The Citizen Developer
In the Beginning
- By Howard M. Cohen
- January 18, 2023
There’s always a first.
Some say the first tool for citizen developers was Apple’s HyperCard in 1987. Others see it as the first practical application of hypertext transport protocol (http). Most agree that Gartner was the first to introduce the term at the Gartner Symposium/Expo in 2009. The analysts at Forrester added "low-code" to the lexicon in 2014.
One of the first—if not the first—low-code/no-code development tools was Intellidox, created sometime around 2002 by software engineer Phil Williamson and his partner Chelle Melbourne, and early industry disrupter. Melbourne was one of the first to refer to herself as a "digital disruptor."
"The challenge we always faced was that developers wanted to hang on to this mystique that they have this amazing knowledge no one else has," Williamson recalled. "Then you talk to businesspeople, and they understand the business process or the complexity behind the process, but to try and convert that into digital-speak was always a very different and difficult thing."
It was this difficulty that fueled the development of Intellidox.
"Why can't we have a platform [that allows] people to design and build a process graphically?" Williamson wondered at the time. "Have it all as drag-and-drop, looking at a form, a process, and data integration?"
Both Williamson and Melbourne are former Microsoft employees, so it's not surprising that they started to look for answers to this question in the Office suite and the macros tool that allows users of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to automate repeating tasks. Many people have built entire applications on the Office platform using the macro "language." It's simpler than traditional coding, but in the end it's still a complex coding exercise.
It Began, As Usual, with a Customer
The birth of Intellidox began with a request from an Australian government agency to build an extensive series of Word macros. Phil suggested that there was a better way to provide the automation the Aussies were seeking, but he was rebuffed. The agency was firm in its desire to have their macros constructed and distributed a “tender,” a request for proposals to build them.
Phil later returned to the agency and again pitched his idea for building a graphical interface that would allow the agency's business users to create the desired automation by moving icons around a screen to assemble processes. That customer solution became the foundation for the platform that would eventually be introduced as Intellidox. (And the Australians are still using that solution today.)
Solutions for the Skeptics
The very idea of building software by moving icons around a screen seemed implausible to the organizations Phil and his team first approached with their new platform. In fact, the execs at those organizations believed such a thing was impossible, that their processes were far too complex to be addressed so simply, and that they required too much information and too much handling of data.
"It was always really difficult to convince companies that businesspeople could build these processes," Williams said. "Internal politics were probably the biggest thing we had to overcome when we started out."
Phil recalled inviting one skeptic to challenge his company with a truly complex process to automate. The client's developers would build a solution, and Phil's team would build the same one using Intellidox. Then they would see who was first to produce a viable solution.
"After four hours, they hadn't even started and we'd finished the form and the process and the data integration," Williams recalled. "They ultimately threw out their whole development team and moved to our platform."
Another challenge: the businesspeople themselves, who often owned a particular process but didn’t necessarily understand what that process was or why it was performed. In many cases, a process was initiated in response to a problem that only occurred once, and then just stuck around.
"They’ve always done it that way," Williamson said, "because they’ve always done it that way."
Avoiding Failure to Launch
Intellidox is good example of an effective precursor to the multitude of low-code/no-code platforms that proliferate today It came to market at the beginning of the adoption process, which Williamson sees as a crucial moment. He suggests that consultants will find great opportunity in helping business users learn how to employ low-code/no-code platforms to automate their processes. They may also be called upon to assist with particularly difficult processes.
Bridging the Development Gap
In many cases, citizen development serves as the first step in the creation of new applications. Williamson insisted that there's always going to be a need for actual professional development.
"These platforms… people didn't realize they existed," he said. "Suddenly their eyes are opening up, and they’re saying, 'Wow, we could do this with plug and play in the graphical environment. We could do it in days, not weeks, or months.'"
Williamson sees the old mystique of the IT department changing.
"With even very large organizations outsourcing all their IT infrastructure to Azure or Amazon or whatever, there are very interesting times ahead," he said. "This whole 'we have to build it because we're the only ones who are capable of doing it right' mentality that has been the norm is going by the wayside. Let's face it, developers are invaluable professionals, but really, they're not unique. Some of the tasks they're performing, such as onboarding or offboarding a staff member, is the same no matter who you are. This idea of plug and play development, and the use components is just going to continue to grow."
In 2019, Williamson and Melbourne sold their software company to Smart Communications, whose LinkedIn page still states that its SmartIQ platform was formerly known as Intellidox. Williamson and Melbourne continue seeking innovative new software to support and grow as part of their Wilbourne Investments mission.
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.