About the Episode
Are you sick of having to move slowly when you have a brilliant idea? Philip Lakin has a genius solution to your problem: Start using no-code tools. The co-founder and CEO of NoCodeOps and Switchboard has used no-code tech to solve a variety of problems throughout his career, propelling him into bigger and better roles every time. On this episode, he explains how no-code can get you from inspiration to impact faster, as well as how easy it can be to get buy-in for these tools from colleagues and leadership.
Meet Our Guest
Philip Lakin’s career growth has been fueled by no-code. It all began at the start-up Gett, where he led the charge on digitizing paper processes. At Compass, he became the first Solutions Architect, a role solely focused on consulting with nontechnical teams to create solutions using no-code. These experiences led him to launch NoCodeOps, the first community dedicated to operations professionals leveraging no-code to reimagine internal innovation. But he didn’t stop there—he’s also co-founder and CEO of the no-code tool Switchboard, the first error monitoring and incident response platform for Zapier and Make.
Lindsay McGuire: One thing I love about the innovators of the world is there's curiosity hardwired in them. This episode, I'm talking to an incredible guest who turned his curiosity about no-code into not only a career but also a community. Phil Lakin is the co-founder and CEO of NoCodeOps, the first community dedicated to operations professionals that are leveraging no-code to reimagine the future of internal innovation.
Literally, what better way to kick off season six? I absolutely loved this conversation with Phil. It was energetic, passionate, and super tactical as he shared stories both good and bad of no code implementations he's spearheaded throughout his career. You'll walk away from this episode with amazing ideas for how you can guarantee buy-in for your next big innovative idea. Here's my conversation with Phil. Well, hello Phil. Thank you so much for taking some time to join us on Practically Genius today.
Phil Lakin: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Lindsay McGuire: So first off, this show is for innovators who are championing digitization within their organizations. So you are a champion of no-code tools. Can you tell our audience why?
Phil Lakin: For sure. So I was extremely non-technical when I got into the world of tech. I was actually an actor before I was in tech, so everything from Law & Order and Gossip Girl to Cannes and Tribeca Film Festival, I had started a guerrilla marketing and promotions company that got acquired by one of our clients and then went full-time into tech and they asked me to do this huge onboarding process and digitizing it. I did it all with what I then thought was called figuring stuff out. Now I know it's no-code, and when I found out that there were other people like me, I became a huge champion of it because within months, I was able to build a process that saved the organization millions of dollars, gained a ton of revenue.
And so I became a huge proponent of it that if I could be dangerous with these things in a matter of months, I imagine people much smarter than me who were still not technical could do it even better and faster if they just knew what was out there. So became a big champion of it and mainly for the very similar crowd. There's definitely makers and founders building MVPs and indie SaaS with this stuff, which I think is phenomenal. But there's also all these intrapreneurs out there that I really felt connected to and that's why I started NoCodeOps to find those other folks and that's who I'm rooting for.
Lindsay McGuire: And you talk about just putting things together. So you say you didn't know these were no-code tools. So in your head, what was connecting all these pieces together? What was it about the tools that you were sourcing that made it accessible for you, as you say, a very non-technical worker, right?
Phil Lakin: Yeah. So basically, the idea was I was working at Gett, the Israeli-based Uber competitor, and they were our client that had acquired us and they wanted us to figure out a way to go after all of the drivers where we could onboard them in the field, not necessarily in the office, and the whole process was based on pen and paper at that time.
Lindsay McGuire: Oh, don't even get me started. That's a trigger word for me, sir. Go on, go on.
Phil Lakin: Yeah, it's a safe space. And so they had asked me to build a process that was both digital and could work in the field, and I said, "Great, that sounds incredible. Happy to lead that project. What technical team do I work with?" And they responded, "No, you're in operations. You're your own technical team." "Got it." So that's when I started just looking for solutions that I could patch together, and I didn't even know there was a field for this stuff at that point.
Lindsay McGuire: I know you mentioned that at the time you weren't aware that it was no-code. That's what you were using and what's interesting is we ran our research report last year talking about the rise of the no-code economy and we found out that actually a lot of people are in the same boat even today where they'll say that they're not using no-code tools or they don't think they're using no-code tools, but then when asked what tools they do use, they're actually using no-code and just don't realize it. So when did you make that realization that these tools you were using that were built for a non-technical user like yourself were in this world of no-code? When was that realization?
