Getting to know no-code: An interview with Makerpad’s Ben Tossell

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Getting to know no-code: An interview with Makerpad’s Ben Tossell

Here at Codecademy, our goal is to empower people to transform their lives and build something meaningful with technology. The no-code movement has a similar goal.

While we’ve been teaching learners to code, no-code platforms have emerged, making it easy for people to start building websites and applications with no code required. We believe that deciding between code and no-code shouldn’t be a question of one or the other. In fact, the two can be combined to help people achieve their goals more quickly and more efficiently.

We spoke with Ben Tossell, the Founder of Makerpad, a no-code community recently acquired by Zapier, to find out more about the world of no-code. Ben shares the inspiration behind Makerpad, how no-code and code are intertwined, and the best place to get started for those interested in learning more about no-code.

Q: How did you discover the world of no-code?

There was actually no such thing as “no-code” when I first started.

I was running the community at Product Hunt, and I just wanted to build stuff. To be honest, I was a victim of my surroundings. Everyone was building their own thing and shipping their own projects: side projects, big projects, businesses… I just wanted to be able to do that. I could see other companies — Bubble, Webflow, Zapier, etc. — all having launches, and I thought: I reckon I could use one or many of these tools, put them together and make it look like a real product.

So that’s what I started doing. I began by putting together landing pages — sort of like lightweight directory sites. I think one of the first ones I did was a directory site for Alexa skills (which are like apps for the Amazon Alexa). Then I moved onto more heavyweight projects like an AirBnB clone.

And that’s how I started building stuff without code. I would post about my builds, talking about how I did this thing and how it did that thing, and the Twitter community seemed to really engage with what I was doing.

Q: What inspired you to start Makerpad?

Building my own projects and sharing with people online was really what led me to start Makerpad. What surprised me though, was that I thought people would be interested in the ideas I was building with no-code, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. People were more interested in how I was managing to put tools together to create finished products.

It was a classic case of “those who can’t do, teach.” I figured I could continue building random projects and ideas, I just had to remember to record my screen! I started charging people membership for access to what I was teaching. And that was how Makerpad was born.

Q: From a “no-code” perspective, how do you think about coding?

I think code, low-code and no-code are all on the same spectrum of “software development.” No-code is the first step — the lowest rung on the ladder. Traditional coding, as we all think about it today, is the very top rung of the ladder. And low-code sits in the middle.

The interesting thing is these different skill sets and how people find their way into them. So, say my parents wanted to build a website — they would go to Google and literally search “how to build a website”. They wouldn’t stipulate “with code” or “without code.” But I do think they should know all their options so they can choose whether they want to go down the HTML/CSS route, or use a simple website builder, or settle somewhere in between. I’m really hopeful that that’s what the future of no-code looks like: that it’s part of a spectrum of choice for software development as a whole.

I have this analogy I like to use to explain the above a little better. Say there’s a young child who’s just learning to write and they can write simple sentences like, “Hi, my name is Ben.” Now, at the other end of the scale you have an adult who’s written a novel. Both of these people can write. The child writes sentences, and the adult writes sentences — it’s just that they’re both working at very different skill levels. This is how I see no-code and coding.

To me, no-code is just the easiest place to get started. When learning how it works, there’s often this point you reach where everything slots into place. You really understand how the building blocks work — that there’s a front end, a back end, and APIs to connect the dots. Learning this gives you a real feel for how software is built. Many people at this point graduate on to learning how to code: just a little JavaScript knowledge or some lines of HTML can add extra functionality to what you’ve built, and open up the possibilities even further.

Something we’re finding really popular at the moment are membership sites. A lot of people want to build one and have differing levels of access for users, and a forum for them to talk to one another. Similar to Makerpad in many ways.

Community building has been a huge thing too, largely due to the pandemic. We also see a lot of marketplaces — someone building a platform where person X could sell something and person Y could buy it.

Q: Is no-code just for non-technical people?

In short: no, it’s not. I actually think developers should be one of the groups of people that embrace no-code the most. Using no-code means a developer doesn’t have to write a bunch of boilerplate code that is just a repeat of what they’ve written previously. Ideally, no-code tools could get them to a certain level in what they’re trying to build faster and more easily.

For example, I think I’m right in saying that dev teams at tech companies have likely all been in the position where someone on say, the marketing team or in sales is pinging them and saying, “Oh, can you help me just build this one thing?” or “This small feature would really help me a lot. Have you got time to do this?” With no-code tools, the person making the request can test out the features or updates themselves without using developer resources and taking up their valuable time. They could test a new landing page, for example, without dev help.

I think there are huge opportunities for developers to embrace no-code and encourage teams to use it where it might benefit everyone in the organization.

Q: If someone is new to no-code, where would you recommend they get started?

I do think it can be quite overwhelming to get started. This is actually something we’re actively addressing in our education at Makerpad — we’re working on resources that should help us ease people into the whole entry experience of building without code.

Many people tend to think of or come across no-code when they have a big, exciting idea that they need to build quickly and cheaply. They think no-code will be like the answer to their prayers, and yes, it can help you build something fast and with little cost, but I don’t know if that’s the best place to start.

What I really recommend is to do a small few projects, learn about a variety of tools and what they do, test out some tech stacks, and generally get a feel for what everything is, what the limitations of some of these tools are and how you find working with them. No one tool is always going to be the right choice. It’s a case of exploring your options and playing around.

Using someone else’s project as inspiration for your own is also a great place to start. Of course, the tutorials we have at Makerpad are a great place to jump off from too.

Q: Makerpad was recently acquired by Zapier. What’s next for Makerpad with the acquisition in mind?

The acquisition is the perfect opportunity for us as a team to better strive for the goals we originally set out to achieve. That is, to teach as many people as possible about the possibilities of building without code.

Joining Zapier also means we haven’t had to compromise by doing something that didn’t quite feel right, like taking VC funding for instance.

It allows us to explore lots of different options, reach many more multiples of people, and just really help push this whole movement forward in general.

Needless to say, we’re really excited to see what’s next. We’ve got plenty of new content, formats and ideas in the pipeline and it’s all going to provide awesome opportunities for people to dive into no-code.