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of Pennsylvania's Quattrone Nanofabrication Facility, he discovered its lab management software was desperately outdated.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.

And then there are CIOs like Royal Caribbean's Bill Martin, who not only support citizen developers, but, as he discusses in this video, used to be citizen developers themselves.

Coding for the masses

The impact of these citizen developers could be significant. In its 2012 "Citizen Development: Reinventing the Shadows of IT" report, Gartner predicted that 25% of new business apps deployed in 2014 would be written by employees outside of the IT department.

Like the concept of shadow IT itself, citizen developers aren't new, says Jonathan Sapir, author of The Executives Guide to force.com: Shadow IT and Citizen Developers in the Age of Cloud Computing. For decades, employees outside of IT have built databases in Excel and developed and deployed similar database applications, which tended to be much more accessible for non-IT people than developing an application by writing code from scratch.

Jonathan Sapir

Jonathan Sapir

But several trends and technologies have emerged recently that enable more workers to move into the citizen developer role, Sapir and other IT thought leaders say. First, more workers have coding experience; it's no longer a skill reserved for professional techies. Then there are new technologies, including low-code development platforms that make building apps easier and quicker. Meanwhile, cloud technologies give workers easier, and often cheaper, access to hardware and storage.

"The tools are much easier to use, so the abilities for the citizen developers to develop their own solutions have gone through the roof," Sapir says, noting that he thinks "business-user computing" is a better term for this trend.

Business-user developers: An innovation sweet spot

Citizen developers are free to build what they need when they need it, allowing IT to focus on the bigger, more impactful projects, says Gartner analyst Van L. Baker. Moreover, this setup spurs more creativity and innovation within organizations, particularly when IT actually supports and encourages citizen developers.

That can indeed happen, Baker says, but appropriate governance, guidance, policies and technologies need to be implemented to capitalize on the trend, maximize the results and minimize the risks.

Charles E. Christian agrees.

"What we need to do is create the atmosphere where we work with those business departments," says Christian, vice president and CIO at St. Francis Hospital in Columbus, Ga., and the 2015 board chairman of CHIME (the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives).

Charles E. Christian

Charles E. Christian

When he arrived at the hospital two years ago, Christian discovered that a nurse with coding skills had developed an application that calculated appropriate blood sugar levels for patients. A critical care unit doctor wanted the app to replace a manual method of calculating such levels.

Christian doesn't know why the pair took on the task. "Maybe they thought [working with] IT would take longer, or it couldn't be done," he says, adding that the pair eventually brought the finished project to IT, which allowed the app to run on one of its servers.

Christian says the development of that app, which went out of use when the doctor – its sole user – retired, gives him insight into what his organization needs to have in place to support such work. He says IT needs to ensure that data is secure and kept confidential, the hospital's systems aren't jeopardized and user-developed apps aren't redundant or a drain on resources.

Christian says he's not seeing business users follow that example – yet – but he's anticipating it.

To that end, Christian says he recently moved his organization onto SharePoint in part because it allows each department opportunities to deploy their own programs and functions without risk. He purchased additional tools that enable that development, and he provides training and IT guidance to support the users' efforts to develop and deploy custom workflows.

He also notes that no worker outside of IT has the ability to deploy applications on the hospital's infrastructure, which provides protection and control in the age of citizen development.

But this isn't just about control and protection, Christian says. He sees benefits in enabling business-user development. As he says: "The more minds we can put on a problem, the better potential solution we're going to have."

Embrace the help, but set strict parameters

Baker, Sapir and others say CIOs should encourage citizen developers but do so in a way that helps them work within the IT organization's existing governance. To do that, CIOs should entice them to use IT-sanctioned tools and follow policies established by IT -- both of which help limit problems.

For example, IT should give business users easy coding platforms chosen by IT so they'll use those rather than using a multitude of approaches outside IT's purview. Also useful is creating an app exchange where citizen developers can share products, a step that can reduce duplication of efforts. And smart IT shops are educating business leaders on how to evaluate the payback for proposed apps to keep wasted efforts to a minimum.

Furthermore, Baker says CIOs should focus on developing middleware apps -- that space between the client layer and the back-end layer -- and manage APIs to enable citizen development and still protect the integrity of the IT infrastructure and data.

Many are moving in this direction. In its 2014 report "Raising the Game: The IBM Business Tech Trends Report," IBM found that 80% of leading enterprises are forming new partnerships with citizen developers to drive greater collaboration as well as innovation.

The limits of the citizen developer

Millennials, having grown up with mobile technology, tend to be more apt to take on their own development tasks, IT leaders say, although older workers are by no means shut out of the space. The same employees who have been setting up shadow IT in past years are even more likely to take on coding tasks now that they're armed with tools that make the task easier.

On the other hand, IT executives acknowledge that there are plenty of employees who don't want to add coding to their responsibilities. They might resent the extra work or see the opportunity as a lack of IT responsiveness. Even Clay, director at UPenn's Quattrone Nanofabrication Facility, admits he was a bit surprised by IT's two-year proposed timeline for the app he wanted, although he says he welcomed the opportunity to bring development work into his fold.

Sapir and others say CIOs need to identify managers and employees like Clay and support them by deploying standard development platforms as well as by training them on the tools, policies and procedures they need to be successful.

Some are skeptical about the citizen developer trend becoming widespread, however. They acknowledge that a high level of technology spend is now happening outside of the IT department and that some workers are developing or contracting services for their own pet applications, but they say workers who code aren't the norm.

Chris Curran, a PwC principal and chief technologist for the U.S. firm's Advisory practice, says he sees a model where business users play a bigger role in development led by IT or an environment where business users work on prototypes that are then turned into IT projects.

"There are a lot of people in the organization who are technology hobbyists. Could we tap into that and bring some of that creativity to work? Absolutely," he says. However, he cautions CIOs and other executives from expecting, or encouraging, large-scale development projects coming out of the business side.

Setting ground rules that work for all

Chris Kielt, vice chancellor for IT and CIO at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says his team is devising the policies and technology setups to benefit from the work of citizen developers in a secure, cost-effective manner.

Chris Kielt

Chris Kielt

"Most IT leaders understand that this is no longer a space you can control or you want to control," he says. "The question then is how to ensure that the development that's taking place can be embraced and supported by the institution and potentially benefit the centralized IT organization."

Kielt says he's creating a framework that "enables the enterprise to make the right choices, to work in a framework that we understand, endorse and can help with." His department deployed the Modo Labs platform for such development work and is now educating faculty, staff and students about it. Kielt's staff is still working with staff members and students on this new approach but says those groups seem most interested in developing academic and social mobile apps.

The setup allows the IT department to enforce controls, aid in development and help with ongoing maintenance while giving users the tools they need to easily accomplish their goals.

That, Kielt explains, is the balance needed to be successful with would-be citizen developers.

"People appreciate that there's a platform and centralized support but that they can go off and develop very specific applications," he says.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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