There are a huge number of low-code tools out there—but is “low code” a meaningful term? Paul and Rich discuss the promise versus the reality of low code, what most businesses really need from software, and the other descriptors they’d use if tasked with a low-code rebrand. 

Listen Now

See all episodes


How Real Is Low Code?

Paul Ford: Hi, I’m Paul Ford, the co-founder of Aboard.

Rich Ziade: And I’m Rich Ziade, the other co-founder.

Paul: Rich, what is Aboard?

Rich: Aboard is an AI-powered—italicize that phrase.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: AI-powered data management and workflow tool. It’s a great way to spin up software that helps you manage data information links, bits of information that are tossed around spreadsheets. Check it out at It’s free. And if you need help—Aboard’s a full-blown software platform, by the way, Paul. So if you need help with your softwares inside of your organization or company, we like to talk, we like to visit people.

Paul: And today we’re going to go a little bit meta and talk about Aboard and low code and what low code is and if it really matters and if it actually works. So let’s do that here on the Aboard Podcast.

[intro music]

Paul: Okay, Rich, low code. What is low code?

Rich: Low code is a set of, I guess, technologies that allow you to create software without as much code, with less engineering, and solve problems more easily without code. That’s the promise.

Paul: That’s basically it. So let’s describe how—

Rich: Or, low. There is no code.

Paul: There’s no code and low code.

Rich: It’s kind of all the same.

Paul: Yeah, this is an industry reference, not some, like, magic term of art. Like, you can’t go get a PhD in low code.

Rich: No, it’s a category of software, yeah.

Paul: It’s a category. Tools, I’ll give something—Airtable, Coda, a little bit of Notion, so on. Let me describe what used to happen. I wanted to have some information about my customers. So I had two choices. I could buy a big enterprise system and I could put—like, Salesforce. Spend $90 per seat, and I could put information about my customers into the customer relationship management system. And we could then write some JavaScript or JavaScript-like code in their system inside of their world to customize how it displays or add logic and connect it to other systems.

Rich: It would cost a lot of money. Customizing software cost a lot of money.

Paul: That’s right.

Rich: Talking to people, letting them take notes, understanding your requirements.

Paul: Why—the reason it costs money is programmers, like just put it right out there. Like, I had to—

Rich: Programmers. And sometimes product managers, project managers, designers.

Paul: Exactly.

Rich: Programmers.

Paul: So let’s be clear about what low code—low code is about eliminating labor costs.

Rich: It is about, in many ways, the promise of it was about a power shift from the engineer to the customer to the buyer, right?

Paul: There’s a positive spin on this, which is we’re not just trying to make those programmers have no jobs. We’re trying to empower everyone to get more use out of the computer. Because the thing is, if I need, I need to manage my own dataset, and I want to go a little further than what Google Docs lets me do, but I’m not a programmer? I’m out of luck. And it’s not like I can go to IT and be like, “Hey, can I just borrow two weeks of programmer?”

Rich: Right.

Paul: Because they’re like, “No, these people are scheduled for the next two years.”

Rich: You empower me to get my, to make my thing happen without going to engineering, without waiting a month? Speed, time, money, all of those things can get skipped if it’s working right.

Paul: So one of the archetypal examples is Airtable, right?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And what is, Airtable is a database, which means that, let me clarify. You can go, like, put columns and rows into a spreadsheet, okay? But let’s say you have complicated data and you have, like, a spreadsheet with two different sheets inside of it. It’s kind of a pain to make one of those sheets talk to the other. Like, one might list customers and one might list companies. And you might want to say, these customers work at, all these customers, these ten customers actually belong inside of this company. Hard to do that in a spreadsheet. But databases are designed for those kind of relations to grow.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And it turns out that what organizations need to basically organize relationships around themselves aligns really well with relational databases. So Airtable said, we’re going to give you the database. You can put, it’ll be like a spreadsheet—

Rich: And you get like, an app on top of it. So there’s this thick layer of interface on top. You can have forms—

Paul: Download the data. You can send somebody a form and say, “Fill this out.” And now they’re in the customer database.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And then you can put it on a map!

Rich: Lots of good tools that circumvent the need for engineering.

Paul: So now you’ve got billions—$20, $30 billion in low-code companies scattered everywhere.

Rich: There’s a bunch.

Paul: Huge success. Everything’s great. Do you think it’s been a success?

Rich: Technology has been threatening to turn on its inventors and render them obsolete since the beginning of technology.

Paul: You want to know one of the funniest stories here? Remember Steve Jobs? You ever heard of him?

Rich: I’ve heard of him.

