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Citizen Development

Leveraging Citizen Development for Massive Projects

Written By: Rob Glover
February 17, 2023
6 min read

Imagine rolling out a nationwide 5G network. There are hundreds of sub-contractors to manage. Millions of dollars' worth of materials flowing through a complex supply chain. And dozens of teams—from real estate to regulators—that need to coordinate cross-functionally.

Project management at that scale would benefit greatly from a bespoke suite of applications designed for those specific challenges. Historically, the options have been to buy off-the-shelf software or tap an internal team of engineers to build what you need.

But most large projects are basically one-off instances with unique problems to solve, so there aren’t off-the-shelf platforms that just plug and play. And lean IT teams don’t have the bandwidth, or the first-hand understanding of the challenge, to build every app for so many complex requirements. The result is a backlog of requests with IT and ill-fitting software that leaves gaps between needs and solutions.

The advent of no-code software development has broken this stalemate. Now, people across a project or organization can develop whatever useful app they need, on the fly, without writing a single line of code. These “citizen developers” are building grassroots apps, often in a matter of days, that solve previously neglected challenges—all while allowing IT the bandwidth to maintain good governance over each piece of software.

What is a citizen developer?

Gartner, the first organization to coin the term, 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.”

Also called business users or business technologists, citizen developers are people outside of the traditional IT function who create software applications using low or no-code platforms.

One of the most relatable examples of non-developers creating software applications comes from the e-commerce industry.

In the early 2000s, e-commerce was full of untapped potential. While online shopping made it possible for a retailer to reach customers across the globe, website creation tools weren’t built for retail. Most sellers didn’t have the IT resources to build and update websites themselves—nor the cash to pay expensive developers to do it for them. That left many vendors relegated to selling through large retailers.

Enter Shopify’s e-commerce website creation tool in 2006. Suddenly, any seller could drag and drop elements of a digital store into place and launch a site in a few hours. They didn’t have to wait for a dev team’s help when it was time to add new products or improve the checkout process—they could create a customer-friendly shop on their own. Thousands of sellers became citizen web developers in the retail space, opening and optimizing their virtual shops for previously unreachable buyers.

The prevalence of citizen developers extends far beyond retail. Sixty Fortune 100 companies use low/no code to develop apps. For large-scale projects, this shift means enabling processes with technology to make them faster, more effective, and more cost-efficient.

How citizen developers solve many large-scale project challenges

As citizen development via no-code platforms becomes the norm, project directors will have access to a nearly limitless menu of apps, no matter how specialized the need. This new wave of software will help projects progress toward a long-overdue digital transformation.

Free up IT resources

When the heavy lifting of app development is spread across an organization, IT teams are free to focus on very high-priority projects like governance and security.

The one-two punch of a growing skills gap and increasing demand has put a considerable strain on IT teams. In a large project where the need for customized apps is high, citizen developers become the valve that relieves IT team pressure.

Take the facilities team at Sodexo, for example. The company has the massive task of providing food and facility management to 100 million consumers for thousands of client facilities.

As big and unique as Sodexo’s needs are, one internal citizen developer with little technical experience built a suite of no-code apps. The company uses these applications to manage a laundry list of important tasks like action plans, training, and safety. And they did it without involving their busy IT team.

Produce better-fit apps

Citizen developers are both users and app designers, so they’re perfectly positioned to build, test, and update software for particular use cases. It’s like a mechanic designing a new socket wrench that’s ideal for working on a specific model of automobile.

Large projects continue to grow in complexity, and the apps that enable them need unique and increasingly intricate functionality. Plus they’re time bound, which means it’s impractical to wait months to wait for an internally generated solution. A software developer isn’t typically in the trenches with the people that use their apps, which makes it difficult to translate needs to features.

Additionally, there’s little engineer bandwidth to trial an app prototype. If the first iteration isn’t perfect, or if needs change, users must make do with what’s delivered.

No-code platforms let the people who need the apps build the apps. Since there's no waiting for another IT slot to open up, citizen developers are free to prototype minimally viable versions and update as needed.

Kayak—a leading online travel booking provider—doesn’t have an internal IT department. They rely on citizen developers to spin up purpose-built project management and workflow apps.

Using no-code software, Kayak prototypes, develops, and deploys a new application in five to ten minutes. That gives the team freedom to conduct low-risk trials to prove efficacy, leading to tools that work perfectly for their needs.

Reduce cost and improve efficiency

The cost of contracting third-party software engineers to build bespoke apps is prohibitive. That’s especially true when a project only has a one-time, year-long use for them. And waiting for a contract developer or in-house team to complete a solution for a time-bound project isn’t feasible either.

That’s why citizen developers are particularly transformative for complex projects. No-code development lets them take an app from idea to deployment in a fraction of the time and cost of traditional methods.

Boyett construction’s need for a lower-cost way to produce specialized applications illustrates the point. The company manages 150 commercial construction projects annually. They needed a way to keep track of them beyond spreadsheets and emails. So the team built a no-code project management app designed to their specifications that cost much less than even off-the-shelf options.

Citizen developers also come through when speed is the highest priority. In 2014, a polar vortex wreaked havoc on North Eastern U.S. roads. Agero, a company that provides roadside assistance to over 75 million customers, needed a new website application that allowed customers to contact them online. Agero product managers became citizen developers and turned around an app that met all the requirements in a single day.

The next generation of workers will be citizen developers

Gen Z and Gen Alpha are learning how to build no-code applications from popular online universes like Roblox and Minecraft. These platforms are even being used in schools and could play a significant role in the future of education.

As these native citizen developers enter the workforce, they’ll bring their skills and interest in no-code app creation with them.

Project leaders that build their plans on no-code platforms will attract these talented citizen developers, set their projects up for success, and give their IT teams space to focus on security and governance.

Written By: Rob Glover

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