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Friend or foe? The rise of the citizen developer

Written by Ian Gosling, founder and CEO, AUTTO

The rise of the citizen developer is well underway. In 2019, a report from Forrester Research concluded that the increased demand for process automation will require more people to produce applications[1]. Similarly, Gartner analysts predict the number of active citizen developers at large enterprises will be at least four times the number of professional developers by 2023[2].

With the pace of change showing no sign of abating, it’s little wonder there’s friction in the IT community when it comes to citizen developers and their use of no code platforms.

For the last 20 years, IT departments have had to adapt to accommodate an increasingly dispersed IT infrastructure and the multiple devices and networks necessary to support a modern workforce. Avoiding downtime and ensuring the highest levels of security have become key performance indicators for IT teams. And this requires robust governance. Yet, with the introduction of no code platforms, the goal posts are moving, the brief is changing and IT departments, quite rightly, are approaching the concept of citizen development with caution.

Instead of operating in a controlled, contained environment, a key concern of IT teams is the prospect of allowing people from other departments, with little understanding of IT governance, to sign up to cloud-based applications/services online with a credit card and start building in no code systems. The result of this is that shadow IT becomes widespread – IT projects increasingly become managed outside of, and potentially without the knowledge of, the IT department. And if projects fail or compromise security and compliance, it’s the IT department that will ultimately be expected to pick up the pieces, right?


Analysing the perceived risks

A common concern that prevents IT departments enthusiastically embracing no code platforms is the fear that the citizen developer doesn’t know what they’re doing. That they lack the IT training and expertise needed to create something that adds value and is scalable. If a no code project goes wrong, the concern is that it negatively impacts the IT department.  There’s also a ‘not invented here’ mindset that can be pervasive and mean, if system development can’t be controlled within the confines of the IT department, it simply isn’t worth the perceived hassle.

Another core concern is who’s going to support a system created by a citizen developer? For instance, what happens if an application is built by someone within the business, becomes vital to the functioning of a department but then the creator leaves? Suddenly the IT department is left with the task of working out a piece of ‘no code’ development and attempting to build within it and support users for a system that they’ve never bought into.

It’s these negative perceptions that trigger understandable pushback from IT departments and limit the potential value citizen development can deliver.


Creating a controlled environment

At face value, citizen development doesn’t seem an attractive proposition for IT departments. Shadow IT is a legitimate concern, but it is also an avoidable fate.

If a business is pushing for citizen development, IT departments can ensure its success by integrating its adoption into the wider IT ecosystem. This starts with being realistic about what can and can’t be supported, making some platform choices based upon requirements, analysing them, and implementing an initial experimentation phase to crowdsource feedback from all stakeholders.

Once complete, one or two platforms can be selected to ensure expertise can be developed to support and optimise citizen development. This creates a controlled environment, where more classical IT governance rules can be applied. For instance, creating frameworks around who in an organisation can develop on the selected platform, establishing basic training programmes and setting permissions for building processes and publishing. By taking this approach, IT departments will increase oversight and control over citizen development.

This matters because even if a business doesn’t currently have a no code platform in place, chances are there are people within the organisation who are doing similar things, with similar risks. Marketing personnel could be developing automation workflows within CRMs and there will almost certainly be people across departments building processes in Excel spreadsheets, incorporating macros and scripting functionality that run the same risks to IT and the wider business. Getting to a point where you can take processes out of multiple spreadsheets, buried in a shared drive or on somebody’s laptop, and into a controlled environment can only be a positive thing.

A final advantage of having a no code system in place that is understood and controlled by an IT department is that most no code systems are self-documenting. This makes the building of processes and workflows within these applications far easier to interpret than raw code.


Exploring the benefits of no code systems

There are several clear advantages of adopting no code systems. Firstly, it opens up a new talent pool of people who can develop what looks like software, without actually writing software. These people will need to have an analytical mindset and understanding of the processes that they are trying to automate, but with that in place they can build an application incredibly quickly and easily. Most importantly, they can adopt an agile, iterative approach: develop something, publish it, learn from the mistakes, and make it better. With no code systems, first versions don’t need to be perfect and issues, around scalability for example, are outsourced to vendors.

Coupled with technological advantages, no code systems can add considerable commercial value. Harnessing the analytical capability and subject matter knowledge and insight from a person within a business not only limits overheads associated with IT contractors but, because ‘citizens’ are developing the solutions that save them time, productivity improves drastically. By swapping time for tech in this way, time consuming, manual, and mundane tasks can be removed from day-to-day operations. As a result, the overall rapidity of a business improves and profitability increases.

Through encouraging citizen developers across departments to start small, build out gradually and apply learnings to subsequent versions – automated workflows developed in no code systems can be linked together (over time) to create a bespoke operating system to meet precise business needs. Enabling this vision of citizen development utopia to take flight, while mitigating the obvious risks associated with shadow IT, requires partnership and for IT departments to nurture the rise of the citizen develop within a robust IT governance framework.