How to build a ‘citizen developer’ workforce

With a dearth of professional developer talent, and low-code and no-code platforms proliferating, organizations are turning to tech-savvy business users to solve application needs. But the shadow IT approach can be risky.

With a tech talent gap that's expected to worsen in the next few years, organizations and business users are increasingly looking to low-code and no-code app development to fill digital transformation needs.

In fact, for many business users, knowing how to use low-code and no-code to build apps is becoming more of the rule than the exception. (The difference between no-code and low-code is that the latter enables some customization because developers have access to command-line coding; no-code depends on visual tools such as pull-down menus and drag-and drop building blocks.)

That's giving rise to “citizen developers” who have little or no training in the use of command-line coding to create software; their numbers are expected to balloon to four times the number of professional developers by next year, according to research firm Gartner. In fact, 60% of the Global 2000 corporations will have a digital developer ecosystem with thousands of developers, according to IDC.

A significant number of those app developers will come not from IT, but from business units looking to digitize processes and seeing low-code or no-code software tools as a way to solve their problems. While citizen developers may have little coding knowledge, they’re generally tech savvy; they’ve worked with spreadsheets and databases, or they’re intimately familiar with company’s technology because they're customer service representatives or business analysts.

The pool of potential ad hoc low-code/no-code developers is large. Gartner found that, on average, 41% of all employees could be considered business technologists, a figure that varies by industry.

It's not just companies embracing the trend; IT vendors, including CRM, ERP, and platforms as a service (PaaS) providers, are pushing low-code technology, according to Gartner. The research firm predicts that by 2025, 70% of new applications developed by enterprises will use low-code or no-code technologies, up from less than 25% two years ago. And by 2025, it expects spending on the development technologies to grow to almost $30 billion.

gartner low code use cases graphic Gartner, Inc.

Even professional developers are getting on board. “We have definitely seen less resistance on the part of IT and pro-development teams in incorporating low-code technologies into their overall set of tools,” said Jason Wong, a distinguished vice president and Software Design and Development analyst with Gartner.

He noted that some low-code tools such as Retool and Appsmith target professional developers, “which shows the maturation and acceptance of low-code development."

Building out a citizen developer workforce

Because low-code and no-code tools use graphical user interfaces (GUIs) and abstract away much of the line-code, citizen developers can quickly create apps using modular code sets.

Most get into using the tools to solve a simple business problem, such as converting a paper-based process (like a spreadsheet) to a digital one. The platforms are typically free and easy to upload and use. For example, Amazon’s Honeycode is a low-code online service that offers multiple templates to build mobile and web apps for managing projects.

“The problem is, anyone can build an app around that,” said Michele Rosen, an IDC research manager. “It’s much better for IT to say if you want to begin the journey as citizen developer, here’s the platform we use, here are best practices, and here is the way data can be used in those apps.”

Organizations should start by creating rules or “guardrails” or governance policies around app development. The rules should cover both internal and externally-facing apps. In some cases, the same policies that apply to data usage by apps created by IT can be applied to apps created by citizen developers.

"However, some no-code tools provide the ability to implement an approval process for apps at multiple points in the app lifecycle," Rosen said.

No-code platforms also provide testing tools for automatically evaluating apps generated by citizen developers, Rosen noted. By combining policy and technologically enforced guardrails, companies can encourage citizen developers to create apps without jeopardizing the company’s IT infrastructure.

Organizations should also build up and begin offering users a catalogue of pre-approved low-code and no-code applications; in other words, build up an internal app store for employees and offer training on how to use them.

IT departments need to be involved from the start. They should look at each application to be added to the catalogue for its specific case and determine what kind of data it accesses, according to Sudarshan Dharmapuri, vice president of products at Cisco.

screen shot 2022 08 31 at 9.55.13 pm Gartner, Inc.

“IT is still the custodian for core business systems,” Dharmapuri said. “They should be involved in defining the types of use cases and workloads best suited for citizen developers. We see IT still involved in the selection of low-code platforms and then setting up the right government structure and then allowing citizen developers to serve.”

It’s also important to have IT mentors available for users who are new to app development, because IT professionals versed in regulatory compliance understand what data may be useable — and what may not. (Some low-code platforms come out of the box with the ability to manage customer consent, or opt-in, preferences. Cisco’s Webex Connect platform is one of those.)

On the technical side, it's important to prevent users from making mistakes when using composable low-code, drag-and-drop interfaces. Otherwise, they might inadvertently set up an infinite loop in the workflow — a sequence of instructions that continues  endlessly unless manually stopped.

Professional developers in the IT shop also need to determine what kind of logic is being used in the background of. As Rosen noted, “no-code still uses code. It’s just creating an abstraction layer. You need to know how that code was created, and whether it’s safe to use.”

