Writing by Peter Hilton

We need to talk about ‘no code’

Why ‘no-code automation’ needs a better name - 21 July 2020 #NoCode

Empty cassette tape

unsplash-logoBrian Kostiuk

Everyone finds naming difficult, so when a name emerges from a community or industry, rather than a specific decision, problems with the name shouldn’t surprise us. I don’t particularly like no-code automation automation, for example, and hope that a better name will replace it. Fortunately, we can sometimes fix naming by renaming things, or we can at least dream.

When you named something yourself, you can sometimes rename it when you think of a better name. That doesn’t work for community names that don’t have an official owner, but you can always hope that a better name will catch on, if enough people hear it.

Agile → cloud

No-code shares a problem with agile - as an adjective, it describes something compared to the previous status quo: text-based programming and waterfall software development, respectively. While that helps with differentiation, it doesn’t make a good name for a thing.

Cloud computing came from an earlier low-key IT revolution, whose single change from self-hosting to cloud-hosting had long-term consequences. Maybe the naming helped: while cloud-hosting compares to the previous kind of hosting, eventually, everyone ended up talking about the cloud (definitely a thing).

#NoEstimates → forecasts

No-code has the same problem as #NoEstimates - naming based on the space it doesn’t occupy. However, as Willem-Jan Ageling points out [#NoEstimates: the name doesn’t make sense, but why is this an issue?] - noting that #NoEstimates discussion promotes forecasting instead of estimation. Something about forecasting would make a better name.

Similarly, while non-parents may think of themselves as child-free rather than childless, codeless automation offers a slight improvement, but remains negative.

No-code automation modernises programming by replacing text-based code with GUI discoverability. Perhaps a better name replaces no-code with something like:

  • GUI
  • graphical
  • visual
  • discoverable

Ciphertext → cleartext

Comparing source code to secret codes might also lead us to cryptography jargon. Cryptography makes the distinction between ciphertext, plaintext and cleartext.

Plain automation doesn’t sound great, though. Worse: it sounds like plain old automation, which would mean exactly the wrong thing (a retronym). Clear automation sounds nice but, ironically, fails to make the cryptography reference clear.

Financial planning → spreadsheet

They say that corporate IT installs both kinds of software: word-processors and spreadsheets. Somehow, both software categories’ names avoid the above problems. Instead of naming the problem they solve, or even how they do it, they name the basic low-level thing the software does.

Thinking about what no-code automation tools do, on a lower level, leads to names like:

  • flow builders (a good enough name for a commercial product)
  • task sequencer (which reminds me of the music sequencers I played with as a teenager)
  • protocol plans
  • block boards (also acceptably alliterative)

Realistically, though, I don’t actually expect a better name to catch on any time soon. And even though it only took writing a few #NoCode blog posts for the name to annoy me, I can probably cope with no-code automation.