By Rob Starr
Like a lot of other terms and classifications you’ll come across in IT, the definition of citizen developer might change here and there depending on who you ask. But the end goal for these de facto programmers using the software that’s become available to them is usually the same.
They bridge a gap between the technical and non-technical skill sets of the business to allow it to run more efficiently and smoothly. These denizens of the low code/no code frontier have been hovering around the edges of SMB/corporate acceptance for some time.
Now with cloud computing and Software-as-a-Service accelerating the process, combined with the growing shortage of software developers, organizations are taking another good look at citizen developers.
According to Terry Simpson, a technical evangelist at workflow automation firm Nintex, one day all employees will be citizen developers of one sort or the other.
“In a nutshell, demand for developers is increasing faster than supply. The tech industry is growing rapidly and creating thousands of new roles for developers. However, college and university programs aren’t turning out new coders fast enough to fill them. This imbalance is helping drive the citizen developer, low/no-code movement,” he said.
Historically companies bought software templates and wrote custom code to meet their needs. One of the big drawbacks is the expense—both initially and certainly when a new release requires modifications and updates. Businesses can keep costs down by reducing the custom code they need to create.
Examples of the tools available to these citizen developers include Zoho Creator and Google App Builder, and while Simpson concedes that one of the challenges to becoming a citizen developer is convincing IT to buy the technology necessary to configure, he sees a spike in another specific area.
“There’s been a significant increase in line-of-business people (as opposed to developers) attending platform-focused technology events looking to learn how they can automate processes themselves, accelerating results and reducing costs relative to what hard-coded solutions would cost.”
The edges around what constitutes the tools a citizen developer can use aren’t always sharp and defined. Bill Galusha is the director of product marketing at Abbyy, a company that sells through the Canadian channel, and he explained how robotic process automation (RPA) is freeing up citizen developers to innovate.
By 2024, low-code application development will be responsible for more than 65 per cent of application development activity – Source: Magic Quadrant for Enterprise Low-Code Application Platforms report, Gartner, August 8, 2019
“Historically, automation was managed and deployed by IT, but the emergence of RPA has changed that with the emergence of digital workers,” he writes. “We are now seeing a new generation of citizen developers, such as business analysts, who are closer to business challenges and can program and automate digital workers to help them do their work.”
There are some examples of how this works on this side of the border. Mendix is a low code application platform that’s done some work with Canada Post.
“Canada Post utilized Mendix’s low-code and no code solutions,” a spokesperson representing Mendix wrote in an email. “The company was able to shift from a declining mail service (60 per cent reduction in mail over 10 years) to a parcel delivery service and grew its parcel business by 25 per cent in a year.”
The citizen developer movement has always had a micro and macro element. There are always folks looking to crack the big leagues and the corporate world with their ideas. The concept also creates a strong entrepreneurial wind to fill those sails.
Gary Steele is the owner of Steele Consulting located in Markham and provided a boots-on-the-ground perspective.
“Over time people have built software programs that help to write software programs,” he said, adding citizen developers owe much to these pre-set code variables that take on repetitive tasks.
For a wide swath of SMBs, tools like WordPress represent a jumping-off point.
“Somebody has a good idea and it can go from nothing to program in hours or days where it used to be months or weeks.”
There are people that don’t mind folding their citizen developer talents into their roles with the bigger companies. Steele describes that scenario.
“If you have a really good idea and start working for ABC Corp, when that program is finished it belongs to them.”
Therein lies the rub for the entrepreneur.
“Other people think about developing a program and doing things like selling advertising on their website to push it out there,” Steele says.
He suggests bigger organizations can bridge the gap with a stipend or ongoing residual payments.
Big business recognition
In the end, there’s a big business recognition that something needs to be done to help citizen developers and businesses find common ground.
A recent blog and whitepaper from Salesforce reports that 20 per cent of business applications are developed outside of traditional IT departments already. It also states “The low code revolution is just getting started.”
It’s another sure sign business will forge more paths heading into 2020.