Are Low-Code/No-Code Platforms the New Visual Basic?

Are Low-Code/No-Code Platforms the New Visual Basic?Low-code/no-code platforms are a boon to companies looking for an internal product development approach that provides flexibility and agility for building their systems. They are a way to leverage technically savvy resources without the cost of full-fledged software engineers.

The term “low-code/no-code” might be new, but the concept of providing simpler, abstract tools for building technically complex systems is not. Companies looking into low-code/no-code vendors can learn lessons from past iterations in this space.

Is it a Product or a Platform? Is it Buy or Is it Build?

Many companies think that low-code/no-code is a way to sit somewhere in the middle of the “buy vs. build” debate. It’s not. It’s build. It’s definitely and exclusively build. To explain, let’s examine the difference between a product and a platform.

The key difference (at least as it matters to insurers, banks, and other intuitional buyers) is that when a company buys and installs a product, the vendor will continue to maintain and upgrade the full set of capabilities put into production. On the other hand, a vendor will only maintain and upgrade a platform up to the level of the core platform features. Any vertical accelerators, templates, sample sites, etc., that the vendor provides to speed up the project (i.e., specific business capabilities) come as-is. They are the buyer’s to own and support going forward.

Any changes the vendor makes to modernize the templates later will not get automatically applied to the buyer’s production environment based on the previous version of the template; the implementation timeline does not necessarily reflect this. It might be faster to get into production with the low-code/no-code platform using an industry vertical template than configure the full-fledged product. The difference is in that long-term support and ownership.

Visual Basic, Database Scripting, and Low-Code: Business Logic in the Presentation Layer

Insurers, banks, and other financial services companies leveraged technology platforms to speed up development before low-code/no-code. The most obvious example is Visual Basic, first released for Microsoft Windows in 1991. Visual Basic (for those who don’t know or remember) is a visual tool for creating desktop Windows applications, and it is without question a low-code/no-code platform, even if it pre-dates the terminology. It’s hard to see the modern Low-Code/No-Code platforms as anything other than Visual Basic for the internet and mobile age. It’s a surprise it took so long for us to get here!

Companies embraced Visual Basic to build internal applications. Still, the problem with Visual Basic (then and today) is that all the things that made it easy to use — visual editing tools anyone could learn, simple scripting for more complex logic — made it a long-term maintenance nightmare. Every line of business at an insurer built out applications that were quick to set up but difficult to maintain.

The biggest problem was that Visual Basic encouraged users to build business logic directly into the presentation layer/user interface. However, the best practice is to keep business logic in a separate tier, allowing the reuse of the core business rules across many different types of interfaces. Business logic built directly into the VB applications not only had to be rewritten but reverse-engineered when insurers wanted to build web portals, mobile apps, and other forms of interaction.

Visual Basic isn’t the only culprit. Many companies leveraged Microsoft Access for simple database applications. At the other end of the complexity spectrum, companies used Oracle’s PL/SQL language to program business logic directly into databases. Coupling business logic with the presentation or database created long-term support and maintenance issues and a legacy of difficult-to-document rules deep in the heart of systems.

Low-Code/No-Code: Avoiding Shadow IT

This is not to say that low-code/no-code is bad or that it necessarily creates a shadow IT environment. Still, there is a risk that key corporate business logic will get lost within the presentation layer, just like in the heyday of Visual Basic.

Any insurer’s low-code/no-code needs to involve IT and follow standard software development life cycle best practices. A robust low-code/no-code platform can support building user interfaces, process management, workflow, and business logic. However, that all needs to be done with the proper abstraction and an N-Tier architecture approach.

The goal of companies who use low-code/no-code platforms should be to make sure the applications they build now aren’t just quick to go live but are easy to maintain and replace when the time comes.

Please feel free to reach out to me ([email protected]) or my colleague Christine Barry ([email protected]), Head of Banking and Payments Insights and Advisory, with any questions.


@jeff goldberg - how could you not mention Lotus Notes?

Eric, great example! Building business logic into the e-mail platform deserves a category of it's own. I don't think Low-Code/No-Code platforms, even if poorly managed from an IT perspective, will cross that line.

Eric, great example! Building business logic into the e-mail platform deserves a category of it's own. I don't think Low-Code/No-Code platforms, even if poorly managed from an IT perspective, will cross that line.

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