Architecture & DesignSplitting Fact from Fiction: The Role of the Citizen Developer in the...

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By Robert Castles, principal, PMG

As a traditional developer, it’s hard to keep tabs on industry news without seeing talk of the rise of the citizen developer. After all, the conversation has been happening for years now. In 2011, Gartner predicted that by 2014 a quarter of all apps would be built by citizen developers.

Though a measured prediction in itself, estimates like this spurred ambitious expectations for the citizen developer. Simultaneously, enterprises grew excited with a new, readily available development source while leaving traditional developers wondering what their own role would look like in this new landscape.

As someone with more than 25 years in the IT world and a background in traditional development, I can tell you with confidence: Sure, enterprises can expect citizen developers to play prominent development roles in the years ahead, but we’re a long way from an IT force led and driven solely by these new employees.

This article will help level-set on the role of citizen developers in the near future, show traditional developers a new lens through which to view the citizen developer, and, finally, lay out the foundation for a healthy relationship between the two parties.

A Working Definition of the Citizen Developer

Initially, enterprises set lofty expectations for the citizen developer. They were cast as a new wave of application developers, given free reign over a massive, open marketplace where they would have the power to develop and deploy externally facing applications on behalf of their prospective companies.

However, as any developer can tell you, the enterprise ecosystem is best treated as a living, breathing body. Between platform-to-platform integrations, development and deployment processes, process documentation, and more, the complexity is enormous. And, tending this ecosystem is a tall order to ask of individuals who have never even written code before.

So, for long-term citizen developer success, enterprises need to level-set their expectations, and they can start with Gartner’s definition. Per Gartner, a citizen developer is an end user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT. From my experience, this definition hits close to the mark.

Enterprises shouldn’t expect an army of new developers settling the Wild Wild West, bringing new apps to the public sans-code. Instead, this is a team of business users who create applications in an environment created and controlled by corporate IT.

Ultimately, developers can view this new relationship as a simple, familiar concept. IT is placing power in the hands of the people who know what the problem is, empowering them to solve the problems themselves without being reliant on more technical resources to get the job done. That’s a relationship traditional developers can get behind.

Approaching Citizen Developers from a Traditional Developer’s Perspective

Even with a more realistic definition of citizen developers, traditional developers have reason to be reluctant. As an unintended side effect of enterprises eagerly anticipating the use of citizen developers, many traditional developers perceived a decline in their own value. However, that’s far from the truth. With a shift in perspective, it’s easy to see citizen developers as an asset to a traditional developer’s efforts, rather than a replacement.

For starters, citizen developers are typically ambitious business users looking to contribute to the business in a new way. For traditional developers, this means instant access to a new batch of business unit SMEs, as well as a more agile, iterative development process. Not to mention these citizen developers may have access to additional budget for initiatives IT has long struggled to fund on its own.

The good news doesn’t stop there, either. How many times have your fellow developers complained that they’re stuck “keeping the technological lights on?” Citizen developers can free traditional developers from that burden, moving into that maintenance role themselves.

For instance, developers thinking strategically realize they can step in to guide business units in build high-productivity applications. And, once the solution has been deployed, much of the maintenance, as well as minor-to-moderate enhancements, can be handled by the citizen developer. Doing so allows IT to get involved only when the more critical next-generation updates are required.

Listen, there’s no point pretending there’s not a dynamic shift. Even the most cautious predictions call for stable year-over-year growth of the use of citizen developers in the enterprise. Yet, the savvy traditional developer can see this as a means of achieving the ultimate end-goal, which is propelling the business forward by equipping it with the technologies it needs for success.

Taking Tangible Steps to Make the Traditional Citizen Developer Relationship Succeed

However, success of this relationship doesn’t sit solely on the shoulders of the developers. Organizations must take action, as well. They can start by defining expectations from the top-down.

Both sides can benefit from clearly defined expectations and understanding the roles management expects them to play. After all, there’s always the opportunity for friction when attempting to align two employee groups with starkly different skillsets.

Thus, it’s important that both sides appreciate and trust in the capabilities of the other for a strong partnership. This poses a challenge for both traditional developers, who may underestimate the technical ability of the citizen developer, and for citizen developers, who may enter with negative perceptions of IT and their understanding of the business. Each party’s value should soon become apparent.

The fact is, developers own the true technical expertise on areas, such as programming logic structures and corresponding decision steps. And, citizen developers bring invaluable knowledge of the business and the various solution requirements. But, when paired, the two skillsets and knowledgebases complement one another quite well.

However, to seal the deal, enterprises need to surpass talk and take tangible action. This begins with charting out the alignment of the two groups on an organizational chart and establishing recurring meetings.

Formalizing the relationship further sets the expectation for both parties that they’re to work together for the greater good of the business. Ongoing meetings not only enhance face time, and thus rapport, but they also provide a fertile opportunity to merge the two parties’ diverse knowledge bases and expertise, catalysing new and innovative initiatives for the business.

You’re probably asking yourself, where to from here? We’re in the early days of the citizen developer/traditional developer relationship. Although the relationship does have a few barriers in its way to truly flourish, enterprises have a wealth to gain if they can overcome those barriers and create a culture of collaboration between the two parties.

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