IT and 'citizen developers' partner on mobile apps and more

With low-code and no-code tools, ordinary business users can quickly and easily spin up new apps or add features and functions, but IT oversight is crucial.

mobile apps crowdsourcing via social media network [CW cover - October 2015]

Worker appetite for new applications, particularly mobile ones, is running high.

It’s so high, in fact, that it’s becoming tougher for IT departments to keep up with demand, according to analysts, researchers and enterprise executives.

Gartner predicts that demand within enterprises for mobile application development will grow some five times faster than IT’s capacity to deliver it through 2021. Gartner cites the continuing growth in smartphone sales as fueling demand for company apps that match the performance and usability seen in consumer apps.

To cope, organizations are turning to low-code/no-code platforms.

And they’re using them for both mobile and desktop app development. In the process they’re not only speeding up delivery, but they’re also enabling workers to build better products. Laura Reahard at Teach for America is a case in point.

Reahard started at the nonprofit organization five years ago as a fundraiser, using its Salesforce customer relationship management platform for the myriad tasks she had to complete, from benchmarking progress toward goals to analyzing data for decision-making.

As her confidence using the platform grew, Reahard says, she found that by making small changes, she could maximize the platform.

Despite no training or experience in coding, Reahard found she had a knack for the task. Now a manager on the organization’s Salesforce administration team, Reahard is using the Salesforce low-code/no-code tools to develop mobile and desktop features and functions to help her colleagues get their work done.

She recently used the tools to upgrade and streamline an existing mobile app, eliminating unnecessary data fields to make the app a more efficient and user-friendly product for fundraisers to use as they connect with potential donors interested in its mission of recruiting teachers for low-income communities.

Reahard says using the Salesforce low-code tools saved the organization time and money, while allowing her — a former fundraiser who understood the job but had no real education in programming — to deliver the right solution for their needs.

“Because I was one of them and we have a shared experienced, I can look at something and identify a gap or an improvement that they didn’t know was possible,” she says. “It led to a better user experience.”

Reahard represents a new breed of worker: someone capable of creating applications yet not considered a software coder. These citizen developers are enabled by a growing number of low-code and no-code platforms, drag-and-drop tools that let workers develop software without the heavy lifting traditionally required.

“The simpler, or light, applications or micro-apps are taking off,” says analyst Eric Klein of VDC Research in Natick, Mass. “These are simple functionalities that anyone can spin up pretty easily. They’re very task-oriented, something very basic, but something that might make the person’s life or workflow easier.”

Proponents say low-code/no-code tools can help organizations better meet user demand for new software by allowing almost anyone to quickly and cheaply create requested features, functions and applications. And IT and business leaders who use these platforms say citizen developers are valuable assets to their organizations.

But some enterprise executives and IT analysts caution that IT and business leaders need to ensure that there’s adequate oversight and governance to all this development activity. Citizen developers, after all, don’t just lack coding skills; they don’t know anything about safeguarding the security of the organization’s data and IT stack.

Citizens on the march

The State of Application Development 2017 Research Report” from low-code platform maker OutSystems found that 43% of the 3,200 worldwide IT professionals it surveyed in December 2016 said that their organizations are either already supporting citizen developers or planning to do so.

However, not all organizations embrace this trend equally. The report states that some industries, namely education and corporate services, have relatively high numbers of citizen developers, while pharmaceutical producers, biotech companies, financial services firms and nonprofits are among those least likely to have citizen developers.

But numbers are expected to climb: Gartner, the technology research firm, predicts that at least 70% of large enterprises will have successful citizen development policies by 2020.

Vendors in this space include AgilePoint, Appian, Bizagi, Caspio, K2, MatsSoft, Mendix, MicroPact, MIOsoft, Nintex, OutSystems, Quick Base, Salesforce and ServiceNow.

Business demand drives adoption

Joe Marchillo is in charge of IT and management solutions at Apex Imaging Solutions, a national brand-imaging contractor based in Pomona, Calif., that employs about 40 people.

Marchillo, who had worked as a project manager overseeing facility upgrades for hospitality venues, said he sought a tool that would enable existing staff to create software features and functions on their own, so the company wouldn’t have to rely on consultants (and have the corresponding bills) for every new request or upgrade. “We had to find something easy enough that we could handle ourselves. We didn’t want to say, ‘We need to fix this,’ and then have to hire someone to code. And we don’t want to be at someone else’s mercy if we have an issue,” he says.

He opted to go with a low-code platform and selected Quick Base to create apps to handle tasks that workers had been trying to manage on spreadsheets.

Marchillo worked with a third-party Quick Base expert to learn how to use the tool — “Once you figure out how it all works, it’s very, very easy to use,” he says — then he went to work, launching an app that shows in real time the current location of all of the company’s project managers as well as where they’re scheduled to be next.

Taking matters into their own hands

Many organizations are turning to low-code/no-code tools to help address the growing business demand for new functions and features, VDC Research’s Klein says.

“End users are frustrated about how long it takes to get apps out,” he says.

That user frustration was a big driver for Sameer Jaleel, director of systems development at Ohio’s Kent State University. He says his department had a long history of doing native app development from the ground up, relying on the .Net and C# programming languages for coding.