Paul: Okay. So Steve Jobs, they start Apple Computer. And that’s nice, but it doesn’t work out, he has to leave. And he goes, he gets the Mac out, and he goes to NeXT. And do you know what NeXT really was? It was a hardware company, made really powerful hardware.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And then underneath the hardware company there was this operating system. And the operating system was all based around objects. Everything was going to be, you would build software by dragging and dropping things and saying, that’s the database and that’s the address field.

Rich: Connect and plug them together.

Paul: There are these videos because I am a huge nerd, I’ve watched them, where, like, the NeXT engineer and the Sun Operating System engineer are, like, pitted together to build an app in a day. Right?

Rich: Right. And NeXT is forward-looking.

Paul: Boom! Just blows up—and, in fact, when they sold NeXT back to Apple, and Steve Jobs came back, what came with it was this thing called web objects, which they used to build the iTunes store, which was, like—so you could, all these objects, and programming was going to be like this.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: That was object—

Rich: Visual and intuitive.

Paul: And yet somehow, you and I had to sit down in the 2000s there, around 2000, a little bit into the 2010s, and start an agency that was mostly programming, like, using modern tools in modern languages, but was very recognizable to people who’d been programming in 1977.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: So why didn’t, like—let’s just improvise for a second. Why didn’t objects work?

Rich: I think there are two reasons.

Paul: Objects encapsulate, they say, here’s your data object and here’s some code that goes with it, and now, man, you can go to town. You can say, this is a rectangle and you want it to have rounded edges and you can then modify it, and now all the rectangles have rounded edges. It took you two minutes and everything’s rounded and you’re real happy now and you saved a trillion dollars, you don’t have to go around with a nail file and round all the edges. That’s the worst explanation of object-oriented programming.

Rich: I think there are two reasons.

Paul: Okay.

Rich: I think there are two reasons—by the way, I don’t think it failed. I think the world did get more efficient in many ways. I do think so. Like, I think tools are better today than they used to be.

Paul: We’re using the descendant of NeXTSTEP and all Mac apps, for the most part, are built in the…

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Toolkit that was developed at NeXT. That’s Xcode, by the way. Xcode.

Rich: So I wouldn’t call it a failure. I do think the promise, I think that is how things evolved. I think the idea that you’re going to empower the layman to make the software he wants on a Saturday afternoon disappeared for two reasons. One, the world is not a neat place.

Paul: Mmm hmm.

Rich: And the idea that neat boxes clicking together will solve your problem is unreal. I come from, I built two agencies, and nobody came to me with a fully recognizable problem. I always had to learn what specific pain they were in. It was—I discovered new pain points every time someone came into the room. And so the idea that software can look at your pain and then you click three boxes together and your pain goes away, it was unrealistic.

Now, we’re not going to do it on this episode: AI may change that, because AI is willing to take a crack at it. Whereas in the past, you still needed a human to close the gap, because problems are, vary so wildly and they’re so distinct, and that last mile is always weird and gnarly. Right? And so I think that’s reason one. Reason two is much more fascinating. But I’ll let you, I’ll let you react to reason one, and then I’ll share my second reason. [laughing]

Paul: Well, I think taking it in reverse order, like AI, it changes the field, but it’s really to be determined. I don’t think we are going to see a world… I think we thought that people would move boxes around with their mouse and they would say, make that box an image and make that box a text field, and now it’s an application. And it turns out that that kind of thinking really is about what humans need to do to communicate to each other inside of their businesses and environments. Okay?

And I think that the great puzzle of all this, when Steve Jobs, and Silicon Valley in general, and sort of that whole world, and this comes from you and me, I think being New York City technologists, which is, we are down in the hierarchy of New York City. New York City, the big things to be in New York City are like the mayor, the CEO of a large bank.

Rich: Yeah. Yeah.

Paul: Right? We’re IT for the city, as far as everybody can tell.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: But what that means is that our perspective is that instead of being players in an important world where this is the one big thing, and maybe 20 million people in the world understand what you are all about? My entire career has been as an enthusiast for something that most other people in the room just really don’t care about. Now they care, at different—for a moment, everybody cared about Bitcoin because they were worried they were missing out. For a moment, everybody cared about the web. But for the most part, the things that actually—

Rich: Get back to their lives.

Paul: The things that interest you and me do not interest someone who works in real estate.

Rich: No.

Paul: At all. Like, in any way. And I think the idea that you want to, they don’t want to be empowered with something on a screen. They want to meet 20 times more people more quickly.

Rich: They don’t want to make software.

Paul: They don’t even want to hear about software! [laughter] When you ask them what they’ll pay for software, they say, “I don’t know. It comes free from my giant company.”

Rich: Right.

