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How IT can stop worrying and learn to love the citizen developer movement

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Tony Bradley, Editor-in-Chief, TechSpective.net

Back in 2012, Gartner analysts declared, “We’re all developers now”—a reference to the nascent citizen developer movement. Fast forward three years, and citizen development is, in fact, a strong and growing trend. 

What is a “citizen developer”? Gartner says it is "a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others, using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT." In the past, these have included tools like Microsoft Excel and Access. But today, "end users can build departmental, enterprise and even public applications using shared services, fourth-generation language (4GL)-style development platforms, and cloud computing services."

While there are some concerns regarding compliance mandates and other institutional controls that citizen developers are not usually equipped to address, citizen developers represent a creative force that should be understood and leveraged by forward-looking organizations. This article explains the movement and suggests ways to make good use of that creative drive.

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Drive and motivation: The fuel for citizen developers

The QuickBase 2015 State of Citizen Development Report describes it like this:

“Citizen Developers are empowered problem-solvers from the various lines of business who have the drive and determination to engage in app development even though they lack traditional coding skills.”

In other words, a citizen developer is someone who is not a developer by trade. Anyone—from a manager in the finance department, to a salesperson, to a business analyst—who takes the initiative to develop his or her own applications using development software and platforms sanctioned by the IT department qualifies as a citizen developer.

Various teams within a traditional business organization often view IT as a hurdle or speed bump that hinders their forward progress. People just want to get their work done as simply as possible. IT generally mandates the tools that will be used and implements policies designed to make sure employees stick to using the chosen applications and platforms.

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Just getting it done

The people working in the trenches have ideas, though. They identify challenges that get in the way of productivity and find solutions to help them be more efficient. Employees who are frustrated, but still want to play by the IT rules, will request a function or capability from IT. They identify issues and submit a request to IT to build the features to address those issues. However, in most companies, IT is perpetually understaffed and overworked, and there is only so much it can do with the limited resources available. As a result, many of those requests are typically pushed to the back burner.

Resourceful users will wait only so long. The drive to go rogue and violate IT policies in order to get things done frequently results in shadow IT—employees setting up their own servers or virtual servers, using applications that are not approved, or storing data on a personal Dropbox account. To the users, and often to the business itself, the end justifies the means. However, shadow IT represents a serious security concern because IT can’t protect assets it’s not aware of or secure data stored in personal cloud accounts.

The clash between business needs and shadow IT has sparked the citizen developer movement. By sticking to approved tools and platforms, tech-savvy users can develop their own solutions faster while staying within the bounds of IT policies.

Harnessing citizen developer power

In 2009, Eric Knipp, a senior research analyst at Gartner at the time, explained:

"Future citizen-developed applications will leverage IT investments below the surface, allowing IT to focus on deeper architectural concerns, while end users focus on wiring together services into business processes and workflows. Furthermore, citizen development introduces the opportunity for end users to address projects that IT has never had time to get to—a vast expanse of departmental and situational projects that have lain beneath the surface."

That prediction seems to have come true, and the citizen developer movement continues to gain steam seven years later. Citizen developer solutions such as Intuit Quickbase provide maverick users with a powerful platform for creating apps, possibly without writing a single line of code.

“Citizen development tools have finally reached a point where the average business user can create their own applications without bothering IT,” explains Tyler Wassell, software development manager at mrc, in a blog post.

“This trend is set to explode in the coming years, as it gives both parties what they want. Business users get the solutions they need, and the IT department doesn’t need to worry about users going behind their backs and licensing third party solutions.”

The conclusion of the 2015 State of Citizen Development Report explains:

“As digital transformation continues to heap an ever-growing backlog of application requests on their doorsteps, using existing legacy applications and high priced IT professionals and coders is not sustainable. This is why organizations are starting to turn to internal resources, true Citizen Developers, who have been trained to solve business problems rather than learn programming languages.”

According to the report, citizen developers produce a diverse range of applications. The report states that 65 percent of citizen developer apps are designed to help users get work done, 42 percent help the business run more efficiently, and 27 percent are created with the customer in mind.

But what are the caveats alongside citizen development?

One problem organizations face with citizen developers is that they often have a limited field of knowledge and a myopic perspective on the problem they’re trying to solve. Businesses must manage and comply with various regulatory and industry frameworks. The average employee in the trenches can’t be expected to know and address all of the regulatory and compliance controls necessary when they're developing a solution to a productivity problem. 

Mark Driver, a research director at Gartner, explained in a recent article that citizen developer platform vendors tend to overhype the compliance management capabilities of their software and that citizen developers essentially ignore regulatory and compliance issues.

“Some platforms do look after that, but there are examples of apps built with citizen developer tools that completely ignore privacy and compliance issues."

One way to solve this issue, or at least minimize it, is for IT to partner with citizen developers. Empowering citizen developers is preferable to dealing with shadow IT, but it’s still better for IT to work with citizen developers rather than just providing a set of tools and sending them off on their own. The end result might cause more problems and create more work for IT than if IT would have just written the application in the first place.

Citizen developer solutions such as QuickBase combine the power of traditional coding with the simplicity of essentially plug-and-play app creation. If IT can build the foundation of an application to ensure that it meets business goals and compliance regulations, then the citizen developers can put the finishing touches on it to create the solutions they need.

Next-generation DevOps with citizen developers

There is some overlap between the citizen developer movement and DevOps. Aside from the obvious element of agility and more rapid deployment, citizen developers also embrace the basic DevOps culture of breaking down traditional corporate silos and collaborating across teams and departments to get things done. The 2015 State of Citizen Development Report survey found that 68 percent of respondents have built apps by working with someone outside of their functional area.

For better or worse, citizen developers are here to stay, so enterprise IT needs to learn how to harness and leverage the movement for maximum strategic benefit. Even way back in 2009, Gartner declared that by 2014 citizen developers would be responsible for at least 25 percent of new business applications. 

And traditional IT organizations need not dread this movement. Citizen developers understand the challenges the business faces in the real world. Harnessing that knowledge and empowering those individuals to create and deliver applications enables organizations to avoid traditional bottlenecks and get things done more efficiently and effectively.

Are you working with, or trying to work with citizen developers?  Tell us about your experiences!

Image credit: Delphine Ménard

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