Illustration of a low-code development concept, showing an iMac display with marked out segments and a cursor outside the screen selecting elements to drag and drop into the application.
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What the age of the citizen developer means for employers

19 May 2022

Microsoft’s Kieran McCorry spoke at the Irish Project Management Institute Conference 2022 about how employers can future-proof against talent shortages using citizen developers and the challenges that come with this.

There is change happening around us all of the time. This is as true of software development as it is of the weather. You’ve just become used to the rain and then suddenly you’re in the middle of an unrelenting downpour.

This is what the world of software development is like at the moment. We are at an inflexion point, moving away from applications being developed by specialist teams of architects, product designers, programmers and testers to applications being developed by the person who happens to be sitting next to you who is unsatisfied with the business processes currently being used in the organisation.

This is the world of the citizen developer. Gartner defines a citizen developer as an employee who creates application capabilities for consumption by themselves or others, using tools that are not actively forbidden by IT or business units.

In reality, citizen developers are employees that are often tech-curious, motivated and seeking to make a difference. They rely on the abundance of the so-called no-code/low-code tools such as Microsoft Power Platform, which essentially allow anyone to develop valuable business applications. They can automate and improve processes without deep technical knowledge or programming experience.

Apps can be built quickly with familiar tools and pre-built templates that have point-and-click or drag-and-drop simplicity across mobile and web platforms.

The growth in this area of application development is huge. In 2019, it was projected that 500m new applications would be developed in the next five years, equal to the total number of applications developed over the last 40 years.

Add to this demand the shortage of application developer resources. As much as 86pc of organisations can’t find the technical talent to build applications. Plus there’s the fact that the global shortage of application developers will increase from 1.4m in 2021 to 4m in 2025, and that the demand for mobile applications has historically been growing at least five times faster than the delivery capacity of internal IT organisations.

When you look at all this data, it’s pretty clear that citizen developers will play a key role in developing these much needed-business improvement applications.

Managing citizen developers

What does this mean for the traditional implementation and delivery of projects? I foresee five primary challenges that organisations and particularly project management professionals will have to overcome.

First, project governance models are used to define roles and structures for application development projects. The actors know their specialist roles, whether they are architects, programmers, testers etc, and generally deliver what is expected of them in a way that is well understood and predictable.

This is true as much across traditional projects as it is across agile and ‘shift-left’ projects. However, the citizen developer is an unknown quantity, at least as far as project managers are concerned. They don’t fit into the traditional roles and they play by their own ‘just get it done’ rules.

For project managers, this is a whole new mode of engagement and control that they will have to craft to replace the rigour and structure of conventional projects.

Second, the sheer volume of these business applications, the so-called ‘biz apps’, that will be developed will be difficult for organisations and project management offices to control. With no-code/low-code platforms allowing almost anyone to develop a biz app to make their job easier, it’s likely that the supply of project management resources will be far outstripped by demand.

Third, the majority of biz apps are developed in some form of isolation. Individuals developing solutions for themselves or their departments without much in the way of central business technology strategy and governance.

This leads to complexity, with biz apps being developed with inconsistent ‘look and feel’, the potential for inconsistent data sources and data repositories, possible duplication of effort, and fragmentation of value that can result from a lack of understanding of inter-dependencies and cross-project impacts.

This is not to say that the ability to deliver much needed biz apps is a problem intrinsically, but that the mere ability to deliver them does not itself negate the need for good governance and project management. However, while the former has become so much easier, the latter has become so much harder.

Fourth, the risk of misalignment between requirements and deliverables increases. Empowered citizen developers are inclined to develop solutions that meet their own individual needs, allowing them to do their own job more efficiently.

However, individual efficiency improvements may not translate directly into team efficiency improvements and may in fact cause or amplify existing business process difficulties. This is not a reason to suppress the rise of the citizen developer; rather it is a reason to further develop the capacity and sophistication of governance and project management resources.

Fifth, there is the issue of visibility. The benefit of no-code/low-code development is that almost anyone can develop their own biz apps. But the drawback of no-code/low-code development is that almost anyone can develop their own biz-apps!

The challenge for organisations and project managers is how can they effectively operate and exert control in an environment with limited visibility of what’s happening and where, who is developing what applications, and what the impacts are on other perhaps more mainstream applications, business processes and business operations.

Addressing talent shortages

Leaving aside the challenges faced by project management offices, given the talent shortages evident for the backlog of applications needed, it’s pretty clear that citizen developers are going to play a much more central role for companies as they address their business process improvements.

Organisations of all sizes will need to nurture and grow this new resource pool of talent. They should start by looking within, identifying citizen developer talent already on their payroll and giving them the support and training they need to achieve more.

This will help retain talent. To attract new talent, organisations will need to look to the market and be attractive to this new developer demographic, Again, support and training, along with career development, will be the keys to success.

The age of the citizen developer is here. It’s real. And while it presents great opportunities it is not without its attendant challenges. Businesses and project managers need to adapt quickly to this reality – to support and encourage this new form of digital disruption, not to supress it.

If they don’t, the war cry of the citizen developer will be that of General Patton: “Lead me, follow me or get out of my way.”

By Kieran McCorry

Kieran McCorry is the national technology officer at Microsoft Ireland.

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