"No Code" Is A Lie
Why Coders should take a second look at "No Code" tools
Originally published on the Webflow blog.
Developers often mistake the “No Code” movement to mean “No Coders” or “Not for Coders”. As a developer, I used to either regard “No Code” as a threat, or dismiss “No Code” tools as something beneath me, something you only resort to if you, well, can’t code.
But there is an open secret behind the current generation of “No Code” tools - it’s ALL code.
“No Code” tools generate code. “No Code” tools run on mountains of code. “No Code” tools can even interact with your code. They still require technical users - people who can debug, people who can think in abstractions, and, above all, people who know how to glue just the right tools together in the right way to produce business value.
If you’re thinking that that set of skills sounds like what developers do, you’d be right. Just like “serverless” just means “not your servers”, “no code” just means “not your code”.
You may have heard of the API Economy - the idea that as software increasingly eats the world, a whole generation of software companies are arising to specialize in individual hard problems in software so you don’t have to. The average person on the street will never hear of Stripe or Twilio, but they may be customers of some startups which in turn are customers of Stripe or Twilio for payments or communication.
Where developers used to be responsible for the full stack of code and integration needed to make these capabilities possible, API companies make adding commoditized functionality as easy as dropping in a few lines of code. This makes sense on multiple dimensions: it transforms a high fixed, upfront, uncertain cost, into a variable, deferred, predictable expense, and a specialized service is likely to be more robust and cheaper (due to scale) than a self-written one. This is hugely beneficial for both sides, which has resulted in an entire economy of API’s blossoming for every “hard problem” imaginable:
One (unforeseen?) outcome of the API economy is how hugely enabling it has been for individual developers as well. Suddenly, if you understood HTTP and REST, you now had access to the PhD-level search capabilities of Algolia, or the nationwide banking relationships forged by Plaid. This isn’t a threat to developers, nor is it something “real” developers wouldn’t use - it just redefined what the job is. Instead of doing the same undifferentiated heavy lifting every other developer does, the developer can now focus on writing just the core code the business needs to deliver on its unique value proposition, leaving other specialists to deliver on theirs. With this reduction in the surface area of responsibilities, you might expect some threat to the tune of “APIs are taking our jobs” or “Platforms are taking our jobs”. However, Developer salaries rose, instead of fell, through this API Economy transformation.
This is the context with which I now approach the current “No Code” movement.
Where developers used to be responsible for writing the code to link together business logic and various APIs together, they can now do it visually. When you look at Zapier’s interface:
and see users literally manipulating Boolean logic to get their work done, it is hard to deny that they are coding their business logic in terms that the machine understands. It just doesn’t look like a coder’s idea of coding.
It is no secret that Graphical User Interfaces (GUI’s) are more intuitive and easier to use for more people than verbose API documentation that then require additional engineering resources to write the code needed to take advantage of it. So the next generation of tools are all-in on this idea - deliver their core functionality with a GUI for direct manipulation as well as interlinking with other tools. Even heavily developer-focused companies like Netlify, where I work, have heavy investments in GUIs, with an extensive design system to boot. An additional benefit of a GUI focus, particularly with web apps, is the ability to use the software while on mobile, the primary computing platform of our time.
I’ll dub this the GUI Economy. Just like the API movement before it, it will allow a larger concentric circle of people (who don’t identify as developers, but are nevertheless technical) to build and interact with software, and yet it will be less a threat to developers than an enabler. This is what we discuss next.
At first, a developer might resist the idea that visual tools can help in coding. But once you look for it, you see it everywhere.
Visual Development Environment. With a 51% market share, the most popular development environment these days is VS Code, despite only being released in 2015. What explains it’s meteoric rise in popularity over simpler code editors like Notepad++, Atom and Sublime? Among other things, it offers a point and click interface for search, file navigation, type hints, customizing settings, adding extensions, and so on. That is what it and other full featured IDE’s provide over simpler tools. In fact, Dark Lang recently coupled IDE and language, taking the IDE and visual coding metaphor to an even higher level by guaranteeing you can’t write invalid code because the IDE won’t let you. Nobody argues that this is less legitimate coding.
Visual State Machines. Similarly, there is a widespread movement to embrace statecharts and visually designed state machines governing app logic. This visualizes complex state transitions and makes missing holes due to bad planning painfully obvious. Changes in business logic due to changing business requirements are intuitively added, validated, and translated to the view layer in a consistent manner. With the xstate Viz tool created by David Khourshid, you can visually simulate any transitions and side effects to your state machine. Nobody argues that this is a less legitimate way to model state machines - in fact, quite the opposite.
Source: Vue CLI
Visual Command Line Interfaces. At first this seems an oxymoron. Aren’t Command Line Interfaces (CLI’s) the canonical opposite of GUI’s? Recently, this line is being blurred in creative and interesting ways. The Vue CLI created by Guillerme Chau led the way building a full desktop app layer atop their CLI, to ease discoverability and visualization. But the desire to graphically represent code execution state and options is as old as CLI’s - from the most basic spinners to navigable, interactive forms and templates to writing entire layout engines and interactive renders with React. Nobody argues that this is a less legitimate way to execute code!
Visual Interface Editing. The “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) experience is one fraught with history. Because this is a particularly thorny problem, early attempts like FrontPage and Dreamweaver weren’t particularly great at producing human readable and maintainable code. But web technologies have grown a lot since - Firebug allowed direct editing of sites 12 years ago, has a modern clone in the Visbug project led by Adam Argyle, and even has a built-in solution in the
document.designMode Browser API. Of course, Webflow is leading the vanguard in terms of “No Code” web design/authoring tools, even coming with integrated CMS and Ecommerce solutions. Nobody should argue that this is a less legitimate way to write UI’s!
