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How Citizen Developers Can Transform Your Company

With tech talent becoming increasingly hard to find, companies are looking for ways to ensure their application development needs don’t get neglected. One approach is to train workers with no IT background to take on development projects.  If you’re thinking, “But it takes years to learn how to code,” think again. It is possible to [...]

BairesDev Editorial Team

By BairesDev Editorial Team

BairesDev is the leading nearshore technology solutions company with 4,000+ professionals in 50+ countries representing the top 1% of tech talent.

10 min read

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With tech talent becoming increasingly hard to find, companies are looking for ways to ensure their application development needs don’t get neglected. One approach is to train workers with no IT background to take on development projects. 

If you’re thinking, “But it takes years to learn how to code,” think again. It is possible to build applications with little to no coding knowledge. This approach is known as low-code or no-code development, and those who use it to develop applications with no previous coding experience are referred to as citizen developers. 

Citizen development can help companies by taking some of the load off of tech teams and bringing application development closer to the people who will use these tools, making them more effective. In the sections below, we explain more about what citizen development is, its advantages and disadvantages, the resources that support it, and how to build a citizen developer workforce. 

What Is Citizen Development?

Citizen development is the practice of having workers who are not trained in technology develop applications. It relies on low- and no-code tools that enable these professionals to ideate, develop, and create applications with little to no coding knowledge. The difference between low-code and no-code is that low-code development enables some customization by changing the code. No-code development relies entirely on drag-and-drop functionality to build applications with pre-coded building blocks. 

Citizen development is taking off in the business world. Gartner expects that, in the coming year, citizen developers will outnumber professional coders by a factor of 4. That’s because this practice can save businesses money by reducing the need to hire more tech staff, increase efficiency by having team members produce effective applications, and boost innovation by creating space for tech teams to focus on higher-level initiatives.

According to a recent Computerworld article, “A significant number of those app developers will come not from IT, but from business units looking to digitize processes and seeing low-code or no-code software tools as a way to solve their problems. While citizen developers may have little coding knowledge, they’re generally tech savvy; they’ve worked with spreadsheets and databases, or they’re intimately familiar with [the] company’s technology because they’re customer service representatives or business analysts.” 

The following video demonstrates that team members in a wide range of traditional company roles can become citizen developers.

Advantages of Citizen Development 

Businesses across industries are recognizing the value of enabling professionals within various business units to innovate in the digital realm. Here are some of the many ways citizen developers benefit their companies.

  • Increase productivity. Professionals across business units are closest to the challenges they are trying to solve and therefore are often in the best position to know how to address them. Team members who build their own applications can take control of how they do their jobs and perform them more efficiently. Both of these conditions are critical to employee satisfaction.
  • Accelerate time to market. If your company develops applications that are sold to customers, increasing the number of potential developers enables you to produce these products more quickly and efficiently. Speed is critical when competing in a tough market. Additionally, you get the benefit of more professionals bringing their skills to innovate and create more unique offerings.
  • Reduce costs. Keep in mind that low-code and no-code platforms are not only useful for citizen developers. They can also be used by traditional developers to speed up development time and reduce costs. This process also enables developers to complete these tasks more quickly, freeing up time to focus on more critical matters, such as high-level system organization.
  • Free up IT resources. Because of increased needs and tech talent shortages, many IT teams are frazzled. If you add the burden of application development, some teams might not hold up under the pressure. Citizen development can remove a lot of that pressure by taking on some of those tasks. That means the people with the highest tech skill levels can be freed up to tackle your company’s toughest challenges, such as digital transformation. 
  • Meet urgent needs. The COVID-19 pandemic put even more pressure on IT professionals because their skills were needed to ensure teams could collaborate and communicate while working from home. But COVID isn’t the only driver of urgent IT needs. Comparable situations — such as a cyberattack or a big new project — can create the need for more IT assistance, and citizen developers can help by serving as backup talent for some tasks. 
  • Upskill staff. Companies that are having trouble finding candidates to fill technology roles may have the answer right in front of them. Some are providing programs that allow workers to become trained in various technologies to the point that they can fill open technology roles. The Computerworld article states, “Not only does reskilling or upskilling existing staff fill a development void, it also aids in employee retention, as learning new skills has been shown to be a top priority among work staff.”

