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Digital innovation: Bring on the citizen developers

(Image credit: Image Credit: Christina Morillo / Pexels)

Most IT departments are challenged to meet the demand for digital transformation. IT staff feel the pressure every day. Building clever software has become a route to competitive advantage in business, delivering new products, services, routes to market and better customer experiences, while often also reducing operation costs. Hence the race is on for better, ever faster digital processes.

But to make custom software that suits specific business needs and opportunities, you need professional developers. As we all know, of course, this presents a challenge: There’s a real shortage of digital skills. According to leading research and consultancy firm Empirica, across the UK and Europe there will be a deficit of 500,000 developers by 2020.

Here’s the good news. The IT industry has found a partial answer. We are in the midst of a revolution in IT, a revolution that is democratising application development and freeing businesses from the developer skills shortage.

No-code platforms and the rise of citizen developers

In the last five years or so, we’ve seen the rise of a new way of writing software applications that allows a much larger talent pool than just ‘coders’ to write applications.  It’s called the ‘no-code’ platform approach to development.

A no-code development platform allows its users to build applications without the need for hand-coding. Instead of using traditional programming languages, users of these platforms can build apps by dragging and dropping visual modules and integrating them with existing databases, API’s, and web services. Not only do these platforms provide IT professionals with an alternative approach for creating software (and is up to ten times faster than coding), they also allow organisations to mobilise many more people to build applications. Enter the citizen developer.       

Citizen developers largely consist of millennials, the generation born between 1981 and 1996. They know the importance of software, grew up witnessing the rise of digital computing and the Internet, and are prone to proactively search for solutions to their problems. They also have a profound feeling of being in control of their own destiny. If an obstacle pops up, they are dedicated to overcome it by using their digital savviness.                                       

These citizen developers can form an extension of your existing workforce. Using a no-code development platform, they can work closely together with IT to develop solutions for their own departments. 

Anyone in your existing workforce can be a citizen developer, as long as they meet a few requirements. Above all, citizen developers are bright, adventurous, pragmatic, creative and tech-savvy. As true do-it-yourself types, they are solution-driven problem solvers who want to be in the driver’s seat.

These non-programmers often have a better insight than IT staff into what the business needs from new software, while IT can guide and govern what they build.

How do citizen developers fit into your business?

Often, business teams know exactly what needs they want to solve with digital solutions. But for execution they are still reliant on the IT department, whose people are simply too busy to help any time soon.

With citizen development, business-side ideas people are turned into application kick-starters. No longer do they have to queue outside the door to IT. Using a no-code platform, citizen developers can prototype their own ideas in a safe environment and demonstrate the value of their solution to others. Where the proof of concept is a success, the software solution can be further developed, tested and taken into full production.

Understandably, IT may feel uncomfortable in handing over the development keys to unknown drivers. Development chiefs may fear that citizen developers won’t have enough knowledge to develop applications that add business value. Or worse, that they’ll know just enough to create a mess the IT department has to clean up.

Implementing citizen development within an organisation requires planning and structure to avoid risks. Hence it’s important there is close collaboration between citizen developers and the IT department. With no-code development platforms and governance from IT, citizen developers really can build superb applications. Many organisations choose to create a digital innovation team to formalise their initiative.

Building new software in just 10 to 20 per cent of the time it would have taken to build those applications using traditional coding techniques, no-code enabled enterprises are accelerating their digital transformation and digital innovation programmes, cutting costs and stealing a competitive march on slower rivals.

What can citizen developers build?

One area where citizen developers can excel is in building centralised apps for administration, data-tracking and reporting to replace existing but disparate applications that currently run on separate spreadsheets or database tools. Re-writing these using a single no-code platform allows IT to control all of them, rather than having dozens of unsynchronised, unmonitored ‘shadow-IT’ applications floating around in every department.

Since administrative and reporting programmes often don’t concern IT, new ideas here for reducing costs, streamlining effort or improving compliance may never make it to production. But by empowering the business to develop applications itself, citizen developers and IT professionals can engage in a symbiotic relationship, empowering the entire business while relieving some of the development burden currently placed at the door of IT.

Citizen developers are granted the tools they need to influence innovation from within, while IT leadership gains access to oversee all of the applications in the organisation. With this approach, developers can begin to make small changes, before implementing them on a bigger scale. This gives headspace to the innovation team, allowing it to easily and inexpensively test multiple ideas for solutions without interfering with or violating the overall IT landscape.

By embracing citizen development rather than fighting to suppress it, you legitimise it. And with legitimacy comes formalisation, security controls and quality standards.

No-code and digital innovation

Technology cannot be separated from human experience; it’s a direct extension of it. The devices and applications we use today have so easily become integrated into our daily lives for the simple reason that they build on natural human tendencies. They amplify the potential to create, communicate, connect and form networks.

Similarly, no-code platforms boost our existing potential to innovate by enabling citizen developers. No-code removes programming as a barrier to develop solutions and allows us to capitalise on our capabilities to solve problems and transform organisations. It democratises software, which is necessary in an era when software has literally become everyone’s business.

Citizen development represents a major shift in the way we think about software development. Although this revolution might sound scary at first, with proper training comes potential and freedom from developer skills shortages.

Can you imagine a future where you solve today’s biggest problems in IT by creating a functional system within your organisation that produces more software – and more developers without having to insist your people can code? That future is now, and if you’re not jumping in on it, you’re missing out – and missing out in a fast moving world isn’t something you can afford.

Chris Obdam, CEO, Betty Blocks (opens in new tab)

Chris Obdam is CEO of Betty Blocks. Its no-code development platform allows users to build applications without writing code. The company employs 200+ people worldwide.