Phil Lakin: So I'd started seeing the term here and there, but I just thought it was one of those industry buzzwords to charge clients more. So I didn't really make anything of it. I was like, "Oh, that's an interesting name," but I didn't really make anything of it. What had happened was I was on Product Hunt one day. I had just moved to Atlanta where I am now and knew nobody here. Just starting fresh here. It was a bit before the pandemic had started and I saw on Product Hunt there was a newsletter that came out called No-Code Coffee, which every day was a new tool, a new maker and no-code resources. I thought, "This is amazing," so I sign up for it. I'm loving it. I'm reading it every day, and then I find that the guy who's creating it lives in Atlanta.
So I reached out to him and I booked [inaudible 00:04:59] and he kindly emailed me back saying, "Hi, can I ask what this meeting is about?" And this is Michael Gill, who's huge in the no-code space, and I'm like, "Yeah, I just love your newsletter and I just am looking to make friends." I was just very honest and he was like, "Oh cool. Well, actually I'm going to this meetup I got invited to in Atlanta of other no-code people. You want to come with me?" And so I said, "Yeah. Oh my God. Absolutely," and that ended up being this legendary group of no-code makers, including KP and Dru, who's the founder of Trends.vc and Whit and Ash from Bad Unicorn and KP went on to be the director of No-Code at On Deck and now Chapter One and all these incredible folks right before their big thing were all just meeting every Friday in person to talk about the stuff that they're working on. And I would go every single Friday, and that's how I learned that it was a term and that people cared about it and the rest is history.
Lindsay McGuire: And why do you think people care about it? It's been really fascinating to watch the last probably two or three years to see this really turn from what you said, an initial buzzword possibly, into a trend, and now really, I would say it's a movement. So why do you think people do care so much about no-code?
Phil Lakin: Yeah, I think it's one of those things that once you start playing around with the tools and exploring something... Typically for an operator or someone at a company, the path to it is, "I want to do this thing," or, "I want to get this thing done," and so I go to a developer at the company. They throw the dreaded roadmap word at you. It's like, "You're never getting it," and then you look for off-the-shelf software. It doesn't do exactly what you need, so you want to piece it together yourself and then you find that you can actually do this, and so you start playing around with it and you realize in a matter of days, weeks, you can be super dangerous with this stuff.
And then all of a sudden, you're the go-to person at your company for this stuff and you're the expert and you went from just needing a solution to now being the go-to person at your company for this thing, and that is a very common pattern. To go from just being helpless in something to being super empowered that fast, without needing to know the fundamentals of computer science or code, without having to ask for permission for things, that's a very powerful journey for people, and typically what I see is the first thing people do after a few weeks of this stuff is they're like, "I need to teach this to other people. I need to spread the word about this," and I think that's what kind of snowballs the movement.
It's all these people who are the underdogs who they didn't either have the time or the resources or energy to really sit down and do a huge bootcamp, but they just needed to get something done, and then all of a sudden, they discover this superpower and then they discover there's other people out there that like to do this stuff too who aren't exactly solutions architects, but they're not product managers, but they're not project managers, but they're not program managers, but they're not developers. But they're somewhere that does all of these things. So I think that's what gets people really excited about it, and a lot of people are genuinely inspired to show other people and provide that aha moment for other people as well, and I think that's kind of what keeps it going.
Lindsay McGuire: It's really funny that you describe it that way because we do a series called Practically Genius, which is a video testimonial series, not just the podcast. And we interview customers to talk about their Formstack story and recently, I've been hearing exactly what you are saying of the customers will come and talk about, "I was able to learn it very quickly. I being able to spin up solutions and now all these other teams are approaching me to do these things for them," because, like you said, it really does empower you to take it into your own hands and you don't have to rely on your dev team, your IT team, your engineering team. So it really is what you called it, a superpower, right?