Disadvantages of Citizen Development

While citizen development can provide many benefits to companies, those that pursue it should be aware of the drawbacks. 

  • Jeopardize security. Because many low-code platforms are cloud-based, there is the potential for sensitive company data to be exposed. Citizen developers may not understand that this can happen or the dangers of it happening. This is why the notion of the citizen developer who just takes off with their own projects is a myth. These professionals — and ideally all employees — must be trained on appropriate security protocols for application development.
  • Allow the potential for shadow IT. Shadow IT is the practice of workers using unapproved systems and applications that may present security issues. The same problems can occur with citizen development in that no-code and low-code apps may not be up to speed with internal security rules. That’s why it’s important for companies to enforce strict governance on citizen development and for IT professionals to check every app developed within the company.
  • Risk investment. Creating a citizen developer workforce is not easy, fast, or cheap. Companies must carefully weigh the pros and cons and determine what level of training they will provide, and what equipment and applications they will purchase, versus what they expect to get in return once the workforce is in place.
  • Incur quality issues. While citizen developers may have the capability to create basic applications, they may lack the training and skills to create anything more advanced. Quality can be a problem on a higher level as well. If there is no high-level oversight of the citizen development program, these developers can end up duplicating efforts or creating applications that do not pair well with the company’s existing ecosystem.

Citizen Development Resources

Online resources can supplement in-house training. 

Online Publications

100 Days of No Code. This community enables users to subscribe to a program that offers courses, workshops, labs, demos, and events to learn to build applications with no code.

The Low-Code Daily. This news site brings insight from leading low-code software providers.

No code Essentials. This directory helps visitors find what they need to learn how to build their next no-code project.  

NoCode Journal. This site offers a wide collection of information about no-code and low-code development, visual development, and citizen development. Articles are written by no-code enthusiasts with a variety of backgrounds. Viewers can subscribe to a newsletter to be delivered directly to their inbox.

NoCodery. This community provides no-code tools as well as courses. Experts offer their insights on their experiences with no-code development.

No Code Ops. This community delivers a newsletter that helps recipients use no-code platforms. Top professionals help each other learn to build tools that help solve real-life business problems.

Project Management Institute (PMI). This leading project management association provides resources to help organizations use citizen development.

Tools

Mendix. This low-code platform helps users speed up the application development process and is designed for non-professional IT developers.

Microsoft Power Apps. This low-code platform supports professionals in creating apps without writing code and also allows professional developers to interact with data, metadata, and custom connectors.

Quixy. This no-code application development tool is recognized for its platform as well as its educational resources, including blogs, infographics, videos, news stories, webinars, ebooks, and more.

Salesforce Lightning Platform. The leader in CRM also offers low-code tools through its Lightning Platform. They include Lightning Object Creator, Lightning Flow Builder, Dynamic Forms, and Dynamic Actions.

Vinyl. This no-code development platform from Zudy enables users to quickly create applications and integrate them with existing systems.

How to Build a Citizen Developer Workforce

As with any major changes within a company, creating an effective citizen developer workforce doesn’t happen easily. Before moving forward with any additional steps, take the time to do your research and determine whether a citizen developer workforce is right for your business.

Assemble a team. Create a team of interested parties, such as executives, IT representatives, and leaders from throughout the organization. This team may not be permanent but should provide a starting point for discussing some of the high-level concerns that the potential of a citizen developer workforce brings up. As you move into the later stages of planning and implementation, shift the composition of the team accordingly.

Have a vision. Before you do anything else, meet with probable stakeholders and determine the goals of the citizen developer program. For example, what business problems will the program solve? How much money will it cost or save? Who will need to be involved? What are some of the likely challenges that will need to be overcome? Which business units will be impacted the most? What kind of change management will need to be implemented to ensure the program is successful?

Create a workflow. Think about how you want your citizen developer workforce to operate. Where should projects originate from? Should it be a bottom-up approach, where members of various teams identify application needs within their departments? Or should it be a top-down approach, where tech team members determine which projects on their plate they want the citizen developers to work on?