For example, GitHub Copilot uses the OpenAI Codex to suggest code to programmers using Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code source-code editor. In some cases, Rosen said, Copilot has picked up private information that was embedded in the code and exposed it publicly. The same kind of mistakes can be made by citizen developers, who in creating an application may unknowingly add sensitive data into their code.

Finally, there needs to be a quality assurance pipeline set up; that way, applications created by citizen developers are also being checked by IT to ensure compliance with internal business rules.

The downside of low-code/no-code

Compliance is important, because many low-code platforms are cloud-based; data being ingested into the tools by business units could expose sensitive corporate data, such as personally identifiable information like customer medical records or financial account details. No-code and low-code apps may also not meet internal security requirements. And the resulting apps might not integrate with existing back-end and front-end business applications.

“When you have something like Microsoft PowerApps embedded in Microsoft 365, which everyone in an office has…, they may come across this ability to build an app without ever interacting with the IT department,” Rosen said. “So, you’ve got this constant threat of shadow IT.

screen shot 2022 08 31 at 10.03.32 pm Gartner, Inc.

“Some people don’t necessarily think about data polities when they go to use these tools," she said. "Most of these tools are now web-based development environments, so you’re essentially putting your data on servers. So, employees need to be sensitive to this just like we do for phishing attacks. Companies like to tout the idea you don’t need training to know how to use low-code or no-code. You do.”

“These are the types of issues employees need to be sensitized to. Just as we sensitize all employees to phishing attacks and we sensitize them to other potential misuses of data. As low-code tools proliferate, it’s probably training that will have to be provided to all employees,” Rosen added.

Still, companies are investing in new platforms

Many organizations are budgeting to train business users to act as low-code developers. A January survey by IDC of 380 enterprises showed 48.6% of respondents are purchasing low-code or no-code platforms to move innovation in-house. Another 39% said the software tools can help mitigate “pandemic-related needs.”

Application platforms for development of business apps — including low- and no-code — ranked among the top three areas of investment across all platform-as-a-service providers, according to the IDC survey. Nearly half of survey respondents (45.5%) expect to boost spending on app development during the next two years.

screen shot 2022 08 31 at 10.09.35 pm Gartner, Inc.

Training is critical to success, too, according to Rosen. Organizations can’t achieve the full benefits of low-code technologies — such as productivity increases and reductions in resource constraints — without support for inclusive low-code development training.

For example, RizePoint, a provider of project management software, built out a technical training program via browser-based online education platform Codecademy. By upskilling its existing workforce, RizePoint filled 100% of open tech roles with existing employees.

Not only does reskilling or upskilling existing staff fill a development void, it also aids in employee retention, as learning new skills has been shown to be a top priority among work staff.

“It’s a win-win for both sides, especially if hiring continues to slow,” said Jonathan Naymark, general manager of Codecademy for Business.

A lot of businesses use Codecademy and other online developer training platforms to create citizen developer programs because the platforms are interactive, self-paced learning environments that teach employees to apply new skills in real-time and prepare for real-world work experiences, Naymark said.

Citizen developer programs, however, require both money and time, so it’s not something to be lightly considered, Naymark said.

“It takes a lot of time,” Naymark said. “So you have to consider what problems you’re trying to solve. What assets do you currently have? And, how much are you willing to invest?”

How RizePoint embraced low-code/no-code

RizePoint created a low-code/no-code developers’ program that took six months for employees to complete. The company draws heavily from its pool of customer service or success representatives, who have no technical background, but a deep understanding of the company's products.

The program initially focuses on learning JavaScript – one of the more simple coding languages.

“It’s super flexible and an easy language to pick up. You can actually go crazy with JavaScript. Think about all the popular JavaScript libraries there are for building web apps,” said RizePoint CTO Darrel Williams.

screen shot 2022 08 31 at 10.03.14 pm Gartner, Inc.

Business users in RizePoint’s developer program have their progress measured every two to four weeks to ensure they’re picking up what’s being laid down by Codecademy’s training platform.

“If they’re doing well with Codecadcemy, then you can jump into JavaScript, pick up some SQL databases, and then maybe some basic HTML and CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) web design,” said Williams, who himself didn’t pursue a career in technology until he was 35. “Then, if they’re doing well…, we do a 90-day internship helping the IT team.”

RizePoint’s citizen developers are always paired with mid-level or senior-level developer during their internships.

The company also continues to maintain standard best practices, such as “pull requests” when a business user develops an app —especially one that will be used across multiple business units. A pull request is followed by an IT quality assurance review during the app’s staging and subsequent release to production.

For users who went through the coding training program, RizePoint saw a 98% employee retention rate over the following two years.

“So, bringing folks in through our CSR [customer service representative] team has been fantastic because at that level you’re seeing a lot of folks who are hungry to learn and build their career. It’s that kind of optimism and excitement that works really well for this plan,” Williams said. “Once they’ve interned and converted to salaried employees, they feel they’ve accomplished a lot. And, they’re also thankful to the organization for helping them get to that level and have that success.”

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon