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Easy-to-use coding tools a new opportunity for BI vendors

In a Q&A, Yellowfin CTO Brad Scarff talks about why analytics software vendors have recently introduced low-code tools for developers as part of their offerings.

Coding tools designed to make application development less cumbersome have been around for a while, but only recently has a group of analytics vendors begun providing such tools of their own.

Major software vendors such as Salesforce and Microsoft have provided coding tools for some time -- Salesforce introduced Salesforce Lightning in 2014, and two years later Microsoft answered with PowerApps -- but those aren't specifically aimed at developers of business intelligence applications. They're aimed at the developer world en masse.

Now, BI vendors are targeting developers as well.

In late 2019, Looker, Yellowfin, Sisense and Alteryx all rolled out platform updates that include easy-to-use coding tools for developers, enabling them to customize applications without having to write copious amounts of code.

With Yellowfin part of the trend among BI vendors, Brad Scarff, CTO of Yellowfin, answered questions about easy-to-use coding tools in general and why both his company and others like it view application developers as a new audience.

In part one of a two-part Q&A, Scarff discusses the history of low-code tools for developers and what inspired Yellowfin to include easy-to-use coding tools in its most recent platform update. In part two, he talks in detail about Yellowfin's Dashboard Code Mode, as well as what such coding tools might mean for business users in the future.

Dashboard Code Mode was introduced as part of Yellowfin 9 in November. Can you describe what it allows developers to do?

Brad Scarff, Yellowfin CTOBrad Scarff

Brad Scarff: Code Mode blends the simplicity and speed of the drag-and-drop paradigm with the flexibility and power of a coding interface. In visual mode, builders can drag and drop components onto a flexible canvas to build rich, powerful analytic dashboards. Through a single click, appropriately skilled developers can flip into Code Mode, through which they can access and extend the code of objects added via drag and drop, or code completely new components using standard web-based languages -- html, JavaScript and CSS for styling. The idea is to enable the creation of unique customized experiences in the most efficient way, using drag and drop where that makes sense and code where required.

And what does that then allow them to build?

Scarff: This opens up a wide range of possibilities for customers -- from creating a highly customized navigation experience to embedding web forms directly alongside analytics components in a dashboard that are used to update core transactional systems via API [application programming interface] calls. We see bringing the analytic and transaction worlds closer together and enabling the initiation of action as close to the consumption of insight as possible as a key enabling benefit of Code Mode.

What other coding tools were included in the latest update?

Scarff: In addition to Code Mode, we introduced the ability for developers to create reusable components and to integrate these into their Yellowfin instance as a plugin, making those custom components available to nontechnical users in the platform via the drag-and-drop interface -- we call these code widgets. For example, a customer may require a highly specialized form of date filter to support specific financial year definitions not supported out of the box -- a developer can code this widget, import it into Yellowfin, and nontechnical users can then employ that filter on any dashboard that they wish.

Beyond what Yellowfin is doing with its coding tools, are developers an untapped market for analytics software vendors?

Scarff: There are two ways to answer this. In both cases the answer is yes.

To some extent, the popularity of low-code solutions is making greater power accessible to more users and less-skilled users.
Brad ScarffCTO, Yellowfin

First, developers in the sense of companies building software products -- absolutely. Customers are demanding analytic insight in their software solutions and software companies are increasingly using a great analytics experience as a differentiator. Many existing software products started out with an in-house build and are finding this not only difficult and costly to maintain, but also not able to keep pace with customer expectations or competitor capabilities. Others still have embedded legacy BI solutions and are looking to modernize.

Second, developers as individuals. Traditionally there has been a bifurcation of skills -- on one hand BI developers who often were good with data and databases and had proficiency in one or more BI tools, and on the other more hardcore developers with skills in web development techniques, languages and frameworks. The first category has always had an interest in BI platforms; however, now we are starting to see increasing demand and interest from the more traditional, hardcore development persona. These developers are still interested in our BI credentials but also come with additional demands.

Are these kinds of coding tools advanced enough that an ordinary business user -- one with no software developer training, no knowledge of coding -- can implement and use them or is some help from a trained developer still needed?

Scarff: Many business users these days have basic coding skills, and for them, they will find our Dashboard Canvas and Code Mode easy to use. Through the use of code widgets, business users can be further empowered by incorporating small components of custom-built functionality to create more complex and customized analytic solutions.

Are these easy-to-use coding tools a sign that eventually all aspects of the analytics process will become self-service?

Scarff: To some extent, the popularity of low-code solutions is making greater power accessible to more users and less-skilled users. That said, depending on what the end product needs to look like, we still believe that the best analytic solutions will be the result of diverse skill sets working together.

For example, if you are building an analytics solution to embed in your SaaS application, you will need great data skills to ensure an accurate and optimized reporting experience, traditional BI developers to build reporting content, customer experience designers to create an appealing, on-brand design, data scientists to unleash predictive potential in your data and deliver unique insights to customers, and finally developers to ensure the analytics experiences blends seamlessly at both a technical and user interface level into your application and to build those custom elements that are going to make your solution stand out.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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