Phil Lakin: Randomly, actually Formstack was one of the earliest tools I used in this space when I was at Gett helping out the customer service team with a project. We used Formstack with conditional logic and a backend that connected to a Google Sheet. Formstack just coincidentally was a very early tool in my journey, way before any other form tool in the space, so big thanks for that.
Lindsay McGuire: Magic, right? And there was something you mentioned that I want you to talk a little bit too about. You mentioned Michael and he was in the no-code space, but also a CTO at the same time, which I think is a really fascinating point to talk about. Can you dig a little bit into why some of these more probably technical people are now even getting into the no-code space and the no-code field?
Phil Lakin: Why I think that a lot of technical people are gravitating towards this stuff is for multitude of reasons. One, they're realizing there's certain things they don't have to do that they can just move faster with no-code. Two, the platforms are more reliable and robust. So whereas stuff maybe seemed way too high level in abstraction or way too basic, they're now pretty complex. I remember even when I was at Compass, I showed some of our engineers stuff I was doing in Zapier and they were like, "Oh my God. What?"
I think there's that level of credibility that's also happening. It's all levels of abstraction at the end of the day. Just going one step higher and making it more accessible for folks. I think there's a lot of engineers in the world that are not only seeing, "Okay, how certain parts of my stack can I move faster with?" But they're also seeing, "If I bring in no-code early enough into this and know where it's going to fit in, and IT folks think this way too, maybe instead of making every little change myself, I can empower the operators on the team to do what they just need to do without me having to be involved every single time.""I'm technically more responsible, so I'll be a sponsor of this thing and put in the guardrails and understand the things that maybe they don't totally get about it and say, 'Hey, maybe we really shouldn't put PII there for this reason,' or 'Hey, let's use this authentication instead of that.'" But they're seeing that it's clearing their backlogs and getting less demand on them because honestly, the last thing most devs at a startup or a tech company want to hear is, "You get to build the internal tools. Isn't that so exciting?" "No. Not at all."
Lindsay McGuire: And again, the time and the demand on those teams... We've used the stats in some of our content about how it's 1% of the worldwide population actually does know how to code and can do those skills, and so think about that then brought into your little team and the time constraints there are crazy. I think one thing that I'm hearing from what you just said is that no-code almost enables to build some trust between those non-technical and or frontline teams and the engineering technical teams.
Phil Lakin:When done well. It can also backfire pretty hard.
Lindsay McGuire: There's always an asterisk. There's always an asterisk. It's like, "Oh, yes." And that's why we have episodes with Drew Weiss about talking about implementation and how to go through digital transformation. But it sounds like though, at the end of the day, it's that give and take and that pull and push and it's enabling those people who are, for lack of better words, those boots on the ground, people who are handling the customers, they're talking to the employees, things like that. They're given more power to, this is a cheesy way to say it, but control their destiny, right?
Phil Lakin: Yeah. Well, it's the CX folks that are on the ground that know better than anybody else what needs to happen. Ask any frontline CX person the five things their company should be doing that they're not currently doing, and those are probably going to be the most accurate things from a certain perspective. They really know. They're talking to customers every day. Same with the sales people. I think a lot of the times, we ignore the fact that internal users are users also and with the level of sophistication we interact with on a daily basis with B to C consumer applications that are beautiful and so easy to use and so intuitive and we get to work and we're dealing with stuff that looks like DOS still, that's really frustrating.
Lindsay McGuire: If we have any younger listeners, that might go over their head, but I got it.
Phil Lakin: So it's important we treat people internally like real users, and I think that no-code is a huge opportunity for those who are new in tech, who are non-technical, they're on the phones in CX, they're a sales person, they're working in HR as a people or recruitment coordinator. They're on the data team as an analyst. They're on some mid to entry level position in a certain non-technical department. I always like to say to those folks, "Talk to your manager and see what some challenges are that aren't being solved by your technical team. Talk to your fellow staff and find out what those are and get buy-in. And if you could get 20% time to just come up with some solutions that you can use dummy data for, you'd be very surprised how fast promotions come after that."
Lindsay McGuire: Once these frontline employees or these people in the non-technical departments make the discovery of no- code, then how can they go about getting buy-in from their organization, whether that is from their leader, their senior leader, their C-suite? Can go probably a lot of places, but what's some of your advice for getting that buy-in?
