The Citizen Developer
The Citizen Developer as Ideal Digital Transformer
- By Howard M. Cohen
- February 21, 2023
The emergence of the citizen developer was inevitable, and makes so much sense on so many levels.
One contributing factor is the continuing improvement of technology. Especially with the introduction and rapid growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), the ability to develop new applications has changed dramatically. We are seeing the eventual arrival of software that can write software.
Many will point to "the queue," with some older hands referring to it as "the stack." It’s simply the backlog of requests made to the IT or IS department for new applications. The underlying challenge is the severe shortage of competent, qualified developers available to hire. This is a major proportion of the estimated four million open job requisitions globally. That number has been steadily rising over the past several years and shows no sign of abating. About 800,000 of those jobs are open here in the United States. As these jobs remain unfilled, those queues just keep growing.
If ever there was an overused buzz phrase, "digital transformation" is it.
Experts have shared varying definitions of this virtually ubiquitous locution. Forrester analysts, for example, define digital transformation as "… the necessary but challenging journey of operating digital-first with the speed and nimbleness to change rapidly, exploit technology to create lean operations, and free people to do more complex tasks." The industry watchers at McKinsey and Company see it as "an effort to enable existing business models by integrating advanced technologies."
The idea is to allow digital technologies to be integrated into already existing business models, changing the way you operate and deliver your product or service.
Harvard Business Review says, "Digital transformation requires talent. Assembling the right team of people in four domains — technology, data, process people, and organizational change capacity — may be the single most important step that a company contemplating digital transformation can take. Each of these areas require a certain set of skills."
Venerable open-source software provider and IBM subsidiary Red Hat sees it this way: "Digital transformation is what's happening to organizations as they adopt new and innovative ways to do business based on technological advances. It’s the process of fundamentally changing something using digital tools and describes adopting technology and—potentially—cultural changes to improve or replace whatever existed before.
Digital transformation isn’t a product or solution to be purchased, but it affects everything IT touches in every industry. Put most simply, digital transformation happens when technologies are applied to business challenges in new and innovative ways that make people’s work and lives much easier, much better, and much more fulfilling.
Yes, digital transformation is all about people.
Role of the Citizen Developer in Digital Transformation
The process of developing any application begins with the development of a functional specification of exactly what the application will do. This describes every function, every objective, and every output of the resulting software.
Building this "functional spec" is itself a lengthy process. It begins with getting those who engage in the business processes to describe them to the developers. Developers know how to code, but don’t necessarily know what to code, or what would make the code more effective and more valuable.
The larger and more complex the business functions, the longer it takes to describe them to the developers. Once the developers have produced a draft of their functional spec, the process owners from the business side must review it exhaustively and comment on it until the final product is considered complete and comprehensive.
Start Your Engines
The geniuses who service race car engines know a great deal about how every component works. They understand internal combustion, gear ratios, and more. The race car drivers, however, often know none of this, though they do know the conditions of the track and the dynamics of guiding their vehicles around it as quickly as possible.
The driver knows what the racecar must do. The engineer knows how to make a racecar that can do it.
Former speaker of the house of representatives Paul Ryan delighted in referring to himself as a "process geek," and he’s not alone. While they may not realize it, many of the people working in various enterprises today are focused process geeks who know everything about how their business processes work. They have a deep appreciation for everything that goes before any given process, why that process is important, what it must look like when it is completed, and every single thing that must be done to accomplish that.
In other words, they know what the process has to do. The developers in the IS department know how to make software do as much of that as it can.
Back to the Stack
One of the major factors contributing to the growing backlog of unfulfilled project requests in every development team is the time it takes for the business process owners to thoroughly explain the business processes to the people who will code the software. Depending on the complexity of the processes and the scope of the system, this can take weeks or months to complete.
But what if we eliminated that step?
Your immediate reaction is probably that you can’t eliminate that step. That may or may not be true, but you certainly can change the way its accomplished. What if the business process owners could start writing the software themselves, and then simply turn it over to coders for finishing, polishing, and quality assurance?
That’s the Point!
That step—compiling all we know about the current state of the system and combining it with our imaginations to create a functional specification of the changes we wish to make in the software—is not only is that the first step in upgrading software, but also the first step along the path to digital transformation.
Transformation is an extreme form of change. Worthwhile and effective transformation must be inspired by a deep feeling of need to make such extreme change. Who will feel that most strongly? The software developer, or the person who lives inside that system whose daily activities are impacted by those processes?
The software developer knows how to make the needed changes. The person who uses the system knows what needs to be changed and why it needs changing. This makes that person, armed with low-code/no-code tools and a modicum of training, the ideal person to launch each new digital transformation.
Citizen Developers Accelerate Digital Transformation
This is a great case for necessity being the mother of invention. Because we cannot find enough people with coding skills to build our applications, we enlist the people from the field to help the coders we do have get their projects started. Instead of starting by receiving the kickoff, our players take the field already past the fifty-yard line and well on their way toward the end zone. Instead of baking the cake from scratch, we start off with a baked cake that now requires frosting. Choose your analogy.
Final Thought: Low-code/no-code platforms are still in their infancy. They will continue to get better and better going forward. What will be the impact of those improvements on the relationship between citizen developers and coders? How much more quickly and thoroughly will people working in a business be able to improve upon how they do what they do? Imagine the impact on competitiveness. It has already begun.
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.