Develop rules. The Computerworld article states, “Organizations should start by creating rules or ‘guardrails’ or governance policies around app development. The rules should cover both internal and externally-facing apps. In some cases, the same policies that apply to data usage by apps created by IT can be applied to apps created by citizen developers.” Such rules encourage citizen developers without causing problems in the existing IT infrastructure.

Clarify the role of IT. IT should remain the primary point of contact to ensure core business systems remain secure and effective. These teams should also be involved in determining which projects are best for citizen developers to work on. They can be involved in selecting citizen development tools and possibly in training citizen developers as well.

IT team members can also serve as consultants for citizen developers and be available to intercede and resolve any issues that cannot be addressed by the citizen developers themselves. They can also serve as quality assurance operators, to ensure all applications deployed by the organization comply with internal guidelines. 

Identify citizen developers. Identifying who might want to act as a citizen developer can occur in several ways. First, you can meet with department leaders to gain an understanding of which teams are using applications outside the guidance of the company’s IT department (shadow IT). These business units are good candidates for having citizen developers create internal applications that could be safer instead.

Next, check with IT to find out which projects are on the back burner. The departments that initiated them probably want to get these projects completed as soon as possible and are likely motivated to serve as citizen developers to make it happen.

Another way to find potential citizen developers is to put out an announcement company-wide, letting everyone know about this opportunity. It is possible that workers in departments you might not expect — such as customer service, marketing, or shipping — are looking for new opportunities. Any of these employees could potentially serve their own departments or eventually move into IT positions that badly need to be filled.

Research tools. To maintain a streamlined program, you’ll probably want to use the same tools across the organization. Some platforms are free or inexpensive and easy to upload and use. For example, Honeycode, provided by Amazon, is a low-code option that includes templates to build productivity applications, such as project trackers, time-off reporters, event planners, lead trackers, inventory systems, and team feedback surveys.

The tools you choose should be easy to use and include features that professionals are likely to need, such as the ability to customize applications and personalize versions for each team member. They should also include a training program and robust support.

Train citizen developers. Consider providing training on these tools or allowing team members time away from their normal duties to self-train. Involve IT to ensure that any tools will not interfere with current processes. Resources like Codecademy can be used to teach employees new skills and allow them to practice with real-world situations. Once employees have been trained, they should be tested regularly to ensure their skills are maintained.

Update the program as needed. As your citizen development program evolves, you will need to make changes. Perhaps you will want to change the rules as mistakes are addressed, upgrade your training program as more people come on board, or create smaller teams and leaders that report to the overall program director. 

No matter what else you do, you should always seek feedback from citizen developers to find out how you can improve the program. Consider creating a center of excellence for this initiative. A recent article published by the citizen development platform Kissflow states, “A center of excellence might enable fusion teams, uniting pro developers with citizen developers. It might also provide learning resources and expert help for citizen developers for more complex work.”

Citizen Developers Solve Both Technology and Business Problems

While some have pointed out the challenges with citizen development, from security issues to quality concerns, the general consensus is that building a citizen development workforce is positive for businesses, especially if done with care. The primary direction in the discussion of this new role within companies has to do with the technology problems that can be solved, such as application development and removing some of the burdens from IT teams.

However, the larger picture has to do with solving business problems, including the need to drive revenues up and costs down, the need to be more efficient, and the need to have an edge over the competition. Citizen development can help move all of these initiatives forward. Accelerated time to market enables speed, agility, and the ability to compete. Another area that doesn’t get talked about much is employee satisfaction, which can contribute to reduced costs and improved productivity.

All these factors should come into play when companies consider whether or not to start a citizen development program. This role is certain to become more integrated across industries in the months and years ahead.

BairesDev Editorial Team

By BairesDev Editorial Team

Founded in 2009, BairesDev is the leading nearshore technology solutions company, with 4,000+ professionals in more than 50 countries, representing the top 1% of tech talent. The company's goal is to create lasting value throughout the entire digital transformation journey.

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