Is There a Path to Low-Code Development for HR Tech?


Mark: Welcome to PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. I’m Mark Feffer.

Mark: My guest today is John Marcantonio senior director of evangelism and federated development at Lifion by ADP. Our subject is low code development. What is it, what it means for HR tech and what it could mean for HR professionals.

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Mark: Now, John Marcantonio, welcome. Let me start with the obvious question, which is what is low code? What is low code development?

John: Low code development is a means of software engineering where we’re trying to remove the typing or the line-by-line means of creating your applications or related business logic, really with a high level of abstraction. I think even here low code oftentimes used with visual development is often thrown in there. But the whole idea of how do you add another layer abstraction, make it a little easier to realize whatever that business logic or that application logic is meant to be.

John: It’s just a different way of thinking about it, but it’s still, in my mind, very much application development, just with a different set of tools.

Mark: Can you give me an example? How does low code work versus regular code?

John: Sure. I think of more of say regular traditional code, you think of an IDE which is typing line by line of logic, just kind of typing away. I go back to the old green and black kind of monitors, if you will, just pounding out lines of code in a compiler. Low code, and again going back to that kind of visual you may hear a drag and drop analogy used a lot, but it’s a means of representing the logic in a way that can be just plug and pull together. Think of application logic or UI elements that could just be moved along a screen to create strings of, let’s say application flows.

John: One good example, if you think of a business process, for example, instead of lines of code or writing down ideas, imagine being able to just say, “Here’s different elements that represent parts of a business logic or business process. How can I put them on a canvas or some element and string it together to represent what I want to do in that higher level abstract?”

Mark: Two years ago, you didn’t really hear very much about low code if you heard anything. Now a lot of people are talking about it. In terms of HR technology in particular, where is it? In other words, what impact is it having? How’s it factoring to, say, ADP’s roadmaps? What’s happening with it in HR tech?

John: That’s a great question. I think I’ll tackle that for a few rays. I think the idea of almost low code development is it’s actually been around for awhile. I think I could put my old academic head on it. They used to refer to it as like fourth generation development environments, if you will, that this idea of, again, this further abstraction, right? And I think it’s actually an evolution of the development process. We think way back when, not to date myself, you had the old, I missed the punch card generation, but old compilers in assembly language led to higher level languages and higher level languages. And with the whole goal of right, how do you increase abstraction to increase efficiency and develop a throughput. A lot of ways right now that model, that evolution, if you will, has continued for quite a while. I think low code is a bit of a punctuated jump.

John: I think a lot of that evolution and more traditional development environment was the help of tools and libraries. And how do we make it easier to build for Mac iOS or Windows, et cetera. I think where the challenge is low code, right, is how do you not only represent visually what’s happening, but even having the technology to make that drag and drop and kind of then abstraction tied together cleanly. It took a little time to figure out, have the horsepower from a technical perspective, as well as the means of what it’s trying to achieve.

John: I think the second point more on the HR side and it’s an interesting place, right? I think that one, there is an increased need for the HR side. And what I mean by need is I think the use cases of the complexity around HR have increased to the point where having tools like this are more important or even more necessary.

John: I think if even a lot of the other operational functions in a company there go over the years, what they’ve taken on and what they’re trying to achieve has gotten more complex. Organizations become more complex the way they imagine more complex. So having the proper information technology systems to support that, I think is, I wouldn’t say trailed a bit, but I think that it hasn’t quite kept up as it was other domains.

John: If we think of like finance functions or data and analytics groups, you pull teams and technology stacks purposely built around them. I think HR had done that, but in a very minimal sense. And I think going back to the local … sense of that or idea behind it, I think having a means to more efficiently create those applications, where I kind of blur the lines on what’s a technologist building a custom application, versus what’s more of an, call it HR IT role that’s maybe creating applications or business processes that are needed to given companies.

John: I think the need has become more there, the need to move quicker. I think the past year and a half during the COVID crisis has proven that, right? The idea of I could turn this around quickly, but I don’t want to go hire a bunch of people to go hand roll some custom app or go figure out how to build on top of a complicated stack. And too I think push the envelope of where these, I guess, more efficient or more easy to digest development tools have come into play.

John: So I think it’s a lot of different pieces that they become together. Part is ecosystem and part of it’s the need or complexity of the HR processes and kind of the IT function within it. Part is the maturity or people’s familiarity with what low code can mean. Can we get more comfortable with it and how it’s deployed? So I think there’s no silver bullet kind of rationale. I think a lot of these influences have started converging and coming together to push the industry in that direction.

Mark: I think a lot of people hear low code and they think citizen developer, that in the HR context, the HR practitioner would sit down and put together an application to handle something. Is that the reality or is that even where it’s going or is this still just a more efficient way of coding for technology professionals?

John: I think it’s somewhere in the middle. I don’t feel that in the very near term, every HR professional is going to become a low code developer modifying every part of the system. I think there’s still, I think it’s more of a special use case, but I think the line is moving a bit. I envision kind of a world where you have more technically minded or almost HR IT professionals, if you will, filling this gap between more traditional development and what low code tools can help them enable. Again, to meet some of those new needs or customizations that are coming out of the business requirements and how quickly they need to move. And again, thinking correlates to other functions. I think if we think of marking roles, biz ops, data, data groups, you do have some little developers, but there’s kind of that almost specialized tech role that’s feeding those tools and those parts of the businesses.

John: I always envision HR following suit, where we almost have these more technical business analysts. IT focused individuals who can take those tools and kind of use them to support the business, but not necessarily everyone, again, in the immediate term jumping in and just, “Oh, I want to build the latest application.” That’d be great. I’d love to see everyone jump in there. But I think there’s a more pragmatic view that HR professionals still there to achieve a function for a company helps support the people operations of the group. And that’s where their focus is to the degree that the tools or the, call it an HR IT group, or some other technically minded staff can support that. I think that’s really the real value that they’ve achieved.

John: And take it one step further, I was thinking, it opens up the minds of HR professionals to say, what could they do? How can they better support their operations? Particularly as we get more, I want to say unique companies, but different ways of operating, increased complexity around multi-nationals about different ways of running people, management talent ops, like how as, as companies are exploring different ways to manage and keep their employees in a good place. And then you have this increased need for different ways of achieving that. And this tool or this kind of low code in HR related function just gives it more, teams more flexibility to achieve that without massive overhead. Massive IT investment or hand rolled processes, et cetera.

Mark: Does the increase in use of low code, present HR with any particular opportunities that they didn’t have before. And you know, what might those be?

John: Great question. I think it definitely opens up again, new ways of achieving what they want. I think I would love to see a world where rather than kind of being pigeonholed into, here’s what tools can enable you to do, if not, you’re stuck with spreadsheets and sticky notes. I think to kind of bridge that gap if there are certain processes, one employer, or maybe associate outreach, always they want to attract with their groups are going to handle tele-management processes or getting feedback, et cetera. I think it gives them more creativity to figure out what works best for them and allowing the tools to more efficiently achieve that, rather than the other way around.

John: They’re being told, okay, here’s the process you’re going to follow it. It flips the tables a little bit. I think it’s going to be a bit of a change for individuals to have that kind of freedom.

John: And a lot of it is going to be overwhelming, I’m sure. Instead of saying, or rather there’s a certain degree of comfort, I think being told, well, here’s how this tool works, here’s what you can do. Check box A B C and go about your business. I think here if you could do things, what would you do? And at least a lot of questions and maybe different ways of trying new things, or maybe experiment with how HR groups run their operations or their teams. This can present a lot of that, which again, leads to different ways of just thinking about the business. We’re thinking about interacting with their associate community.

Mark: Last question, you’ve mentioned use cases to produce cases several times. Can you give me an example of a use case where low code matters, where HR people might have it come into their minds?

John: Oh, great. You know what? I think I’m going back to the current climate. I think the whole remote work and even going back to work dynamic has been one that I don’t think many of us have encountered prior. Is it definitely, it’s hopefully a once in a lifetime experience, but from an HR professional, right. How do you handle that outreach? How do you ensure that people know what to do? Do they have the right information? If people are going to the office or not? Okay. Do they have to check in, how do you monitor it? How do you see what people want to do or where they want to go? I think it’s an example of ways where HR professionals have to think a little differently. Again, it’s something I haven’t encountered, they’d likely had to move quickly because the environment was changing so much. And I don’t think there are a lot of tools out there today that could easily handle that let’s say out of the box.

John: And then thinking about that in a low code, it’d be great to say, “Oh, we want to capture these data points. We want to get the message out or provide some easy way for associates to find this information, see who’s monitoring for example, great. Here’s the requirements. Let’s figure out how to spin it and build it and get it out done.”

John: Again. I think in more quote, unquote, traditional ways you could do that, right? I can have someone build a custom stack, a web app, whatever it is, but a little more time, maybe a little more back and forth with more complexity could come along with that. And may not even integrate as cleanly with the existing systems as you do today in a more HR minded kind of platform plus development environment.

Mark: Thank you.

John: Of course. No. Happy to.

Mark: I’ve been talking with John Marcantonio, senior director of evangelism and federated development at Lifion by ADP. And this has been PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM technology report. We’re a publication of recruiting data.

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Mark: I’m Mark Feffer.

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