Appian CEO stays focused on the low-code road

Amid a hyped sector, Appian chief Matt Calkins seeks differentiation from rivals in the news

The recent sale of Mendix to Siemens and the $360m funding round given to OutSystems have helped put the low-code PaaS application development movement front and centre of IT today.

‘Low-code', like any attempt to boil down a complex technology into a couple of words, isn't a perfect descriptor but Appian CEO Matt Calkins is surely on the side of the angels when he says it's preferable to Gartner's ‘Enterprise High-Productivity Application Platform as a Service'. But he baulks at the notion that his competition are the respectively Dutch and Portuguese-rooted companies that have been in the news.

"What they do is very successful and we respect all competitors but I would group Appian with Pega and have Salesforce on the side of Mendix and OutSystems," he tells me when we meet amid the opulence of the Savoy hotel in London.


"In Appian you never drop into code," Calkins says. "As soon as you do, that this is no longer authoritative, that derivation is broken, it doesn't upgrade properly…"


Low code, long road

Calkins has had a very long run as Appian CEO by the standards of the technology sector. He has run the company he founded since 1999 and Appian had a successful float in 2017; today, the Virginia, US-headquartered firm is valued at over $2.2bn and employs around 1000 staff.

Soft-spoken and cerebral with a precise respect for language and the mot juste, Calkins has done things the hard way, taking a relatively paltry $10m in funding along the way.

"We're very focused, he says. "We got there on our own resources, just $10m and we had more than that in the bank. This is the only thing we do; we have one product and we just want to make it easy for companies around the world to make their own software. What was tough was being five years into development and you don't know there's a market for it. But I didn't want the valuations I could get; I wanted autonomy and the key to pioneering a new concept was to stick to it."

Here's the rub that's pointed to by low-code advocates: software development is, ironically enough, a late adopter of automation and Appian's mission has been to make development less work and less expensive. To do that, it has worked on the platform heavy-lifting to provide portability between cloud and on-premises, native compatibility with mobile devices, high levels of security and more, all in pursuit of preventing balkanisation of developer environments.

But Calkins also sees low-code as part of a broader wave in human-computer interaction.

"We're going to start talking to computers in the same way as we talk to human beings and it will be the computer's challenge to translate our instructions into actual software."

But he does not offer that old marketing con-trick of developer tools passim that these are platforms for non-coders.

"I still don't want non-developers writing the code even though there's no [actual writing] code involved," he says, describing the notion that ‘anyone can code now' as an "intuitive fallacy" that is frankly dangerous. Instead, he says, he can offer programmers the chance to work faster, be far more productive and produce fewer errors.

He says he is surprised that some of the big guns of IT haven't made moves into this sector but he believes that the low-code movement is now entrenched.

"It's going to change the way people build software," he says. "Today it's built at great expense and you dare not change it - it's like an edifice. We need to make it more like a tent that pops up or like a booth at [convention] that's malleable, can be instantiated and modified."


Also read:

OutSystems and Mendix take low-code to a new high