Making the leap from philosophy major to citizen developer

An emerging set of cloud services, called 'Application Platform as a Service,' may help make citizen developers out of everyone.

The following is a guest post by Wayne Byrne, director of product marketing for KeyedIn Solutions, Inc.

People are no longer content to wait for overworked IT professionals to develop an application to automate a core process or provide access to vital information. Increasingly, they’d rather do it themselves. If they have the right tools, that can be good news for IT.

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Such tools are now available, allowing people to create applications without programming — and giving rise to a new generation of "citizen developers." The citizen developer movement isn’t a new phenomenon; people have been using applications such as Excel spreadsheets for years, to create tools that manage data and track business activities.

However, spreadsheets have their downsides. Most user-created Excel files aren’t encrypted, so there can be a huge risk of a data breach that results in a major hit to the organization’s brand. Another drawback is that Excel files are unwieldy in an increasingly mobile technology landscape.

Also, as organizations shift from on-premise core applications that handle functions such as CRM, ERP and human capital management to cloud-based assets, IT professionals need to decide about how to ensure that user-created spreadsheets and databases are integrated into core applications. Budget considerations and IT time constraints can make traditional approaches to customization and development unworkable.

An emerging approach, called Application Platform-as-a-Service (aPaaS), may help align the work of IT and citizen developers. Gartner defines aPaaS as "a cloud service that offers development and deployment environments for application services." aPaaS is typically offered through cloud providers, and provides drag-and-drop interfaces to enable rapid application building.

aPaaS can help organizations capture the processes and workflows currently managed with user-created spreadsheets and databases, without committing to expensive customization and lengthy development projects. Users can build their own mobile-optimized and cloud-ready applications that can be integrated into existing systems. aPaaS even offers no-code capabilities that help citizen developers who intimately understand their business processes and data needs create custom applications in a matter of hours.

Consider these examples I've witnessed of citizen developers building solutions that formerly required long engagements with IT:

  • An IT executive at Power Solutions International created an app that replaced expense reporting spreadsheets for more than 150 employees. The CEO of LoyaltyGenerator, Inc., who has no formal development training, used his aPaaS solution to build and successfully launch key elements of his company’s highly customized CRM application.
  • Recently, a junior at Dunbar High School in Ft. Myers, Florida, who took first place in the Microsoft Office US Championship this year, demonstrated how an aPaaS solution can work when he used one to create a cloud app that allows students to manage homework assignments. The student, who had no training on the platform, built a cloud app in just a few hours. These functionalities were also shared with the entire school district with virtually no development costs.
  • Employees at one company are using aPaaS services to build a variety of applications that handle core business functions, including an HR app to track employees, payroll information and stock options securely, eliminating spreadsheets.
  • A sales executive built an application to track sales quotes and orders, significantly streamlining processes for the company’s finance team.
  • A marketing group created an event tracking application to manage tradeshows, speaking opportunities and conferences.
  • An intern who was a philosophy major is now creating new applications with no development experience; all he needs is an understanding of the business processes and workflows.  

The technology landscape is evolving quickly, but IT operations budgets have generally remained flat. Many business users continue to manage data in spreadsheets on the margins of an organization’s core CRM, ERP and HCM apps. With an aPaaS approach, anyone who can define a workflow or process can create a fully scalable, and even mobile-ready application that integrates into legacy systems and is accessible via the cloud.

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