Is the citizen development movement a help or a hindrance?

The citizen developer movement is gaining momentum but in my experience it has yet to live up to its potential. I've put some thoughts together on this here - what's your opinion on this growing movement? Help or hindrance?


We are bombarded with it everywhere: Learn to code. Coding is the key to the future of your business. 

Whilst coding is a great skill to have and the above is true in an abstract way, low code platforms have totally changed the definition of what it means to be a coder and a developer. 

Take Appian, for instance. In the last few years, they have created a more intuitive interface, including visual modelling and user-friendly ‘drag and drop’ functionalities. These innovations theoretically allow people with little to no traditional programming knowledge to create sophisticated applications that solve real business problems in as little as two weeks. 

This ‘have-a-go’ developer was officially recognised way back in 2012 when Gartner analysts commented that “we’re all developers now”.

Shortly after, the term ‘citizen developer’ was coined.

The concept behind the movement is great – but also problematic. 

What is the citizen developer?

Gartner defines a citizen developer as, “a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others, using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT.” To extend on this, a citizen developer is someone who is not considered a coder or software developer in the traditional sense – it could be a marketing manager or a finance director. The introduction of low code platforms to many businesses means that people with little to no coding knowledge – but expert knowledge of business processes – could potentially create valuable apps that solve issues without burdening the IT department. This ability to divert away from the dreaded IT backlog has led to an explosion of intrapreneur citizen developers who are taking the initiative to make their departments faster and more efficient – but there are challenges with this movement. 

The problem with citizen developers

Many business leaders have been led to believe that citizen developers can help add agility to their organisations and, on paper, this argument seems to hold water: 60% of citizen developers have managed to create an app in two weeks or less. But speed does not always equal quality. 

Even though coding skills may not be a prerequisite to developing apps anymore, it doesn’t mean that technical skills are not important. In the modern world of hyper-connectivity, with applications running in tandem with various data sources and integrating with countless pieces of software, even citizen developers need fairly proficient knowledge of systems, as well as a strong understanding of business logic and data structures, in order to develop apps worth using. 

The main issue with the citizen developer movement is that the novice developer often cannot see the wood for the trees. It takes training, education and yes, experience before you can create an app that fits into the wider IT ecosystem. Low and no code tools can empower non-coders to take development into their own hands but if the base technical understanding isn’t there, it may cause more harm than good. 

IT governance is needed if citizen development is ever to become a legitimate pathway to integrated app development. Without it, citizen development becomes synonymous with shadow IT, and the risks multiply exponentially. With everybody pulling in the same direction, however, with total transparency, it has the potential to become a useful tool.

What are your thoughts on citizen developers?

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