The Citizen Developer

If You Can't Beat 'em, Support 'em!

Our new monthly columnist starts a conversation about at the evolution of a relatively new role in the enterprise enabled by platforms that radically change the nature of how applications are assembled, and which may hold the key to a more productive relationship between business users and IT.

Long ago, the list of requests for software that developers had to build was called “the stack.” Basically, it was a pile of requests that kept growing larger faster than the dev team could ever hope to get done in a timely fashion. The great goal of many departmental managers was to figure out how to “pop” the stack and get their request produced next. The “stack” was one of the developers' greatest frustrations.

More recently, impatient users decided, “If it has to be, it’s up to me,” and then subscribed to their own cloud services and found the resources to build whatever they needed to fulfill their business requirements. Because they did so with absolutely no involvement of the IT department, the IT folks usually found out about it when a problem arose and they suddenly had to come in and repair it. Though we call it "shadow IT" today, originally many referred to it as "rogue IT." Another big frustration for the real IT.

The third big frustration for IT we can call the “that’s not really what we wanted” phenomenon. It looks like this: Despite hours upon hours of discussion to build a functional specification that is then reviewed and approved, when the first round of code is demonstrated the users look at each other, puzzled, and tell you that what you’ve taken all that time to build doesn’t resemble what they really need. In many cases they’re not telling you their ideas changed along the way. Huge frustration!

Tackling All the Big Frustrations with a Single Solution
When you examine all three of these frustrations, you can see that they have one thing in common: They’re all about the relationship between the users and the developers, and how that relationship can break down and fail.

Which brings me to the title of this new column, “The Citizen Developer." The "single solution" referred to in the subhead above is the citizen developer, a role that is rapidly gaining popularity among a growing number of companies. In fact, according to Gartner, 61% of organizations either have or plan to have active citizen development initiatives!

The Gartner Glossary defines citizen developer this way: “A citizen developer is an employee who creates application capabilities for consumption by themselves or others, using tools that are not actively forbidden by IT or business units. A citizen developer is a persona, not a title or targeted role. They report to a business unit or function other than IT.”

To put it another way, citizen development is a management practice that allows non-IT employees to build new, and modify existing, business applications using IT-sanctioned low-code/no-code (LCNC) platforms, freeing up the dev team to focus on more business-critical activities.

These two definitions help us understand that this is not a formal title or position we’re discussing, but rather a role or a persona. At first read it may seem impossible to encourage non-IT-trained people to suddenly become developers. If we were taking a coding approach, that would be undeniably true.

But we’re talking about LCNC platforms that radically change the nature of how applications are assembled. Instead of writing and running complex programming code, the LCNC user simply moves icons around the screen to create the workflows desired to achieve their processes. The general claim from the platform providers is, “if you know your business processes, you can realize them in software using the LCNC platform.” Using these platforms, you can get your application very far along before you’ll need someone with coding expertise to integrate it with other software or operating environments.

From Rogues to Rescue
Let’s map this solution back to our three frustrations:

Producing Software Faster
Look back at that stack of requests awaiting the attention of your developers. What if many or even all of them included a large proportion of the application already designed and developed? How much faster and more efficient would it be if all they needed to do was complete it, integrating it into the rest of your compute environment? Now, rather than being the source of further and further backlog, users became helping hands getting each project started and taking it as far as possible.

Let Your Rogues Rescue You from Overload
What would happen if you were to announce to your company that shadow IT no longer needed to be kept in the shadows. In fact, the IT and development departments welcomed their initiatives. Now users can bring their solutions to IT almost fully formed and have them carry the ball into the developmental end zone. Elimination of surprises would be the first and biggest benefit. With transparency comes greater teamwork. Instead of doing an end run around the developers, bring your solutions to them. Have them properly secured and integrated. "Shadow IT" becomes the first expression of citizen developers taking the initiative. When IT rewards that, it eliminates all the friction and gets things done and produces results faster!

The Software Development Tango
Here is perhaps the most intriguing advantage of encouraging citizen developers: Just as it "takes two to tango," it also takes two to create extraordinary software—two fields of expertise, that is. One is certainly the technologies of software development. Ultimately, you want someone with deep knowledge of logic, programmatic design, and fulfillment of required functional specifications to be in control of the quality of the final product. But you also need someone who knows the business. This suggests that citizen developers be involved in application development much earlier in the process. Their deep knowledge of the business processes they are working to automate will immediately improve the initial iterations of the software. It will also go a long way to eliminating surprises as the people who are specifying what the software does are far more intimately involved in the process from the start.

Citizen Developers Will Not Replace You
My goal in focusing on the role of the citizen developer in this column is to encourage application development professionals to embrace this new persona and to proactively seek out those people in your organization who have the right combination of deep business process knowledge and comfortability with technology.

Somewhere in the continuum between professional developer and citizen developer lies the "business technologist," who will also be discussed regularly here. This latter persona was probably created by sales managers and executives in the IT industry. They saw several types of people seeking sales jobs, some of whom were just hard-hitting salespeople who didn’t much care what they were selling, while others were "geeks" who just loved the technology so much they felt they could sell it on sheer enthusiasm. But the ideal combination they were seeking was a tech-savvy professional who combined an appreciation for what technologies could do and the ability to apply it with selling skills and a deep understanding of how business operations worked. They could discuss projects with any member of the customer team, whether from finance, IT, operations, or other executives.

This is where you’ll find your citizen developers. They know business processes well enough to assemble the required software using icon-driven platforms that remove the complexity of code from the application development activity completely. Just as embracing shadow IT would eliminate its downside, embracing the citizen developer brings all manner of advantages to the professional software developer. Turn your biggest challenges into your best partners by promoting the identification and recruitment of the citizen developers within your organization.

Finally, this column is meant to be a conversation. What have been your experiences with the nascent citizen developers all around you? What are your questions? What have you found works well? Please send your opinion, experiences, and observations on this topic to me at [email protected], so we can expand the conversation with our readers.

About the Author

Technologist, creator of compelling content, and senior "resultant" Howard M. Cohen has been in the information technology industry for more than four decades. He has held senior executive positions in many of the top channel partner organizations and he currently writes for and about IT and the IT channel.