while enabling the business to help itself," den Haan said. "The department can build the application functionality, with IT doing the back-end data integration and security."
Back at the Solomon Group, Foucheaux himself used the Mendix platform to develop an integrated system, with modules to handle every aspect of the company's business. He started two years ago with the production system now running for more than a year. "We can finally standardize on how we do things. People can check their budgets, and everyone can see all of it in real time," he said.
The latest module is invoicing, which had been done previously in QuickBase. Next up is a module to track equipment by using employees' smartphones to snap a photo of the bar code tag affixed to each item.
For Solomon Group's business of designing, building and staging mega-events, the company's internally developed, all-encompassing application suite was the right answer, Foucheaux said. "It's the heartbeat of our business. Everything we need to run our company goes through this system."
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