Citizen developers are going to need a leader

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On a sunny day in June 1789, a crowd of peasants stormed a tower in France, desperate to secure gunpowder. They were fed up with not being able to vote under an out-of-touch king. What followed was known as the French Revolution. It toppled the monarchy, spread power to the people, unleashed chaos and ended in … another dictator.

Nature abhors a vacuum and history teaches us that large, leaderless enterprises eventually appoint someone. (It’s called a “revolution” because it ends where it starts.) If nobody steps up, we tend to get bad leaders. This is top of mind because of the rise of so-called citizen developers, folks who don’t code but nevertheless build software thanks to no-code/low-code (LC/NC) tools like Microsoft Power Apps.

It’s an exciting time. Tens of millions of additional people are now able to build software. But as someone who’s spent his career thinking about which methodologies and tools create high-quality software, I can assure you that empowering people to create things is not the same as ensuring they build effectively. I believe citizen developers are going to need a leader.

The rise of the citizen developer

The world population of citizen developers isn’t massive — just a few tens of millions, according to The Economist — but it’s growing at a blistering 40% year-over-year. That’s three times faster than the population of developers (25M) is growing.

In 2021 alone, Microsoft Power Apps, one of the best examples of democratized app creation suites, doubled in size to 10M users. Half of large insurers, many of them victims of legacy internal systems, are reportedly considering giving their entire company access to apps like this.

No doubt, all these newly anointed “developers” are going to identify and address niche issues no central team would ever have noticed or prioritized. Free of central IT’s benevolent gaze, folks are free to build apps that make their lives easier, which will no doubt bleed into afterwork hours, flexing the company’s development capacity to unimaginable heights. But the warning signs are already clear.

As The Economist reports, one employee at the Australian telecom firm Telstra created an app that unified 70 internal systems that’s used by 1,300 coworkers. The challenge? The interface presents users with an egregious 150 buttons and resembles a space shuttle control panel.

Perhaps there’s a parallel to other creator platforms, like YouTube, TikTok, or Minecraft, where the vast majority of what’s created is low-quality, buggy, and enjoyed by few. I think it’s highly unlikely that individuals without an engineering background are going to think about interoperability, security or compliance, to say nothing of the interface.

What might the sum of all these troublesome interfaces and user-generated apps create? What happens when these apps clash, overlap, conflict, and can overwrite each others’ data? Who maintains them, especially as the underlying systems each evolve? Who manages support requests? Does it eventually grow large enough for IT to inherit?

Not unlike the siege of that fated Bastille in 1789, the people may acquire gunpowder. The question is whether they’ll know what to do with it.

Citizen developers need two guides — one within and one without

I started my career in software back in the early 2000s at a time like today, flush with new technology, rapid experimentation, and a feeling of limitless possibility. I was heavily influenced by the paradigm shift from heavy processes to lightweight ones. These were the days when the Agile Manifesto was written, unit-tests became an accepted practice, the gang of four’s Design Patterns was on everyone’s reading list, and some poor souls had to deal with Unified Modeling Languages.

Part of what made the small group of people who defined that era so influential was that it was just a handful of leaders who you could identify, point to, and follow. They were also interested in seeing the industry develop, not just seeing any given software vendor win, so they could say anything in the pursuit of truth. Together, they had a profound impact on the people within companies who were actually building the software, or learning about it in school.

I see that dynamic as a model for how leaders for citizen developers might emerge. I imagine there’ll be two classes:

  • Agnostic industry innovators — public figures trying to solve the challenge of coordinating the work of millions of citizen developers. In my mind, it’s crucial that they be vendor agnostic so they can remain honest.
  • Internal business engineers — a handful of architects within each company or business group who coordinate citizen development. They bring all the powerful tools and methodologies from software development to bear, to ensure all those federated apps interlock, and are secure, compliant, available, and friendly to use. They disseminate these methodologies and tools to others.

The advisory firm Gartner strongly advocates hiring people who fit that second group. They might even sit outside IT, says Gartner, given how closely they’ll need to understand the business. If you empower these “business technologists,” you are reportedly 2.6x more likely to accelerate digital transformation. At Salto, we call these individuals “business engineers,” a compound moniker that conveys how important it is that they not just configure systems, but do so to benefit the company, and the individuals who use those systems.

Whatever you call yours, I think every company that courts citizen development needs them. And whoever those agnostic industry innovators are today, I hope they start doing a lot more talks and provide the rest of us the methodologies and tools to guide us through this revolution.

Citizen developers need leaders. Could that be you?

The French Revolution ended in a second dictator — Napoleon Bonaparte. You don’t have to read much history to know that was not very benevolent and led the people into ten years of devastating war. When leaderless organizations don’t select their leaders, their leaders select themselves, and they tend not to be the people we want in charge.

Amidst the rapid rise of citizen developers in your business, you have to ask, who’s going to lead them? I think it’s important to figure out now, before fate decides for you. History tells me you won’t be pleased with the result.

Gil Hoffer is the CTO and cofounder of Salto.

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