Your Dev Team is Spending Too Much Time on Internal Apps
February 22, 2022

Chris Smith

Internal tools — custom software built to support the business operations and used primarily by employees — are essential for managing complex internal processes that any company, from a small startup to a FAANG, relies on to operate day-to-day. Internal tools can make these processes more efficient within and between teams, and, when done right, save engineers time and resources. Retool's recent State of Internal Tools 2021 report found that developers dedicate more than 30 percent of their time to the process of internal app building.

The Big Drain on Developers' Time

While internal apps are highly valuable, build time must be taken into consideration. Internal tools can take up precious developer hours that should be spent on product development, which is the primary driver of a company's bottom line.

Survey data from the report suggests that, since the start of the pandemic, approximately 87% of developers are either spending the same amount of time or more building internal apps than they do on product development. In fact, 77 percent of surveyed companies with more than 500 employees reported having dedicated internal app teams.

What Methods Are Dev Teams Using?

To create internal apps, developers have adopted a few approaches. Developers surveyed for the report were asked which processes they typically use for building internal apps. In addition, they were asked about performance quality, user satisfaction, and loyalty (whether or not they plan to use the same method in the future) for each of those systems. We've shared their feedback here:

Custom-Built Solutions: Custom-built solutions ranked highest as the most common method for building internal apps. 81 percent of developers believe that custom-built solutions meet their needs. Nearly two in three respondents across virtually every industry stated that they use fully-customized systems, making this the most frequently utilized approach. That said, only six percent of developers that use custom-built solutions plan to continue using this method in the future.

Spreadsheet Applications: The second most common way to build internal apps is to use spreadsheet applications. However, this method garnered the lowest score for developer experience, with only 43 percent of users saying it meets their needs.

Low/No Code Platforms: Low and no code platforms ranked third in popularity with approximately 40 percent of developers identifying these systems as their preferred approach to internal app building. Within the subset of low-code users, 88 percent stated that they intend to continue using such platforms in the future, suggesting that it's highly effective.

Business Intelligence (BI) and Visualization Tools: Coming in fourth in popularity for building internal apps are BI and visualization tools. 71 percent of BI and visualization users surveyed plan to continue using this method in the future. Developers also identified and ranked their preferred tools including Tableau, PowerBI, Google Data Studio, and more.

Backend Admin Libraries: Backend admin libraries use backend frameworks as a foundation on which to build internal apps relatively easily. While they are the least common method for building internal apps, the overall sentiment around performance and user satisfaction was positive.

Unhappy Engineering Teams, Unclear Business Results

More than half of developers surveyed reported not having adequate time to complete internal app projects. Furthermore, they report that project management in internal app development is not efficient or clear. This is evident in the 33 percent of developers who stated that internal app building doesn't make a positive impact on company goals or bottom lines.

Additionally, 27 percent of developers don't have clarity on team structure in internal app projects, particularly regarding lines of ownership. These inefficiencies, communication issues, and excessive time spent building and maintaining internal apps have resulted in developers dedicating only around 70% of their time to revenue-producing work. That 70% is also inevitably impacted by stress that is carried over from developers being stretched too thin, making for unhappy developer teams.

How Can Developers Reclaim This Time?

There are pros and cons to all of the aforementioned approaches to internal app building. While most of these practices offer home-grown flexibility, they also can require significant time and resources to set up and be expensive to maintain. Developer teams should assess where home-grown vs. specialized, quick-to-implement tools make more sense to utilize. According to developers surveyed, a key issue is maintaining customizability while still making processes more efficient, and many find that low-code tools are an effective option.

As developers continue to improve upon existing processes, we'll certainly see new and even faster approaches to internal app development in the future, freeing up more developer time. This will lead to a better environment for dev teams, and internal apps with a lighter footprint on company resources.

Chris Smith is Developer Evangelist at Retool
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