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The long-expected rise of citizen developers

By Suresh Sambandam

NEVER before have organizations been more dependent on information technology (IT) than today. Nearly every aspect of an employee’s work-life touches some kind of digital tool, and there is no slowdown expected.

But as the need for technology increases, so do the demands on IT teams. IT has traditionally either built its own solutions or found vendors who can meet the requests of business leaders. But a new third option is gaining steam: citizen developers.

According to Gartner, citizen developers are “employees who create application capabilities for themselves or others, using tools not actively forbidden by IT or business units.” They are non-technically trained employees finding ways to adapt the system for their own needs.

For example, imagine an HR professional who processes emails from employees who want to change their home address. She asks IT if there’s a faster way to do this. They say yes, but don’t have time to build it. Instead, they introduce her to a platform where she can build a form, configure an approval workflow, and integrate with the Human Resource Management System to make the change.

By using a quick, visual no-code application builder, she’s able to solve her own challenge.

These situations exist all over the enterprise. There are thousands of longtail applications that make things more efficient in business units but never rise to the level of urgency or importance for the IT team. Some are extremely simple to build, while others may take more technological fluency or assistance from IT.

Are citizen developers the future of enterprise app development? Or are they eventually going to create more problems than they solve?

THE DESPERATE NEED FOR THE CITIZEN DEVELOPERAccording to IDC, enterprises will demand more than 500 million apps by 2023. That massive scale will never be reached by internal IT teams alone. Nor is it in the best interests of enterprises to try to squeeze out this kind of production from their developers. Due to their limited capacity and high labor costs, IT teams should be focused on the most important applications that only they can solve.

Even if enterprises had the talent and financial resources to create these apps, developers will need to sit with each business lead to try to understand the specific use case and why another solution will not be sufficient for their needs. Developers and business leaders often speak from different perspectives and it takes time for them to understand each other.

And every IT leader knows that building an application is just the beginning. Maintaining that same app requires even more resources and ties up otherwise very productive developers.

So what happens to the other hundreds of millions of apps? Do they just get put on the endless backburner? The only way enterprises can meet the incredible demand for new applications is to allow business managers to solve their own challenges, tapping into some of those 500 million users. No-code work platforms give them a visual way to create their own workflows, forms, integrations, and even full applications. When equipped with the right tools, they are best suited to create their own solutions.

IT LEADERS SHOULDN’T REJECT CITIZEN DEVELOPERSMany IT leaders scoff at the idea of turning such a large percentage of their domain over to amateurs. How will governance work? What about security? Will these citizen developers be able to maintain their own apps?

With the proper work platform, IT leaders can still stay in control and be responsible for the overall security and functioning of the tech landscape. The IT team can approve dozens of new apps per month rather than just building a few on their own.

This also helps avoid the problem of users buying an unauthorized third-party app and trying to give it direct access to your core systems. These users are more likely to make unwise purchases and let IT deal with any problems that might arise down the road.

By letting your citizen developers do their own work, you have that control that enables you to impose certain rules and best practices on the developers and gives you full visibility. Well-equipped citizen developers can also help to solve the application maintenance problem. Instead of submitting a ticket to IT, they can immediately go in, find any issues, and solve them on their own.

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES OF CITIZEN DEVELOPERS?If you want to harness the power of citizen developers, you may run into a few hiccups along the way. For example, some business leaders may not want to mess with app development, and it’s unrealistic to force it on everyone.

But you are likely to find a champion in most departments. Many employees are eager to expand their skills and becoming proficient in creating no-code apps is a highly valuable asset to bring to a team. Host an event where you teach these folks how to use the platform to create their own solutions rather than waiting on IT.

This also lets you train your citizen developers in security best practices, so they don’t inadvertently expose company data or intellectual property. While this is where IT oversight becomes important, it also helps if you pre-train all your developers, so they don’t create bigger hassles for the IT staff later on.

You’ll also need to keep up with the changes in technology, business processes, and software capabilities, not to mention the changes in your core systems. So it’s important to provide ongoing training and education to your new developers.

FINAL THOUGHTSEvery company needs software and applications to operate and innovate. And with more than 500 million apps being developed by 2023, it will take a lot more developers and development knowledge than most companies can hire today.

There are shortages in developer talent, and IT leaders need to look beyond building all these applications on their own.

You can reduce costs and save time by using citizen developers, leaving the professional developers to focus on the enterprise-wide solutions that keep the enterprise operational.

Suresh Sambandam is the CEO  of Kissflow

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