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How to Build a Team of Talented Citizen Developers

Skilled citizen developers don’t just suddenly appear. They require training and encouragement.

John Edwards

February 7, 2024

4 Min Read
Casual business people meeting at modern office
Prasit Rodphan via Alamy Stock

At a Glance

  • Creating effective citizen developers requires several key ingredients.
  • As GenAI implementation takes off, citizen developers provide several key benefits.
  • While citizen developers don’t need advanced coding skills, they should have other strengths.

The idea sounds great in concept -- allowing non-technical employees to create applications for use by themselves or others using pre-approved tools. Yet, in practice, building a citizen developer team requires comprehensive training, strong support, and close oversight.

Citizen developers use low-code/no-code to develop amazingly diverse applications, says Ori Bendet, vice president of product management at enterprise security testing firm Checkmarx, in an email interview. “Applications created by citizen developers range from complete mobile applications to workflow applications, core business applications and more,” he notes. “With a lower barrier to entry, low-code and no-code development’s possibilities are endless.”

Citizen development can help enterprises overcome the current IT talent shortage while achieving innovation at scale. “The benefit is actually double,” Bendet says. “It also opens a career path for existing employees who want to expand into new areas of development.”

Key Benefits

Citizen development democratizes application creation, opening a way for non-technical users to build solutions that are important to them, accelerating innovation while reducing IT workload, explains Dinesh Varadharajan, chief product officer with low code application development platform provider Kissflow, via email. Citizen development can also enhance collaboration between IT and other departments, bridging gaps in understanding and priorities. “By leveraging business user insights, citizen development can lead to more user-centric solutions.”

Related:Citizen Development Turns Software Novices Into Creators

Citizen developers are typically closer to business processes than other developers. “In fact, they’re usually already subject matter experts,” observes Wayne Butterfield, a partner at technology research advisory firm ISG in an email interview. Additionally, the cost of training a citizen developer is typically already accounted for, so there’s very little incremental cost -- at least on the resource side -- when looking at a citizen developer pool for resources.

As generative AI continues evolving, the level of programming abstraction is expected to increase significantly, enabling more business users with minimal coding knowledge to build increasingly sophisticated applications, Varadharajan predicts. “Traditional programming may become more focused on system-level programming and highly complex solutions, while the development of custom applications will predominantly be in the hands of citizen developers.”

On the downside, citizen development opens the door to several serious concerns, including the potential for compromised security, sensitive information exposure, misconfiguration mistakes, and numerous other issues. “Novice coders users usually aren’t technically savvy and often mistakenly assume security is baked into their tools,” Bendet warns.

Related:Microsoft Brings Generative AI to Low-Code Platform

Getting Started

The first step in building a citizen developer team should be establishing a formal development program, Varadharajan says. “This includes providing teams with suitable development tools, clearly defining and communicating the problems they can address, and implementing governance models that allow experimentation without the risk of disrupting the system.”

Training is the key to citizen developer success, Butterfield says. “Knowledge retention is an issue, so ensure that your training is followed by hands-on use,” he advises. The best scenario is for the developer to learn some basic tasks and immediately put them to use with mentors available to clarify any missing knowledge, “which, no doubt, there will be plenty of in the beginning.”

The ultimate success of any citizen development initiative hinges on selecting the appropriate tools and frameworks. “Rather than focusing solely on theoretical training sessions, it’s beneficial to enable hands-on experimentation,” Varadharajan says. “By tackling smaller, practical problems, participants not only become familiar with their tools, but also gain an understanding of the governance surrounding the applications they create.”

Related:Managing Expectations in Low-Code/No-Code Strategies

Achieving Balance

Citizen developers should be allowed to use at least 50% of their work time to putting their new skills to use and, in a perfect world, that level would stay constant, Butterfield says. “Many failed programs trace back to a failure to reduce a citizen developer’s workload, so development work becomes ‘and’ rather than ‘instead of’ their current workload.”

Citizen developers should initially focus on application development, which, although time-consuming will streamline their regular tasks, Varadharajan says. “As these tools become integrated into their daily workflow, the time saved can be reinvested in further development, creating a cycle of increasing efficiency and innovation.”

Parting Thoughts

Citizen developers needn’t possess programming expertise, but they should excel in problem-solving, Varadharajan observes. “Tools designed for citizen development bridge the semantic gap, eliminating the need for in-depth systems knowledge while emphasizing the skill to adeptly address business issues,” he notes. “Although citizen developers may not be adept at wielding a chisel, they should have a clear vision of the sculpture they aim to create.”

Nevertheless, there are many types of coding that citizen developers simply aren’t suited for, Butterfield warns. “Traditional software development, and anything that isn’t ‘drag-and-drop’ would usually be a ‘no-no’ for many citizen developers, as well as anything that’s super-complex from a process perspective,” he explains. “Complexity usually equals time and needed expertise, hence it’s usually not a good fit for a citizen developer.”

About the Author(s)

John Edwards

Technology Journalist & Author

John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic Design. He has also written columns for The Economist's Business Intelligence Unit and PricewaterhouseCoopers' Communications Direct. John has authored several books on business technology topics. His work began appearing online as early as 1983. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he wrote daily news and feature articles for both the CompuServe and Prodigy online services. His "Behind the Screens" commentaries made him the world's first known professional blogger.

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