Citizen IT developers: friend or foe of the IT industry?
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Citizen IT developers: Friend or foe of the IT industry?

5 Apr 2018

The advent of citizen IT developers is upon us, but the question remains as to whether IT professionals should celebrate or be wary of the trend.

The proliferation of low-code platforms, coupled with a sharp increase in enterprise demand for apps (which can deliver more sophisticated results than the spreadsheets of yore), has given rise to a new kind of employee: citizen IT developers.

For the uninitiated, a citizen IT developer, or citizen developer as Techopedia defines it, is “an end user who creates new applications or programs from a corporate or collective code base, system or structure”. Generally, these employees don’t have specific programming credentials and are working outside the IT department, leading to their efforts often being dubbed ‘shadow IT’ when they are carried out without an IT department’s knowledge or blessing.

Low-code development platforms such as Appian, Microsoft PowerApps and Google App Maker have made it easier than ever for those from a non-computer-science background to quickly whip up programs to respond to the particular needs of their organisations.

It doesn’t look like citizen IT developers are going anywhere any time soon, but the software development community is somewhat divided on whether they are a friend or a foe. So, how should you feel, and what should be done about this trend, if anything at all?

Responding to a need

As Dion Hinchcliffe wrote in 2016, until recently, most businesses have had to outsource their IT needs because it seldom was the case that someone in an enterprise possessed the level of technical skill required to develop solutions.

“The business side has long had to place their fate in the hands of those with the requisite skills, but often with little sympathy for or firsthand knowledge of the business itself,” he explained. “Or they just ended up acquiring pre-existing software that was a close enough fit, and then had it configured to their needs.”

It amounted to a square-peg-circular-hole-type situation whereby tech solutions never quite served business needs at an optimum level.

Citizen IT developers, however, have the advantage of being installed within an organisation and therefore, having observed the ebb and flow of the business, possess a deep intuitive knowledge of what it requires. It’s difficult for someone outside of a business to replicate that level of understanding.

Clearing the backlog

Furthermore, citizen IT developers are arguably clearing the backlog for IT departments that are more taxed than ever. According to a 2017 market analysis from Global Market Insights, the enterprise application market is expected to grow at a rate of almost 8pc annually and to be worth more than $287bn by 2024.

According to figures released by Kintone, not only is the rate of these citizen developers on the rise, but they get their apps out the door faster than large IT departments.

One could argue that if the tools exist to easily deploy productivity-boosting solutions, it would be crazy for businesses not to get on board.

If it takes the heat off the IT departments and allows them to focus their efforts on more sophisticated issues, that can only be a good thing, right?

Data considerations

Yet many infosec teams are growing irritated with the trend. Charged with protecting the integrity of company data, IT departments are understandably chagrined at having to deal with unregulated apps coming under the table.

Should we be surprised that IT professionals aren’t pleased that they are essentially being asked to support apps they haven’t had the time to vet, given that potential data breaches will fall on their heads?

This is a particularly topical consideration given that the GDPR deadline is drawing closer and closer with each passing day.

The potential for serious financial penalties means that breaches could pose a genuine risk to businesses, though many have been quick to stress that maximum fines will likely be rare.

Additionally, the recent Cambridge Analytica quagmire has brought the ethical considerations of data use to light. There is a moral, as well as a fiscal, imperative on IT professionals to ensure that sensitive data is handled properly.

How should an IT professional feel?

Citizen IT developers could compromise an IT department’s ability to do this by removing oversight.

Yes, the low-code platforms provide tools to create apps expediently and efficiently, but how secure can they really be when these developers are putting them together without an in-depth understanding of how everything functions, both independently and in relation to one another?

As Jason Bloomberg pointed out in Forbes, the 2017 Kintone survey revealed that for businesses, giving citizen IT developers access to low-code platforms is of greater importance than providing skills training. Therefore, it’s unlikely that the people depending on low code to address business needs will ever gain an understanding of what they’re doing.

So, do citizen IT developers actually help the backlog? Is any attempt to stamp out low-coding tendencies possibly nipping innovation in the bud and impeding an organisation’s progress? Or do citizen IT developers, if anything, create more work for IT departments by necessitating that people retroactively patch apps?

As previously said, it doesn’t look like people are going to stop trying their hand at low code. It would be remiss to prescribe one position on the issue over the other but, whichever side of the argument you favour, IT professionals cannot reasonably expect to just ignore citizen IT developers and their role in a company.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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