Paul: Right? Like, they see software as a boring commodity that gets dropped into their world that they would prefer—they will touch it as long as it makes their lives easier. And it has absolutely no merit, aside from that.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: If it helps them sell the apartment building, then software did a good job. If it doesn’t—

Rich: It’s a means to an end.

Paul: And they also don’t care how it is improved or who builds it.

Rich: Right.

Paul: And I think what you have to realize in this industry at a certain point is some enormous percentage, 99-plus percent of the world, aside from the fact that technology gives off an enormous amount of money, would really prefer to talk about how you cook a piece of fish.

Rich: [laughing] I mean, it’s not crazy.

Paul: And now low code comes in, and there are so many people in the world who still need to solve problems that you can make a very, very large surface.

Rich: I’m a CIO that spends $30 million a year on IT and software for my company, a lot of bespoke software.

Paul: Yes.

Rich: Low code shows up. It’s like, huh. I don’t need 400 engineers anymore? I can do it with 30.

Paul: That’s the problem. You can do it with 300 in 2024, when in 1999 it used to be 450. As long—

Rich: That’s it? 30% off?

Paul: As long as you don’t have more ambitious goals about technology and your systems don’t have to integrate with all of the other systems that have cropped up in the last 25 years. I think the actual cost of getting a box on screen that a group of people can put words into or add content to, I think that’s approaching zero. But the cost of having that box go to the social media distribution channel and over to the auditor system and get saved in the audit trail—

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Like, all the governance stuff that organizations have to do, has only gotten worse and worse. Compliance, these are the words that everybody thinks about. And you actually end up having to hire probably just as many people. And it’s nice. It’s nice that you can use a low code tool, except you don’t really own or control it. So I think there’s a part of me that’s like, it didn’t fail or succeed. It just is yet another abstraction, and complexity keeps going up no matter what you do.

Rich: I want to tweak what you just said.

Paul: Okay.

Rich: And it speaks to the second reason I think low code didn’t, like, bring an end to all engineering jobs.

Paul: Yeah. Because it’s still a pretty good time to be an engineer.

Rich: It’s a very good time to be an engineer.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Definitely. Here’s the second reason I think low code didn’t bring an end to engineering as we know it, as a discipline. The minute humans find a shortcut, they look down at their gas tank and they see, huh. That saved me a lot of gas. I’m going to keep driving. [laughing]

Paul: Yeah, that’s right.

Rich: It’s not that complexity, we didn’t peck away at it. We did. But when we clear the plate and we get the complexity out of the way, we go for another thing. We can’t help it. And if you think about the two actors involved in this, one are the engineers, and the consultants, and the software companies, who are like, all right, we solved that for you. But you want more, right? You’re still hungry. That, that was. That was a little too easy. And then the buyer is like, okay, that’s cool. We can insure cars online, but can we insure cars on phones? Right? So there is always a new frontier, and that is the human condition.

Paul: Do you have any friends who are really, really fitness-minded?

Rich: Yes.

Paul: Okay. At what point do they turn to you? And they go—

Rich: I’m done.

Paul: I’m done. I hit my target body fat, and I’m able to lift 260 pounds.

Rich: Can I tell you? I follow some, I do workouts off of YouTube, and there are people, there are people who have, like, a couple million subscribers on YouTube. It’s mostly women interest—well, there are men, but they’re just, the women are better.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: They’re better, better content. And they have hundreds of videos. And what you see is if you go back to the beginning of their catalog, they look like normal people doing exercise videos. And then you fast forward, like, literally five years of hundreds of videos—

Paul: You can see every muscle from across a football field.

Rich: It looks like a robot.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: It’s not…like, God bless, if that’s your thing.

Paul: No, no. The face gets angular. I know, exactly what you’re talking about.

Rich: It’s intense, right? And it’s because humans just keep going. So when you introduce an efficiency, that’s why all the freaking out about AI, the fact that the title “prompt engineer” even showed up three months after ChatGPT came out is hilarious to me, because what that means is, like, okay, you thought that was cool? Wait till a human gets hold of it and creates a whole new layer of thing.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Right? It’s just what we do!

Paul: Look, I mean—

Rich: We can’t help it.

Paul: We did a podcast about two years ago and we discussed a Bloomberg article about the Chief Metaverse Officer role…

Rich: [laughing] Oh, Metaverse…

Paul: That was showing up inside of lots of organizations.

Rich: Sure, sure. We love expertise. As soon as the problem is behind us, we look for the next, like, altitude level. Like we’ll keep climbing up that mountain—it doesn’t end. Honestly, I don’t think it should end. I think low code was, like, this efficiency boost. It’s a legit thing.

Paul: But I’m going to make another point, which is I think there are, what it does is it encapsulates a set of use cases around like simple tables, simple relations, and so on and so forth. And I think a human being—

Rich: Business logic.

Paul: You can learn that stuff in a couple of weeks and actually really level up your career and do all kinds of things with a computer you couldn’t do before.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: And then it really gets hard. Then you actually have to sit down and read a manual. And at that point, even if you’re just moving rectangles around, it’s indistinguishable from programming.

Rich: It is. People adore their own expertise. They nurture it. They love to show it off. I don’t blame them. They learned a skill.

Paul: Mmm hmm.

Rich: And so it’s meaningful. It feels really good when you walk up to someone and they look confused, they’re like, “I can take care of this for you in ten minutes.” It feels good to flex, to show off. And frankly, that doesn’t have to be code. That could be literally someone that’s really good at pointing and clicking. We’ve had people take Airtable and just be real pumped to show us how they made the CRM of our dreams.

Paul: At a certain point, you just can’t escape skill. And I know that sounds like I’m sort of, like, sweetening it, and actually I’m not. It means you have to go read the manual.

Rich: Yeah!

Paul: And once you start reading the manual and then it’s like there’s always a sort of moment with all these tools where you can drop out and start writing actual code to make it do certain things.

Rich: [laughing] Yeah, there’s always the, yeah, there’s always the, like, I used Squarespace recently.

Paul: Plugins.

Rich: No, it’s not even a plugin. It was like “inject code.”

Paul: Oh yeah.

Rich: It’s like, “pick the element you want to inject the code into and inject away.” Now, mind you, they put their own protections in, so I can’t like, cause the whole thing to go haywire.

Paul: Yeah, or like…

Rich: But it’s like, you know what, we did the best we could. You’re dragging and dropping stuff. But I get it. You want to put your own code in. Go. And I did, like, for certain things.

Paul: So I think the category is meaningful. But the fantasy that you are going to get rid of the labor, you’ve got two things against you. One is you have no insurance against edge cases, and there are always edge cases, if you don’t have skilled people nearby. That is part one. Part two is you’re going to want to do more. That’s the whole nature of things. You’re going to, if you get a stable platform, you’re going to say, I want to go do something with my stable platform.

Rich: That’s the thing. Just because, if you gave the human a shortcut, they don’t go through the shortcut, get to the other side, and take a nap. Humans don’t do that. They go for the next thing.

Paul: This will sound like we have something pre-canned. I don’t. What should it be called instead of low code? Because it’s actually, it’s, it’s like increased productivity, but it, or it’s like…

Rich: No, that’s a good point.

Paul: Brand it.

Rich: Yeah. Let me think for a second. It should be called… App Boost.

Paul: Okay. [laughter] I don’t have anything better. Don’t love it.

Rich: Tool Boost.

Paul: Tool Boots. Yeah, exactly right.

Rich: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: All right, so, Richard—

Rich: Nitro!

Paul: Okay. Nitro—

Rich: Nitro Boost.

Paul: Nitro…yeah.

Rich: I’m thinking of, like, old-school Spy Hunter video game.

Paul: Oh yeah. Do you ever remember when they used to talk about nitro burnin’ funny cars?

Rich: Nitro burn!

Paul: [announcer voice] Nitro burn in funny cars!

Rich: Yonkers, New York…ad, of like…

Paul: Aw, it was good stuff. There was a point in America where the greatest thing you could do was drive a car with really big wheels over another car.

Rich: That’s still, I think we might still be at that point, Paul. You just happen to be in New York City, but there’s parts of the country—

Paul: Yeah—

Rich: —that are still crushing entire school buses on a Friday night.

Paul: I’ve been looking at the polls recently and I think that the trucks are doing just fine. [laughter] All right, well, Richard, we try to keep this podcast fast, because we build a software-acceleration platform.

Rich: Hells yeah!

Paul: And so let’s not belabor the point. We are kind of a low-code tool. [laughing] You know, we’re a nitro tool.


Paul: Exactly. Aboard will, it’ll give you jet fuel in your…

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: In your app-development process. We’re for that. We will, and actually, I think what’s funny about us is we don’t pretend that that 20% doesn’t exist. We will help you get your data up and make it look good. And then if you have a lot of really big goals, get in touch. We’re talking to some actually kind of great early partner customers, and they’re, you know, you worry, are they going to see it? Are they going to want to use this thing instead of the other things? And they look us in the eye and they go, “I got spreadsheets everywhere, and you look real good.”

Rich: [laughing] Help me out!

Paul: Help me out. So there we are. Get in touch. We’d love to talk to you. Check out our newsletter, our socials, our website, our wonderful things. We’re going to throw some events soon. We’re trying to be good, friendly New York City—and elsewhere—hosts. So get in touch if you have any ideas.

[outro music]

Rich: Have a lovely week.

Paul: Bye.

Published on