He says he implemented the OutSystems low-code platform in 2015, both “to make a significant dent in our backlog” and to help speed the organization’s move to a DevOps model. He says that by using the platform to create building blocks, he can maintain the security and control standards that IT needs while enabling non-developers to quickly deliver functions that users throughout the university are clamoring for.

But those non-developers are not exactly citizens, Jaleel says. They are student workers who can quickly learn OutSystems to supplement the work being done by the staff developers, who still do 90% of development.

Additionally, Jaleel says his team is now embarking on bringing the low-code approach to mobile app development, as it rewrites its existing mobile app, KSUMobile, in OutSystems. Starting in June 2017, workers began rewriting KSUMobile in OutSystems, keeping all existing functionality while also adding a couple of new features. The goal is to finish in six months, which would shave a year off the time it took to develop KSUMobile using a traditional development approach.

“We do have steady demand on the mobile side, and I am hoping OutSystems will solve that problem for us,” Jaleel adds.

The “2017 State of the Custom App Report” from Apple subsidiary FileMaker Inc., which polled 350 FileMaker customers in the fall of 2016, found that most citizen developers are driven by a desire for improved conditions: 83% of the respondents said they learned to build custom apps to create a better way to work, 63% said they did so to be more productive, and 42% said they wanted to help others in the organization.

That same research suggests that speedy app delivery is not just hype. It found that 25% of the citizen developers had their first app up and running in one to three months, 31% took between one and four weeks, and 15% took less than a week.

The FileMaker report also found that 82% of the 350 citizen developers polled saw a reduction in inefficient tasks, 71% saw an increase in team productivity, and 60% saw a reduction in data entry.

Implementing governance

The ease of use designed into low-code/no-code tools shouldn’t push aside the need for oversight, Klein says. Companies need to establish procedures and policies that govern the use of these platforms to ensure that they’re being used efficiently and securely.

“IT needs to put in some protections, and it needs to look at data that’s moving on and off these [platforms] to ensure that the data doesn’t move somewhere it shouldn’t be,” he says. “You have to have some policing. It does need to be watched over.”

A February 2017 YouGov survey commissioned by Appian showed the levels of concern. The survey of 500-plus IT decision-makers showed that 73% feel that citizen developers pose risks for data integrity, 69% believe they pose security risks, and 58% are concerned about integration. Still, the same poll found that 78% believe having at least one low-code platform is critical.

Klein and others also say the use of these platforms doesn’t eliminate the need for development processes such as requirements gathering. Nor does it guarantee user adoption. Marchillo, for one, still has to actively manage that aspect. As he says, “The only issue we’ve had [with low-code development] is getting some people on board; no one likes change.”

Moreover, analysts say IT must serve as trusted advisers and partners with their citizen developers and their business units to ensure that there is neither an overpopulation of new apps nor insufficient interest in leveraging such tools.

Sidney Fernandes, CIO and system vice president for technology at the University of South Florida, says he considered those points when he brought in the Appian platform in 2015 to help speed development.

Fernandes first turned to the platform because the university’s health system needed to speed up development. Health system managers were requesting things such as digitized versions of paper-based workflows but the requests were taking a year-plus to get through traditional development. Fernandes says he was able to trim development cycles down to just months with Appian. Case in point: The development of an application to automate the College of Medicine lottery for student placements, which took just three months using Appian vs. the anticipated 12 to 15 months with a conventional development approach

At first, Fernandes says, he had the IT development team learn to use the Appian platform. Some developers excelled at the tool, he says, but others felt constrained by it. So in 2016 he created a new team populated by those developers who did well with Appian and new hires selected specifically for the work. Fernandes says he tends to hire engineering students skilled at solving problems; he doesn’t look for trained developers.

Fernandes says IT still buys off-the-shelf software and will custom-build applications when the business requirements warrant it. But the new team tackles applications with lower-level requirements, delivering results more quickly and at a lower cost than would be possible from the traditional development team.

As this new team works and gains experience, Fernandes says, he’s building a competency center that is establishing policies and procedures to govern low-code development. In the near future, when adequate governance is established, he hopes to empower citizen developers out in the business units.

Easy does it

With a mission to fight human trafficking, the nonprofit organization Verité worked with one of its corporate clients to ensure that there were no child laborers within its supply chain.

The two Verité employees on the project needed to document which one of them did what and how much time it took. Given the magnitude of the task, they didn’t want to use spreadsheets, which had long been the tracking tool of choice at Amherst, Mass.-based Verité. Instead, they wanted software that could more efficiently track their work and generate reports to share with the client.

Faced with such a demand, Jenn Stachnik, who as accounting and IT manager at Verité oversees the outsourced IT function, typically would shell out thousands of dollars to a development firm to implement the needed software.

But several years ago, Stachnik invested in Quick Base, a low-code application development platform. Since then, she had built out apps for other Verité workers. So when the two program managers approached her last November, Stachnik says she knew she could tackle their request on her own.

Stachnik says she configures the Quick Base platform so that only she and one other worker have access, “so we don’t wind up with people just throwing up apps because they think it doesn’t already exist, duplicating work and making more work for themselves, and creating more work [managing extra apps] down the road.”

As a small nonprofit (Verité has just 31 employees), “We don’t have a lot of money to spend on development every time we need something done, so being able to do something in-house is very important to us,” she says. “This has revolutionized what we think about how we do things.”

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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