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Why “no code operations” will be the next big job in tech

By David Peterson , written on September 1, 2020

From The Employment Desk

In my role at Airtable, I’ve had the pleasure of working with hundreds of startups. When we meet, we sometimes talk about how they could be using Airtable, but more often than not, we’ll just talk about the business in general. More specifically, because this is a favorite topic of mine, we’ll talk about the business processes. How does the work actually get done?

These conversations inevitably go the same way. The business processes are a house of horrors. We’ll discuss how they’ve just implemented a customer relationship management (CRM) system, for example, but the invoices need to be reconciled manually every month, or the customer data needs to be transformed before being uploaded to another platform, so they’ve patched together a super simple process whereby they download a comma-separated values (CSV) file, transform the data in Excel, reupload the new CSV, and then manually dedupe across a few hundred accounts, and so on.

“It doesn’t take that long!” they say. “Just 2 hours three times a week, plus 4 hours on Sunday.”

Let’s be honest. These types of messy, manual workarounds are rampant. I’ve certainly downloaded and uploaded my fair share of CSVs! And from the outside, the solution always seems so simple. Just build an integration! This will save you 10 hours a week! You have some engineers on staff. Set aside a few days, and get it done.

But it’s not that easy. Here’s why.

The battle to build internal tools

Let’s imagine you’re a software engineer at an early stage startup. You are likely inundated with requests from your non-technical teammates to build small tools and integrations. But these are hard, if not impossible, to prioritize against building new features for your customers.

Not only that, but because you aren’t close to the problem, you aren’t sure exactly what needs to be built to solve it. So once you squeeze it on the roadmap, you have to go back and forth with your teammates for 2–3 weeks to align on the right solution.

Finally, you’re ready to write some code. You build it in a week. Ship it. But now you’re on the hook to maintain it, well, forever. And you have the sneaking suspicion that what you built didn’t fully solve the problem anyway…

Now let’s imagine you’re one of the non-technical go-to-market generalists on the team. You’re thinking to yourself: “I just need this one simple thing built and it will easily save me 10 hours a week. Why is it so hard to get this on the roadmap??”

Of course, it finally does get on the roadmap (weeks or months later). You go back and forth with your colleague on what to build, and it ships! But in the end, the solution is imperfect. It’s too brittle. The company is evolving so quickly that the scope of the problem has changed. So, you end up falling back to the brute force solution you had developed to begin with…you download a CSV, transform the data in Excel, and…

You get the picture.

This is the impasse that almost every team I’ve talked to finds themselves in. The people who feel the pain of the existing process, and know what needs to be done to fix it, aren’t able to solve it. And the people who can solve it don’t have the time or understanding to solve it well.

That’s when I ask: what if that team of non-technical generalists could build the tools they need?


The real promise of “no code” software

This is the promise of “no code” software. Not Airbnb clones or iPhone apps (though I love them all). Internal tools.

In the right hands, solutions built with software like Airtable, Zapier, Parabola (and countless others) are almost indiscernible from solutions built with “real code.” Except for two main differences:

Speed. These solutions can be built in a tenth of the time and iterated on even faster. Sure, no code tools aren’t as extensible as code, but if you stick to what they’re good at, you can build incredibly fast.

Specificity. The more exciting difference, in my opinion, is the specificity of these solutions. When the person who feels the pain is also empowered to build the solution, the result is magical and utterly unique. Mass market software forces us to conform to a specific way of working. No longer. With no code tools, you can build a workflow that matches how you actually do your work.

For an early-stage startup, building solutions like this can be a superpower.

This is why I think “no code operations”** is the next great job in tech. If I were thinking about how to break into a startup right now, I would start building with these tools immediately. Even better, I’d start my own business on the side with only these tools. How far can you get with Airtable, Zapier, and a website? Go for it, and develop your go-to-market chops and business building prowess along the way.

[**Please help me think of a better title. I’d say “business operations” but that’s been co-opted by finance and strategy. Maybe “business process operations”?]

This is not to say that you shouldn’t learn to code. If you understand the value of these tools and write code…well then you can be truly dangerous. But knowing how to write code is no longer a barrier to solving these problems.

At my next company, whatever and whenever that may be, I’d wager that one of the first five hires will be somebody with this skillset. Somebody who knows how to build a company in the truest sense of the word. Sure, you can be a product manager, or a growth hacker, or a chief of staff, or whatever the next flavor-of-the-week tech job will be, but wouldn’t you rather have a hand in building a business itself from the ground up?

 

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