Rise of the so-called citizen developer

For IT, harnessing the talents of business users who code can be well worth the effort of supporting them.

Retro man in bow tie with computer keyboards

When Noah Clay arrived in 2013 as director of the University of Pennsylvania's Quattrone Nanofabrication Facility, he discovered its lab management software was desperately outdated.

The lab needed an application that would allow researchers from both the university and outside organizations to register their credentials and schedule work time on the lab's equipment, he says. And researchers needed to access the app from anywhere, at any time and from any device.

UPenn's IT team said it could deliver such an app, Clay recalls, but he'd have to wait about two years while the technologists worked through other, higher-priority projects first.

So Clay took the lead. After dismissing off-the-shelf software and vendors for custom work because they met neither his needs nor his budget, Clay considered deploying a platform that would allow his workers to build their own app.

With IT's blessing, Clay got to work, settling on the Mendix App Platform, one of many so-called low-code development platforms currently available. Last year, Clay's team of 15 -- including researchers, grad students and contractors -- spent 10 days building a new cloud-based lab management app. Meanwhile, the UPenn IT team wrote an application interface that allowed the university's hardware to interact with the cloud.

CIOs have long had to contend with shadow IT, the pesky unauthorized deployment of hardware and software by other business units. And they've had to deal with the problems those rogue projects present, from jeopardizing data and infrastructure security to creating redundant systems that drain resources.

But Clay and his team represent what many see as a positive evolution in shadow IT. Analysts and IT leaders view these business people who code as "citizen developers," taking on programming tasks that are blessed and supported by IT but aren't driven, led or fully reliant on IT personnel. Proponents say citizen developers can bring technology innovation to organizations without burdening IT, which is already stretched thin with flat budgets and big enterprisewide demands.

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