Citizen Development Turns Software Novices Into Creators

Attention, citizens! You can now become software developers. Only minimal skills necessary.

John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author

May 5, 2023

4 Min Read
Computer programmer, software developer, or engineer working on computer database with futuristic CGI graphic data.
Yuri Arcurs via Alamy Stock

Citizen development, an approach that turns non-IT-trained employees into software developers who can build business-critical applications, is gaining popularity thanks to the growing availability of low-code/no-code platforms.

 Almost anyone can be a citizen developer, which is what makes low-code/no-code tools so exciting for individuals and compelling for businesses, says Debbi Roberts, senior vice president at low-code application development platform provider Quickbase. “In today's rapidly changing global marketplace, companies must adapt to new technologies and embrace a more collaborative approach to doing business,” she explains. “Anyone who's motivated and curious about using technology to solve a problem can make impactful contributions to a business as a citizen developer.”

Getting Started

Citizen developers tend to be individuals who are technologically literate and passionate about problem solving. They also usually possess a deep understanding of a business process or customer need and want to focus on creating value beyond their primary role, observes Christian Kelly, managing director, Internet, software, and platforms, at business advisory firm Accenture. “Carefully selecting your first citizen developers is crucial to showing value early, which will help ensure further investments in citizen development initiatives,” he notes.

Initial attempts at citizen development applications should be small-scale and non-critical. “Developing personal productivity solutions is a great way to get started in a low stakes way,” says Jason Rivera, collaboration architect and team lead with cloud and managed services provider Cognizant Microsoft Business Group. “For example, if you need to be alerted when a team member updates a document, or if you need to approve a document before it can move on to the next step in a process, creating a solution like that is trivial and can be expanded upon as your business process evolves.”

Another way to begin is targeting business process areas in which citizen developers already have a high degree of understanding, such as sales enablement, time reporting, and internal service request needs. For external, customer-facing apps, Kelly recommends investigating areas where there's a need for fast prototyping and less friction between what users want and what should be developed. “Finally, look to your business users to identify business processes that could be automated,” he says.

Possible Pitfalls

A common mistake is viewing citizen development as an easy way to replace IT teams or eliminate shadow IT, Kelly says. He advises paying close attention to the internal methodology and technology infrastructure needed to create successful citizen development initiatives. “Miscalculating the level of structure, governance, and security needed for such projects could have disastrous consequences and lead to the early end of any low-code/no-code initiative,” Kelly warns.

 Potential adopters should also resist the temptation to launch a citizen development initiative before constructing some basic guardrails. “Partnering with internal stakeholders can help ensure that development capabilities get safely and effectively dispersed throughout the company,” Roberts says. Enterprises should also deploy strong administrative controls, as well as comprehensive security and compliance programs. “By doing so, companies can speed up business operations while ensuring that their people, data, and customers are properly protected,” she says.

On the Horizon

Mav Turner, CTO of DevOps at continuous testing firm Tricentis, anticipates massive acceleration in citizen development adoption as AI tools grow increasingly sophisticated and easier to use. “The barrier to entry will continue to drop, enabling more people to apply these technologies for use cases we haven't thought of or been able to experiment with yet,” he says.

Kelly says it will be interesting to see how citizen development evolves alongside the rising democratization of AI and ML intelligence. “While the possibilities are exciting, this convergence will also present big challenges, as precautions will be needed to ensure AI/ML is used responsibly,” he states. “Understanding the nuances and risks associated with AI/ML will be essential in safely enabling users to leverage these technologies as part of citizen development initiatives.”

Rivera sees AI/ML leading to potential exciting opportunity for citizen developers. “Maybe we'll start seeing an increase in chatbot-style services that incorporate the new OpenAI capabilities we're seeing so much in the news, which go far beyond the type of chatbots that are currently available to citizen developers,” he says.

Impactful Solutions

Citizen development is all about creating impactful digital solutions in a streamlined, democratized way, and fostering a culture of continuous improvement, Roberts says. She predicts that the trend will continue gaining steam as tools and processes become increasingly ingrained in everyday business practices. “As development becomes more accessible to everyone, these practices will evolve into broader citizen automation -- the democratization of not just development, but also disciplines like data integration, data science, and more.”

What to Read Next:

Managing Expectations in Low-Code/No-Code Strategies

Microsoft Brings Generative AI to Low-Code Platform

Low Code: Satisfying Meal or Junk Food?


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.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights