The No Code Revolution

Article by 
Roger Farley
The revolutionary advance in software that is happening with No Code tools and applications has opened up new possibilities for start-up founders.
Published 
February 11, 2021
I

’m going to date myself mercilessly with this timeline, but bear with me, because I believe that time and technology have closed a major loop and we are back to the future.  

Photo by naomi tamar on Unsplash

My first direct encounter with a computer was in 1975 when I visited my brother at Purdue University. He was using FORTRAN on punch cards as a freshman. This required sitting down at a large typewriter-like machine that would type the FORTRAN commands in ink across the top and punch the holes into cards that were about the size of a small business envelope.

Each card represented one line of code, and a program would be a stack of cards wrapped with a rubber band. These would be handed off to a person who would feed them into a card reader, which would send the punched alpha numeric instructions to a compiler, and then onwards. This process could have its moments, such as if you accidentally created an infinite loop, which really annoyed the heck out of everybody, as there was no easy way out.

Skipping forward four years, my high school trigonometry class took a diversionary week to learn how to program the roll of a dice on a Tandy Radio Shack micro computer. It was probably the TRS-80, and programs were saved via cassette tapes on a Memorex shoebox tape recorder. Why trigonometry class? No clue. No one there knew where, when, why or how programming should be taught, let alone to high schoolers. 

Still, command entry via a terminal, cassette tapes, no supervision—this seemed to me to be radically accessible computing—perhaps too much so. After a few weeks, these computers were moved out of general access the morning after someone learned to program a rolling print screen that could repeat whatever insult someone typed into the command line. Access permission was granted only to those who the trig teacher determined to be of sufficient moral character to be left alone with these vast powers. Alas, I didn’t qualify.  

Several years later, as an undergraduate, I got interested in programming for long enough to realize that in the early eighties, it did not represent the most direct way for me to approach the problems I was interested in solving. Girls, for example. To their credit, few of them were all that interested in solving for me.

Becoming a Power User of Computers

Somewhere along the way, however, I became a power user of computers. It started when I realized that I could edit rather than retype a term paper, and utilize the Unix system’s laser printer to produce first-rate formatting and appearance. Other students started asking me how to do the same, and so I wrote a paper about how to write a paper using the vi editor and other Unix system attributes for revising and formatting a paper. Very meta for the 80’s, if you ask me. 

It also went semi-viral. People would come up to me to ask a question, and I would hand them my paper. I didn’t even know a lot of these students. One day, one of the student user consultants asked me if he could give out my paper to people who asked him how to use these tools. I said sure, no problem, and didn’t think much about it. I do remember the day he asked me though, as I was in a computer lab location I only used for a couple of days, and that was to get away from everybody in order to write my first short story, called “Southside”. I wrote that story in two days and it went on to change my life in many significant ways. 

In fact, on that day, without my recognizing it, my life opened up two additional lanes on the multi-lane highway that has become my path. I honestly didn’t even recall it happening on the same day until just now. Whoa. That is because it was another month before the announcement that my story won a major contest, and suddenly all the doors to the writing department that had been closed to me were swung open. 

Likewise, my attempts to get into the top echelon of computer resources as a non-programmer had dead-ended. However, a full year later, the university came to me hat-in-hand with a simultaneous apology for freely distributing my paper, a request for a legal release, and a job offer to become the first non computer science major to join the university’s user consultant group. 

These are all stories for another time, and over the next year or two, I might eventually get around to them. 

In the meantime, the highway is opening up again, and after decades of being stuck in traffic, I’m not here to gape, but rather, ready to go-go-go.

Which is what has me so excited about the No Code revolution. What started as a few anecdotal data points is now appearing to be a significant trend that can help bridge the gap between domain experts and their lack of technical expertise in software development. This is a problem that compounds in brutal ways:

Let me first make it clear that I’m not going to diminish the tremendous importance of software development in any scalable enterprise. Not at all. In fact, I’d go the opposite way—the no code path allows for the rapid creation and prototyping of software deployments in ways that are configurable by the domain expert. This will later prove to be invaluable to the engineering team.

Everything I’ve ever done with programmers has first entailed a process that could best be described as writing the instructions in pseudo code. These are simply the representations of the algorithms. Often, they are accompanied by data schematics and other visual representations of the processing and decision trees. 

No code brings pseudo code to a whole different level.

No Code > Pseudo Code

At this point, I just want to spill lots of supporting details, so let me put this in a more rapid bullet point way:

  • I’ve listened to well over a couple thousand start-up pitches. If this was still 2018, I’d say that at least 90% of these would have required a technical co-founder who could develop software. Even in situations where they could test for initial customer traction without it, their future course seemed doubtful without a significant software investment in building out the tools.
  • Today, unless they are specifically software start-ups creating software tools, I would wonder why they didn’t first test their business model using readily accessible and scalable prototyping software. 
  • This applies equally true to technically strong teams. One of the misunderstandings investors have when they evaluate technology companies is that they don’t realize that those who are strongest with software and engineering are the very same founders who will try to find any possible way to avoid using an over-engineered solution.
  • This is the opposite of the man-with-a-hammer problem. To someone who really knows how to use a hammer, everything does not look like a nail.

One further clarification: no code software tools do in fact represent a ton of computer code. It is just that the user interface has made yet another additional step forward from the days of punch cards wrapped with rubber bands.

For example, my publication stack of website-newsletter-community has exactly four lines of custom code that I added to it. Whew, that was exhausting work. Other than that, the closest I came to coding was cutting-and-pasting credentials from one software tool into another to enable linkages and integration across my software stack. I don’t really count either as coding.

By the way—a free vinyl copy of the song that closes this week’s newsletter to the first person who can tell me where and what those first lines of code did. 

That being said, there has been a bit of a learning curve for me to get command of these no code tools. Which is what I want to address today. In the No Code & Show Code channel of the Always Invert community, I’m going to go on a bit of a bender and literally dump something in every day that represents a tutorial or feature I recently consumed. Some of these are dry and painstakingly detailed. Others are extremely accessible. I sent this two-minute clip to my friend which gives you a sense of how computing is taught today: Embed Airtable forms in Webflow

Here’s a simple test: if you laughed at any time in the first minute of that brief tutorial, you are ready to jump on this train. It would be a lot more fun to learn this together.

Now, I don’t want to write a weekly newsletter that is consumed with programming tips, because that isn’t the point here. I will freely share any hard-earned insights, but the place for most of those details is in their specific community channels. I’m feeling the weight of responsibility to strike a balance here because another hundred readers signed up this week, and if you aren’t already wondering what you are getting yourself into, don’t worry—I’m doing a lot of that wondering for the both of us. 

Here’s what I do want to share: day-after-day, I see extraordinary companies and meet amazing people whose momentum and knowledge have grabbed my attention. Literally, each day is a revelation. I could write an essay every day about what I’m discovering. I wish I could say that I’m going out of my way to find these gems, but this is really what life has become—we are all drinking out of a fire hydrant. 

One recent development from last week, among my private early-stage investments, is a good illustration. They released a significant evolution in their data technology software: ALTR’s New Cloud Integration with Snowflake. As they describe: “this means you can plug ALTR into your Snowflake instance seamlessly by providing only two pieces of information: the URL for your instance, and the credentials that allow ALTR to access it.” This is analogous to the cutting-and-pasting of credentials that I did to build my site.

In this case, I know first hand that this seemingly no code solution has over six years, dozens of patents, and hundreds of thousands of hours of software development behind it. No code. Huh.

No Code Enables Rapid Scalable Prototyping

I’m seeing this again and again—in fact, some of you may have a problem that I used to face: I would think of a start-up idea and then as I mapped it out, I realized that there was inevitably a big stumbling block to any successful implementation. Given my background, many of these ideas represented investing and portfolio tools and dashboards. Every time, I’d realize that the interface was simple, the algos insightful, but the data security would be a nightmare. That whatever business I thought I might be starting, in the end, I’d be in another business—data and data security.

Like Paul Graham, I know a lot of people with genuinely good ideas—and when I’ve talked to them, I could sense the birds of prey circling around their path forward. Many times, I counseled caution. Today, I’m saying go-go-go.

The surface area of my no code awareness has leapt tremendously this year. I’m nearing the midpoint of the first On Deck No Code fellowship (ODNC), which has given me significant exposure to unparalleled expertise and a wide range of tools and implementations. These insights should enable us to completely prototype most of our technology wishlist and carry us well beyond our first thousand users. 

ODNC is also giving me allies and partners who bring valuable insights and feedback that I would have never otherwise encountered. I will be writing much more about my On Deck experience. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to look into it for yourself.

Getting back to the dynamics around no code, look at it this way: if spreadsheet software didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it first before you could get a ton of your work done. Meanwhile, so few people really utilize Excel to its limits. When Excel 5.0 with VBA was released in 1993, it enabled me to replicate modeling that had previously required a vast technology department. There are times when software changes its capabilities, and wide-open vistas appear before us. To some it will prove revolutionary, while to others, it will remain an underutilized tool.

I mention this example because I am, at best, a mediocre programmer. I have the proof—someday I will write about my brief but disastrous forays into programming, including sole responsibility (subsequently revoked) for a vital piece of telemetry for a space shuttle mission. For now, no one needs to read about that. However, I do have some strengths, and one of them is that I have always been good with spreadsheets.

Right now, the whole world of software is opening up again. I can’t emphasize it enough, so I will repeat myself—I’ve listened to thousands of start-up pitches, and I would now say that today a significant majority of them could be launched and gain significant traction with no code tools. 

Whether you want to immediately join the conversation or just follow along and contemplate these developments for a while, the dialogue is going to continue on relentlessly in the community channel, as I have dozens of items I want to include in the coming weeks about what is going on with No Code. 

In the meantime, welcome to the revolution

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