Rethinking the Consultant Developer because of the Web Modeler

Recently I was onsite with a potential customer and a few folks from Mendix to describe the value proposition of their platform combined with our service delivery model. Often, I will perform the demos, but in this instance, we collectively decided to give that responsibility over to Michael Schiraldi, Solutions Architect @Mendix. Like the client, I, too, learned things that I didn’t know! I’ve been at this for quite a while, and the learnings I had centered on Mendix’s Web Modeler and the roles of my team and how we train. If this interests you, please read on!

During the presentation, we came to the point where we wanted to show the rapid, iterative process and agility of the Mendix platform to the prospective client. Michael opened the Web Modeler and I began getting excited as well. I admittedly had spent no time with the tool since I “grew up” with the desktop Modeler that is intentionally robust and geared at engineers and developers like myself. I thought the Web Modeler was a great idea to put in the hands of customers to start to map out an app idea or tweak the user interface (UI) to their liking. What I learned is the Web Modeler can be so much more!

The Web Modeler takes a “Design Thinking” approach to app development. With intended guard rails such as customizing security or integrations removed (to be done by developers in the Desktop Modeler), the approach starts off by dropping you on a templated, responsive web designer that asks the user how they want the pages to look: Mobile, Tablet, and Desktop all at once. From the start, you focus on what information should be presented on a page and how. As you need to tie that “mockup” to actual data, it allows you to bind the objects to attributes in Entities (database tables) that you can build right there on the fly. Buttons and links can quickly be placed to help navigate to a new page, or kick off some custom business logic that aa Subject Matter Expert (SME) is best equipped to setup in a Visio-style process map.

The feedback from our Web Modeler trial was overwhelmingly positive, with comments like, “Where has this been?!” and “Awesome. Absolutely game-changing!”

After you’ve got some initial ideation realized in your app, you can pop over to the theme creator for some real UI fun. Upload an image, such as your company logo, and the designer presents you with all of the custom colors it detected from that logo, so you can quickly select them in drop downs to theme your app, from button and text color and beyond. You can change the scale of your fonts or choose from 40+ Google fonts (our designer recommends Roboto, btw 😊 ).

I watched a client idea for an app take shape in less than an hour. This isn’t new; I’ve been running a team of Designers, Architects, and Engineers that do this day in and day out for years. But the difference is that the whole process happened from the perspective of the intended audience in the design process of the web modeler instead of the templates and IDE of the desktop modeler that is geared more towards “the pro’s”.

As cool as that was and as powerful of a message as that is to back up Mendix’s claim that we collectively aim to empower the customer over time with tools and processes like this, I looked at this from a different paradigm. I wondered if this tool, that has a come a very long way since I first saw it at Mendix World 2016, could change how we interact with our customers as consultants, or help bridge the gap for the less technical consultants until we get them internally skilled to the levels we expect. The answer I came up with is “Yes Indeed!”

Customer Engagement with the Web Modeler

Allow me to focus first on the issue of customer engagement. Our typical M.O. during a sprint is to demo the application to the user, run through the other SCRUM ceremonies of backlog grooming and planning, and work on the stories (requirements) throughout the sprint in relative isolation before the next demo. Occasionally we might have a JAM session (I'm also a musician hence the music term) where we sit down with the customer, open up the desktop modeler, and “tweak” the UI or business logic in real time, but admittedly, it’s a bit difficult to pull off except for the most experienced Consultant and Developer because showing the work in the IDE to get there is often a step too deep to ask the customer to make, especially in real time.

The Web Modeler could be the answer to this I’ve been looking for. As a former Business Intelligence Architect, I am accustomed to using those powerful web tools that replaced desktop IDE’s like Crystal Reports and Excel, that allowed me to have a JAM session with a customer to focus on the result and iterate to it in real-time. The fact that Mendix made it relatively seamless to bounce back and forth between the two Modelers (Web and Desktop) is a testament that they achieved the target of enabling the “citizen developer” while ensuring Architecture and Governance still apply to production-level applications. I believe we can start to have more of these working JAM sessions together to ideate and get to the desired end-state even quicker. The Web Modeler gives us as consultants another tool in our arsenal to ensure the laser focus on customer success has the highest chance to be realized!

Training a Mendix Developer

The second business problem I deal with that many of you do as well is how to best onboard and skill up new resources in the AppDev process, Mendix tool, and others. Some consultants, especially if they have a DevOps or BI background, take to the Desktop Modeler like a fish to water. But what about those creative consultants who come from more of a Business Analyst background or the business directly? The Desktop Modeler is great, but it has been difficult at times to translate all that is happening in DevOps into an easy-to-consume format.

I experimented when I got back from this prospect meeting and demo I described by asking a couple of my relatively recent hires who have less of a DevOps background and more of creative, Business Analyst background, to design an app using this process and tool to see if there was any efficiency to be gained. As hypothesized, it was a smashing success! These consultants, who had struggled previously to connect the dots of the tool to develop apps but are excellent problem solvers and business thinkers, began cranking out applications at the equivalent rate of our engineers using the Desktop IDE! The feedback from our Web Modeler trial was overwhelmingly positive, with comments like, “Where has this been?!” and “Awesome. Absolutely game-changing!” Not every person is going to understand how to connect the dots right away in the Desktop Modeler. By starting the process in the Web Modeler and focusing on the Design and Experience first, then switching back to the Desktop modeler, they can see how the Web Modeler builds the structures in the Desktop Modeler version to connect those dots.

For example, one creative-type on my team who was trying to learn the Desktop modeler to develop apps and help, struggled to make an idea into a line of code let alone and app. They got overwhelmed easily with all the things a traditional DevOps consultant on my team deals with and fell into that “Analysis Paralysis”. After just one week of working with the Web Modeler, they now understand that ideation process and can deliver apps at a comparable rate as their Developer peers!

I’m a big believer in the “not all people learn the same way”. This Web Modeler is a missing link that not only is geared towards Mendix’s intended audience, the “Citizen Developer”, but also gives Partners and Developers a means to engage clients and consultants alike in new and unique ways. I hope this explanation helps a few of you try the Web Modeler out and think about how it could bridge gaps for your organizations!