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The increasing importance of citizen developers

The traditional view of software development is that it’s an activity performed by highly qualified teams of IT professionals. Increasingly, this view is changing.

Within growing numbers of organisations, software development is being undertaken by people with little or no technical experience. Dubbed ‘citizen developers’ they are creating code that streamlines processes and significantly boosts productivity.

The rise of citizen developers is being driven by a number of trends. One is the ongoing prevalence of digital transformation projects. The skills and ideas needed to support these initiatives can be challenging to source from outside an organisation and so steps are taken to foster them internally.

A second trend is the rise of low-code and no-code platforms. These platforms allow people who are not programmers to develop software that will help them better perform their roles.

A third trend is the increasing pressure that’s on employers to create continuous-learning environments for their staff. With technology and business processes changing so quickly, being able to constantly upgrade skills has become an essential requirement.

Training should not be a burden for staff

For citizen developers to be fostered and skilled within organisations, it is important for managers to understand how the process should be undertaken.

One key factor is that training and development should not be carried out in addition to existing tasks. Expecting staff to develop in their own time is unlikely to work in the longer term.

Organisations with citizen-developer ambitions must firstly appreciate the current roles undertaken by staff and the time constraints they face on a daily basis. If managers want to prioritise innovation, there should be time set aside within regular schedules for the work to be completed. 

Of course, not every organisation has the luxury of allowing staff to spend 20% of their work time on other projects as was the strategy taken by Google. However, strong results can be achieved by allocating just a couple of hours on a regular basis. 

Part of establishing a culture of citizen development is about raising awareness of what digital tools can do and how they can improve business-as-usual processes.  People need to clearly understand how their efforts will benefit both them and the organisation as a whole.

Citizen developers and the IT department

It’s also important to clearly explain how new citizens will relate to their organisation’s existing IT department. Both can exist in harmony and deliver value in different ways.

Citizen developers are likely to focus their attention on creating tools that help overcome specific workplace challenges. This could be anything from automating a workflow to streamlining how data is passed between systems.

To achieve this, it will be important for the organisation to provide access to suitable development platforms. These will allow interested staff to quickly make use of their new skills and see the results of the time they invest.

The tools should also have governance and compliance guardrails built in. This will ensure that any new tools that are created comply with relevant regulations and rules.

This is not to say that newly minted citizen developers will be able to undertake all the development work required across an organisation. Some projects will be more complex or technically difficult and should remain the responsibility of the IT department.

However, this doesn’t mean that citizen developers have no role to play in these projects. Once code has been created by the IT team, it can be tested by other staff to ensure it addresses the challenge and works as expected in a production environment.

As the capabilities of low-code and no-code tools increase, it’s likely that the level of citizen development occurring will continue to rise. Staff will benefit from having expanded skills and organisations will benefit from a far more productive workplace.

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