Phil Lakin: Awesome question, and it's one of the things that's skipped over a lot in talking about this stuff. Because when you're a small company and you're a little startup or you're a freelancer or whatever, and you're the decision maker, the procurement team, all the things, you can just make these decisions.
Phil Lakin: "Let's just go."
Lindsay McGuire: Yep.
Phil Lakin: But when you're at a bigger company, there's a process to go through and I like to do a combination of getting buy-in and also forgiveness versus permission a little bit, because it's what I find works.
Lindsay McGuire: You rebel.
Phil Lakin: I know, I know, but it tends to work. So here's the way that I recommend people go about this. This is the way that I've gone about it. One is you start to have those conversations like I just mentioned earlier, "Where is the biggest pain points?" Because if you build something your manager or your department or your coworkers don't care about, good luck getting traction. So I think there's that. I think two is finding the intersection of those things plus the thing that you are passionate about and curious about and want to sell for. Because I think that intrapreneur spirit, that extra mile, really takes off when you're passionate about this stuff, and so I'd say looking at the intersection of those. The next thing is I do very early to talk to IT, to just understand very early, "What's completely off the table?" Does anything I'm looking at need to be socked too?"Does anything I need to look at need to have SSO or else it's a no-go?" So where are those major things, and typically a more mature IT department or procurement department will have a checklist of must-haves, nice-to-haves, et cetera. So just not asking them for input quite yet, but just asking, "What are the boundaries?" The next thing I then like to do is just get experimental and start playing with stuff. Look for solutions. Don't put together a whole presentation. Don't waste your time with presentations and bullshit RFPs. You know what I mean?
Lindsay McGuire: Ignore the slide deck. Let it go.
Phil Lakin: Just go out and play with stuff. Most things are product-led growth today, and if they're not, you can leverage your company's name to typically to get a free trial or just get in the tool. But just find things, play with them. Look on G2, look on Capterra, look on Product Hunt, look in forums like Capish. Come to the NoCodeOps community and ask about it. Just start looking for things that meet these needs and play with them, and then the next thing is just bringing in dummy data and just running experiments and setting up workflows. Because what I like to do, I don't like to do presentations when it comes to presenting to my manager. I like to just be, "Open your phone. This is what a text message from our new system would look like. Here's the background. Let me show you. You want to make a change? Let's do it together and show you how fast that could go." That's what gets people excited.
I remember we literally signed a six figure contract for SAAS at Compass because the VP in my presentation, and by presentation I mean showing him what we had built, got a text message and it was beautiful and just said, "Yep, here's the money. You got it. This is amazing." Now the other thing I'll say is you will be the foremost expert of your company when you're going over all of these solutions. You will know better than most what's going to work, what's not going to work. However, if there's a lot of people in your department, it doesn't necessarily mean you should make the decision alone, and even when you have buy-in, I think it's important to involve other stakeholders in specific ways from the community of users that are eventually going to use the product every day. I've found that users internally don't like just being like, "Here's the tool now you have to use it."
Lindsay McGuire: Oh, yeah.
Phil Lakin: They want to buy-in along the way. They want to be a part of it. They don't want to be every part of it, but they want to be a part of it to a certain degree, and so one thing we did at Compass on this front was when I knew the solution that I wanted to use and I got that buy-in front of the VP, I said, "Great." He goes, "Cool, so are you going to implement it now?" And I said, "Absolutely not." I said, "We're going to take one month where one team uses this and two other teams use things that they're already working on locally for a month, and then we're going to have a demo day where people show off their solutions to the 150 people in our department and then I'm going to let them vote."
And he's like, "Are you out of your mind? You know this is the best one." I go, "No, I know, but one of two things is going to happen. Either they're going to vote for it and prove that I was right or they're going to vote against it and prove that you know what? I was actually pretty wrong. Good thing we didn't spend a lot of money out of this thing." That was the highest NPS score we ever received, ever in the history of the company.
Lindsay McGuire: That is probably one of the most practically genius ideas anyone has shared on this show. That is mind blowing. You wouldn't be able to do that if you didn't have no-code tools because it would be too much of an investment to [inaudible 00:18:31]-
Phil Lakin: Way too long.
