Keep your friends close, and citizen developers closer

Low-code development is all the rage, but knowledgeable IT pros need to be ready to step in when citizen developers hit the wall.

Is the age of maximum self-service, low-code development and citizen developers upon us? Are business users ready to dive in and start constructing and running their own enterprise applications with little or no help from their IT departments?

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Photo: Michael Krigsman

I just had the opportunity to attend the recent ServiceNow confab in New York, and the progress being made toward self-service and low-code was in full view. Information on the state of tasks and workflows that link to various enterprise systems can be configured and brought into a dashboard within minutes by business users, as demonstrated in the on-stage demos.

But there are limits as to how far line-of-business people may go -- and most are not quite be ready to become full-fledged developers anytime soon. There's likely to be ease of use on the front end of things, but people well-trained and versed in software design, development and operations are needed to keep things working on the back end.

As noted by IDC analyst Al Hilwa in a recent interview with SDTimes' David Rubenstein, "training is required" for "constructing and managing apps on a life-cycle basis. For complex shared apps, a keen sense of user requirement and design and some level of skill on how concurrent access to shared data can be developed in an app is typically needed. The most important point is that after apps are developed, they need to be maintained and evolved."

I like the analogy attributed to Kim Berg Hansen, senior developer at Trivadis, in a recent post at the Oracle Technology Network: "I can wire a lamp to a power outlet, but I call in a professional if I need extra power outlets in the house. If, as 'citizen electrician,' I exceed my limits, I can do bad stuff."

Still, so-called "citizen developers" -- or users in greatly enhanced self-service IT environments -- are playing an increasing role in enterprises, helping to offload tasks from overburdened IT departments, as well as achieve more flexibility in their business pursuits.

A survey of 200 enterprise IT managers released by OutSystems a few months back pointed to the leadership role IT can take in the low-code/citizen developer movement. (OutSystems, by the way, as a low-code platform vendor has a stake in this race.) The survey found about one-third, 32 percent, "were currently enabling or planning to enable citizen developers."

The survey reports that IT executives feel they can benefit through faster time to app delivery (67 percent), lower cost of app delivery (48 percent), and by enabling innovation through technology outside of IT (41 percent).

IT managers say that given a citizen development scenario, they still need to maintain control in several key areas, especially integration, security, and deployment. Seventy-six percent say they still need to maintain control over integration with core systems, 63 percent need to still oversee security and governance, and 63 percent also want a hand in deployment to production.

Ultimately, citizen developers hit a wall, and there's where IT needs to step up. The OutSystem survey finds 71 percent of respondents say their citizen developers require assistance with integration. Other areas they need help with include back-end processes (57 percent), database development (43 percent), and workflow/rules (41 percent). "As much as citizen developers can do on their own,at some point they need IT to take over their application," the study's authors conclude.

Still, despite the additional headaches citizen developers and low-coders will be heaping upon beleagured IT staff, it's all leading to better outcomes for everyone. Bob Rhubart, manager of the architect community on Oracle Technology Network, says IT professionals should embrace -- not fear -- the trend. He quotes Lykle Thijssen, senior service-oriented architecture and business process management consultant at AMIS, who observes "the citizen developer forces us to keep it simple and brings business and technology closer than techies can. When it comes to my role, I'll be happy to do more consulting and less developing."

Plus, most end-users may simply not even be interested in building apps and interfaces on their own -- after all, it's not exactly what they're being paid to do. "While available tools make it possible for just about anyone to develop applications, not everyone is interested, and interest is no guarantee of success," Rhubart says.