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Why the time is ripe for citizen developers

Recent survey finds enterprises encourage or look the other way as non-IT applications flourish.

Readers of this blogsite will know that over the years, we have been an advocating for providing business users with the tools and support to build their own technology solutions. When service-oriented architecture first came on the scene, the emphasis was to break down monolithic applications that only IT could love into bite-size services that could potentially be assembled and dis-assembled, building-block style, into the applications the business needed at the moment.

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Photo: HubSpot

Lately, this has translated into cloud services, APIs and mobile apps that can be called and applied as business users see fit. There's no reason why business users can't get involved in moving some of these blocks into place. IT departments themselves are stretched to the max, with precious little time to keep attending to every user request for certain reports or capabilities.

The movement toward citizen developers is being made possible by three converging trends:

  • Developers themselves are increasingly being called upon to understand and move closer to the business. There are many areas that are front and center in developers' jobs, including user customer experience (CX) design, DevOps and Agile programming, for starters.
  • Business professionals are increasingly more tech-savvy, are comfortable with computing, and understand its power and potential.
  • There is an array of platforms and tools that make collaboration and agile development -- along with building-block-style assembly -- possible, from APIs to low-code and mobile app development kits.

Recently, I had the opportunity to survey executives on this topic, as part of my work with Unisphere Research, a division of Information Today, Inc. The resulting report, based on a survey of 324 business-side executives finds IT departments aren't the only ones building and deploying enterprise applications these days. (Though it often falls on IT to maintain the guardrails within which these apps run and are secured.) The survey was conducted in partnership with Kintone.

The survey finds that at least 76% of respondents indicate that at least some portion of their applications were developed outside of their traditional IT department or IT service. Only 16%, in fact, attempt to clamp down on citizen development activity -- and more than one in four have no policy of any kind in place. Another 42% say non-IT app development is allowed, or in some cases, actively encouraged. IT departments stand by in case of trouble - and to provide guidance, and keep the infrastructure running smoothly.

What's driving the citizen developer movement? It's all about speed, and getting things out faster. Citizen developers do what they do because they feel IT departments - who are usually weighed down with firefighting to keep enterprise applications up and running and secure - are too slow to respond to their individual requests. Close to one-third of respondents state they are mainly dissatisfied with the pace at which their IT departments can deliver applications. Citizen developers get applications out the door faster than large IT departments. They turn around their required applications in a matter of weeks, or a couple of months. Only 17% report turnaround times exceeding three months.

One-third of organizations are highly proactive in supporting their citizen developers with training and platforms. Almost all executives acknowledge more needs to be done. Executives and their staffs have some programming skills, but more than one in four know nothing about programming. Challenges to citizen development include data security and trouble learning proper programming techniques, and handling of data.

Enterprises are open to applications developed outside of IT departments, recognizing that an increasingly technology savvy workforce know what they need, and can move quickly to acquire and put the right technology in place to make things happen.

(Disclosure: I was part of the team that designed and analyzed this survey.)