Lindsay McGuire: Way too long, way too much time, investment, brain power, people, but the fact that no-code exists, you can do things like this and have that more creative element to pitching new tech and showing that the solutions that you can make and it's just that [inaudible 00:18:46]-
Phil Lakin: Get hands on with it so much faster, and that's really important.
Lindsay McGuire: We talk a lot about tech implementation on the show, but no one has ever positioned it that way of, "Even if I know what I think is the right tool, I want those people who are in it every day to be able to make that decision and I don't want to be the one to force it on them," right?
Phil Lakin: Yep.
Lindsay McGuire: Yeah, that is, wow, a pro tip, A++.
Phil Lakin: I only learned that from doing it the wrong way a bunch of times first.
Lindsay McGuire: What do you think it is about these tools that really makes people jazzed about learning it? So what is it about the no-code tools that really stokes people's fire to learn?
Phil Lakin: The short amount of time between inspiration and impact. That journey with no-code is so short that it propels you wanting to do it more and more and more and more. The second you see that first app work and that row of data magically appears in your Google sheet, there's just this feeling of, "What else can I do?" That's so powerful. That's a massive thing for folks, and so I think it's that magical moment and that magical moment doesn't go away.
It becomes bigger over time because you're doing more and more complex things. It feels accessible. Back in my acting days, where I had a professor of scenic design in college and he said this thing that always stuck with me in every career path I've ever been in, which is he said, "The best sets, the best designs, are those that have a low bar for accessibility, but a high bar for discoverability." And I think the same is true for just so many things and that's why no-code's incredible to me is because the accessibility is so low. You can get started in 10 minutes, but the discoverability is so high.
Lindsay McGuire: I think that is what has lit this movement, if you want to call, it on fire is the fact that it is so accessible and it makes things almost limitless. And I think even on some of your NoCodeOps stuff, you use the term, "Make the impossible possible," and I think that is really the catalyst of why this is such an important thing to talk about is that you don't have to be stuck in these either legacy tools that have been around for decades and have not gotten any easier to use or upkeep or create new stuff with, but you also don't have to take the route of going into a highly technical tool that you really need to have an IT or a dev person alongside you on that journey.
Phil Lakin: Or be in a boot camp that takes you offline for six weeks. Not everyone has that ability or luxury either. Look, no hiding that sometimes no-code is a gateway to low code, which could be a gateway to code. That happens all the time for folks. But even when you don't go that route and you just stay in the world of no-code, you're still the most dangerous person in your org with this stuff sometimes. You become the MacGyver of your team. Compass literally created a role for me because it was that impactful. I became the first solutions architect at the entire company to work across all the operational teams that were non-technical to help consult on no-code solutions. That's how powerful it became.
Lindsay McGuire: So how can people listening now try to instill that same thing within their own organization? I think especially like we were talking about, there's so much out there for entrepreneurs and solo people and young startups in the no-code space, but it's really limited when you get talking about maybe those more enterprise organizations and those larger orgs. But how can they do that same idea and bring that focus into... It's not only finding these champions in a department level, but those champions across your org and bringing on, I hate to use the word, digital transformation. But let's be real life, that's really is what it is.
Phil Lakin: It is. Well, first of all, signing up for the NoCodeOps weekly newsletter that's free and signing up for our community, which we have a free version of it in Discord. Come hang out with your people. We can't wait to meet you and jam on this stuff. If you find an interest in this stuff and you're playing around with these tools, just know that sometimes the first project you do at your organization isn't necessarily the sexiest or the most interesting to you, and that's okay. Because once you get a little bit of credibility internally to your name, you then get to do that stuff. So be open-minded a little bit into the first thing you really get to flex your no-code muscles on, and especially if it's connected to a current OKR or KPI that is really important to your manager or your team.
