Empowering the Citizen Developer

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Once upon a time, obtaining applications in large enterprises was a straightforward affair. Users in various lines of business (LoBs) would come up with their requirements and hand them to IT. The people in IT, in turn, would analyze those requirements to make build-vs.-buy decisions.

In many cases, they would find a commercial product that partly met the needs of the business. They would purchase the application and either hire consultants or assign internal resources to modify it to meet the requirements.

In other cases, no commercial product would do, so the same consultants and/or internal developers would hand-craft a bespoke solution and deliver it to the business.

Getting the Apps You Need: The Old Way

This process as shown above, while straightforward on its surface, was fraught with problems. Requirements are generally unclear or poorly communicated. Heavily customized apps were hard to maintain, upgrade, or modify further. And worst of all, this process proved far too slow to meet the changing needs of the business.

Agile Didn’t Make Us Agile

All these problems are old news, of course. As I wrote in my book The Agile Architecture Revolution, such problems led to the rise of the Agile movement, with its iterative, customer-focused approach to building software. And while many enterprises saw success with Agile, for most organizations, the agility they craved was nevertheless still elusive.

The problem: Agile methodologies don’t fundamentally change the diagram above. True, users and developers communicate better (in theory), and the cycle times grow somewhat shorter, but even so, LoBs were left wanting.

The result: shadow IT. Going through IT and its laborious processes for building or buying software turned out to be too slow and too restrictive – so LoB decision makers simply cut IT out of the equation, and went directly to the vendors. And with the rise of SaaS-based solutions, cutting out the IT middleman became dead simple.

Shadow IT, however, was also burdened with problems of its own. Inconsistent security and governance. Redundant purchases. An explosion of apps with no overall plan for coordinating them. The bottom line: shadow IT means exploding, unnecessary costs.

The Rise of the Citizen Developer

Today, as enterprises struggle with their digital transformation efforts, multiple disruptive forces are changing the way enterprises buy, build, and use software.

Preference for mobile touchpoints are changing the nature of the application itself – now more likely to be a downloadable app from an app store than a complex, server-based enterprise application.

Millennials are entering the workforce, bringing with them an expectation for consumer-like ease of use for the technology they interact with at work – while older generations are coming around to this line of thinking as well.

And perhaps most importantly, IT is shifting to a self-service model for service delivery, focusing on empowering business users to find and use the technology they need for themselves, whether it be people bringing their own devices to work or leveraging enterprise app stores for the applications they need.

Perhaps the most important part of this self-service model for enterprise technology is the rise of the citizen developer. A citizen developer is a business user who may have little to no programming experience whatsoever – often with no more technical skills beyond a basic proficiency in Microsoft Excel.

These citizen developers are now building their own applications – working directly with their LoB colleagues to craft and customize the specific capabilities they require.

Raising the Bar on the Application Platform

Such citizen developers cannot work in a vacuum, of course. They rely upon a new type of application platform that supports the ability for business users to create, modify, and configure apps for themselves.

There are a number of such platforms on the market today – no-code platforms like QuickBase, mobile-first, low-code platforms like OutSystems, and next-generation workflow-centric platforms like Casewise.

Each of these platforms empowers citizen developers, while also recognizing that such individuals are not the whole story for modern application development. In many cases, IT (perhaps working with consultants) does much of the work setting up the application initially, as the diagram below illustrates.

In the diagram above, vendors provide the underlying application platform. Then in many cases, citizen developers from LoBs work collaboratively with IT and consultants to craft applications on the platform.

As business needs evolve, citizen developers are now able to make ongoing improvements to the applications themselves. Whenever the business needs major improvements to the application, however, citizen developers may call upon IT once again for assistance.

Over time, the vendors continue to augment and mature their platforms, often at the behest of their customers’ IT departments as well as the citizen developers. Such platform improvements typically take place less frequently than the ongoing improvements in the hands of the citizen developers, and today’s well-architected platforms abstract such improvements from the functionality of the applications running on them in order to avoid any problems with platform changes adversely impacting the functionality of the applications.

It is also important to note that while citizen developers are building applications for business users, they are business users themselves, as indicated by the dotted line in the figure above. Not every user becomes a citizen developer as a rule, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t rise to the challenge if the proper opportunity presented itself.

The Intellyx Take

Among the significant benefits of the citizen developer approach to application creation the second figure above illustrates is how it resolves the problem of shadow IT. Shadow IT results from an adversarial relationship between LoBs and IT, as the LoBs figure that IT is unable to meet their needs at the velocity they require.

This modern approach, in contrast, facilitates effective collaboration between IT and the LoBs, as the citizen developers work directly with IT as needed to ensure the apps they build are properly secure, compliant, and have the necessary access to other systems. For this collaboration to work, however, IT must rise to the challenge of empowering citizen development. And while this challenge requires a cultural change in IT, the good news is that today’s modern application platforms make such a change straightforward.

Copyright © Intellyx LLC. Intellyx advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, Casewise and OutSystems are Intellyx customers. None of the other organizations mentioned are Intellyx customers. QuickBase covered Jason Bloomberg’s expenses to its customer conference, a standard industry practice. Intellyx retains final editorial control of this article.

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