At the heart of all this is Developer Experience. At the end of the day, developers are humans too - we respond the same positive way to GUI’s that the rest of our users do. If we learn to treat visual tools as friends instead of enemies, they can become massive productivity boosters for us as much as they do for our friends who don’t do traditional coding. If anything, we should be better at it than them, because we are professionally trained to understand how to design and maintainable systems, and know the right questions to ask to figure out where abstractions start and end.
The old, tired debate in programming is that of “convention over configuration”, or vice versa. What it misses is that these are more or less evolutionary ways of shifting the responsibility of code between toolmaker and tool user. You can do it poorly, or you can do it well. At the end of the day, it is still code, and the end user doesn’t really care what you used and how much you wrote.
Gallons and petabytes of physical and digital ink have been spilled over progressively higher levels of abstractions in programming, from the earliest days of GOTO to the imperative/declarative divide, or the more recent movement from object oriented to functional paradigms. We’ve layered code on top of more code to make it easier and safer and more expressive, but through all this there has been no objectively measurable improvement in developer productivity from the point of view of the user.
Maybe we’ve reached the limit of what increasing abstractions within code can do. To get to the next level, we have to abstract over code. Maybe instead of putting code at the center of our universe, with more code as the solution to every problem, we should emphasize creation instead, and consider everything that helps us get there.
“No Code” isn’t just something for website and app creators. It also presents tremendous opportunities for creators of developer tools.
I work at Netlify, which helps developers build and host JAMstack sites and apps. Netlify isn’t classically considered a “No Code” tool, because you almost certainly need to code to create most of the sites that people create with Netlify. However, from the perspective of front-end developers, who form the majority of the audience of Netlify, it is “No Code” in one very important way: the back-end. Netlify takes on the responsibility of hiring and managing a world-class platform, product, and support team managing Kubernetes deployments, CDN cache invalidation, and incident respnse. On the flip side, all the backend concerns of Continuous Deployment, setting up a CDN, getting an SSL certificate for secure HTTPS hosting, configuring custom domains, and a dozen other important yet boring best practices, are abstracted away, enabling front-end developers to create and deploy their sites on par with world-class full-stack teams.
If you are an entrepreneur seeking to make a dent serving developers, a reliable approach for traction is enabling an underserved segment of creators to do their thing, just a lot easier, with a No Code interface for all the incidental complexity that usually gets in their way.
I don’t want to leave you with a mistaken impression that I am saying everything is automatically better with a “No Code” layer. It is still early days in this movement, and there are plenty of hard problems left to solve in this paradigm shift.
You will always have more programmatic power with code than with GUIs, even though we have started figuring out how to program control flow in GUIs. When is it better to stay inside GUIs, and when is it better to drop down, eject, or export to code? Can we make it a reversible instead of irreversible process?
Discoverability is easier with GUIs, but information density, expressiveness, and often speed is sacrificed. How does app design evolve in the era of No Code tools? Many code tools work offline, whereas No Code Web GUIs often don’t by default. How important is this?
GUIs are expensive to write (the furious innovation in frontend frameworks is proof positive that we aren’t done yet), so No Code tools, themselves, which are often GUIs that create GUIs, are even more expensive and hard to create. How can we make them simpler, cheaper, and more accessible by default?
These are all unanswered questions and I look forward to all that we will discover about them in coming years.
I’ll confess my selection of title was somewhat clickbaity, but if you’re a developer, product manager or technical founder, you’ve probably seen yourself in some of these debates raised in the perception of “No Code” and the challenges and opportunities it presents. Mostly, I wanted to, once and for all, completely demolish the misperception that “No Code” means no code is involved or that it is not for people who can code. I think this movement is a tremendously positive-sum win-win for both coders and noncoders alike, and the sooner we realize this, the more productive we can all become to use technology to solve actual hard problems in the world.
- design tools -> design system pull out components
- no need translation -> single source of truth
- bezier curve
- Who’s your audience? Developers who are dismissive of Webflow bc it is “no code”
- What will they get out of your article? Look at Webflow as a tool instead of a threat
- Why should they read it? They are getting hung up on Webflow based on identity.
- How will they act on it? They will try to use Webflow as an exportable design tool
- When: does some current event or topic make it relevant? none
- What’s your target keyword/keyphrase? This helps ensure a topic’s relevant. “No code”
- What graphics/videos/audio would help you make your point? At minimum, your article should include at least 3 to 5 images. “No idea”
- What structure will you use? Our posts have strong structure with frequent subheads. Consider outlining before you write. see above
- Title: “No Code” Is A Lie
- Subtitle: Why Coders should take a second look at “No Code” tools
- Lede: | Developers often mistake the “No Code” movement to mean “No Coders” or “Not for Coders”. But there is an open secret behind the current generation of “No Code” tools - it’s ALL code. “No Code” tools generate code. “No Code” tools run on mountains of code. “No Code” tools still require technical users - people who can debug, people who can think in abstractions, and, above all, people who know how to glue just the right tools together in the right way to produce business value.
- Hero image
- At least 3 subheads to provide structure and easy takeaways
- At least 3 images for body content: whenever possible, use a screenshot, GIF, or other graphic that illustrates your point, as opposed to a generic photo.
- Link generously, but not in the first few paragraphs.
If citing data or quotes, always link to the source Try to link to 3 other Webflow blog posts or pages Always embed links in clear language that communicates the topic of the destination page. Never embed links in the word “here.”