I remember at Compass, I came up with this idea I was so excited about early on, but no one cared about it. And I was like, "But this could make money for us and we're leaving money on the table and this thing is so interesting," and they were just like, "Yeah, it's not connected to anything we really care about." It's got to make somebody else look good in an organization, and when you can find that magical thing, if it makes someone else look good, I care enough about it, there's actually a no-code solution out there to help support it, that's where the magic gets to happen, and you start building, I think, momentum. I also think there's this idea of extreme ownership and really just owning something top to bottom. Not waiting, being aggressive with going after it, but also not having sharp elbows. Sometimes people will get freaked out with no-code. It's like, "Wait, if you're automating all this stuff, what happens to my job?" And that's a real thing.
Lindsay McGuire: It's a real fear. It's a real fear for people.
Phil Lakin: Oh yeah. When we were saving on average two hours a week for our agent experience team for these hundreds of people across the U.S., one of the people's first questions were like, "Well what's going to happen to my job if it's this efficient?" And the reality is that you've got to tell people, "Look, you'll have more time for higher value activities. That's the idea of this stuff, and by the way, we can co-create some of this stuff together. It's actually unlike the dev team that has an interest in the product, not necessarily internally to operations, my interest is to help you." And so keeping up that level of communication, keeping up that level of user interaction and user interviews and not being scared to find out, "Wow, we messed that one up," and really staying on top of it remains very important throughout the whole journey.
Lindsay McGuire: Let's talk about what you've seen work at those enterprise level orgs. How have you seen no-code transform those larger organizations and what are even some maybe common either pain points or use-cases you see them tackling through no-code?
Phil Lakin: I'm starting to see this idea of the data mesh evolve more and more, which is treating data as a product and multiple departments owning their data in a decentralized capacity and sharing it with each other in a regulated fashion. But the other thing I'm seeing, which is really interesting, and there's even a course from the Project Management Institute, they created the PMP, very famous for certification of project management, have a whole course around citizen development. And what's happening is these larger organizations are even getting more formal with this, and it's not so much bottoms up, but it's actually coming tops down.
They're saying, "Hey, we need to empower people to innovate more, so let's actually create a citizen development program where there's stages to development where the IT and operations teams are working together under maybe a director of innovation or something to just fast build and prototype and add more support to projects as they go along." And that's why PMI now even has a citizen development course and you hear more of the term citizen development and I love it because it's pretty tool agnostic.
So I think we're seeing that happen more and more where bigger organizations are hiring head of rapid development, head of process improvement that are very much empowering, not themselves to build these things, but their literal job is to set the guardrails and empower other people in their orgs to use these tools to build these things.
Lindsay McGuire: Well Phil, this has been a phenomenal conversation and I think you have brought up so many strong pointers about why we can no longer ignore no-code, no matter what size of org you're in or what role you're in. So I have two final questions for you. The first is, "Why should innovative leaders care about no-code?"
Phil Lakin: Because if you don't care about it, your people on the ground are going to. The internet and Google are free for the most part, so they're going-
Lindsay McGuire: They're going to find out.
Phil Lakin: ... to find out about this stuff and it's going to be shadow IT. They're going to get there on their own and they're going to talk to people like me who are very crazy, so they're going to do this stuff. So work with them, not against them. When it comes to innovation, your job is to empower folks, not to just limit things, and we live in a world where these tools are so advanced that people can move really fast while also doing things in a correct way.
And you can set up centers of excellence, and I know that stuff takes more work in the beginning to do, but man, the output of it is just so much higher than you could ever get. And by the way, let's not even get to the fact that employer retention goes through the roof in a positive way when people actually give a shit about what they're doing and they're passionate about it because the 20% of the job doing the no-code stuff, a rising tide affects all boats, so let it happen.
Lindsay McGuire: I think that's the best way to wrap this whole conversation up. Thank you so much, Phil. This has been a pleasure having you on Practically Genius today.
Phil Lakin: Thanks so much for having me.
Lindsay McGuire: Thank you so much for joining us for this great conversation with Phil. I'm taking away tons of insights from this conversation and applying them to our Practically Genius Insider newsletter, which you should definitely sign up for. Each month, I'll dig into how process, people and technology combine to fuel the future of work. Just a little bit of a spoiler, it makes you much more productive. You can subscribe now by clicking the link in the show notes, and as always, please rate, review, share on LinkedIn and tell another innovator about the show. You never know, you might just get your next Practically Genius idea right here.