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Citizen development in 2020's is like Excel in 2010's. Here's why.

Every company is a software company today. And if they are not today, they will be in the forthcoming future.  

What is one thing every software company has in common? A shortage of IT specialists. In other words, more work than there are developers to do it. And that is where the citizen developer comes in. 

If you face problems that can be solved with IT and know how you would solve them but lack the technical skills, you just might be a citizen developer in the making.

Citizen developer: meaning, context, models of operation 

A citizen developer is any business professional who applies their generalist technical knowledge to solve their own business problems directly through technology, without a specialized developer’s assistance. These solutions can take on a variety of forms. 

To define a citizen developer: 

A sales professional in a small organization is tasked with setting up their sales tech stack. She maps out the workflow and reads the technical documentation to, with ample swearing, integrate Salesforce with Outreach and ZoomInfo. She is a citizen developer. 

A logistics manager at a large home electronics manufacturer is fed up with having to manually fill out spreadsheets. After some searching he tries out a suit of tools from the citizen developer RPA (robotic process automation) vendor Electroneek and builds a bot that replicates his actions in Excel. Soon, all of his peers are using the same automation, and innovations is looking into what other impactful activities can be automated across the company. He is a citizen developer. 

A director of call center operations is short-staffed. She manages a team of nearly 900, yet there are not enough agents to meet the ever increasing customer demand. After some digging around, she tries out Dasha’s suit of tools. With the help of our Customer Success engineers, she is able to put together a simple AI app that takes over for an agent and is able to save 1 minute on each 3-4 minute conversation. This change lets her safely scale total volume of call throughput by 20% without hiring a single new agent. She is a citizen developer. 

I can’t quite pinpoint where my own journey as a citizen developer began. It definitely started before I became aware of the term, with checking server status and server logs on applications that my development team was working on. It progressed to building and deploying WordPress websites and designing intricately integrated sales and marketing technology stacks. Then I learned to build apps with Dasha AI, as a way to quickly put together demos for my customers.

My expectation is that citizen application development in the 2020’s will be like Excel in the 2000’s. You can’t imagine a job applicant coming to an interview who can’t use MS Word, Excel, Google Docs or email. That’s table stakes. By the same token, citizen application development will become table stakes by the end of the decade. Ranil Boteju, Global Head of Data Analytics WPB at HSBC, argues that the biggest shift will come with widespread use of accessible interfaces for data science analysis, enabling any professional to run big and small dataset analyses right at their computer. 

I’m making citizen development sound like the best thing since flat whites (thanks Australia). Let’s try and figure out what its real benefits and pitfalls are.

How citizen development is fundamental to digital transformation: the pros 

  1. Speed of delivery No need to get put on a wait list and kick rocks until IT resources get freed up 6 months down the line. With a culture of citizen development, your lines of business are able to solve their tech problems themselves and to do so quickly and efficiently. 

  2. No disconnect No matter how close your IT and lines of business are, they are two separate functions. You can explain your problems to IT well enough but will they live these problems? No, they have their own. An operations manager who can quickly solve their own problem with tech will solve exactly the problem, until the solution does just what they are after. 

  3. Quality assurance By the same token - our citizen developer operations manager will test the solution they create within a real working environment, as soon as it's ready. Because it solves their problems. This will shorten the QA cycle and eliminate any risks of broken telephone. 

  4. Direct visibility into business difficulties This one goes without saying. An employee becomes a citizen application developer because they see that something needs fixing and there is no one to step up to the challenge and fix it. 

What citizen development is not - the cons 

  1. Replacement for IT Having a robust citizen development culture does not mean you can do without the help of IT professionals and software engineers. While citizen developers can solve some of their own problems with technologies you put at their disposal, they are still line of business employees first and foremost. This means you will still need tech pros to maintain all your systems and for more complex development.

  2. Set it and forget it You can’t expect to just give your line of business managers and directors a citizen developer lecture and to have them running off and building tools on their own. This will lead to an influx of what is referred to as shadow IT - a situation in which your company is using technology that was not vetted by IT, nor approved by your infosec experts. What you should do instead is vet a set of tools and have your IT present these tools to your line of business experts, so that they can use them for their work. A best practice is to illustrate the usefulness of these tools with some real world use cases. I see you rolling your eyes - your IT teams are already overloaded. This is where some internal selling chops will come in handy. Your IT team needs to understand that this initial time investment will mean significant time savings for them down the line. 

  3. A garden of wild roses A citizen developer culture will require nurturing. In our experience, the best way to help your citizen developers excel is to do two things - give them a platform to communicate and give them a way to quickly distribute successful applications to other team members who can use them with benefit. 

  4. A career path I saw some discussions online claiming the idea of the citizen developer is a dead end because there are no job postings for “citizen developer” roles. And there shouldn’t be. Citizen development is only worthwhile as an additional layer of value that a professional in their respective field can offer to a company. There are no “citizen developer” jobs for the same reason there are no “Microsoft Word expert” jobs. It is an instrument, not a vocation. 

How to become a citizen developer or create a culture of citizen development  

Let’s start with a simple check list. 

  • Have you ever identified a problem or inefficiency in your work that can be solved with IT? 

  • Have you ever pitched IT to solve this problem for you, just to realize that they are much too busy now, and for the foreseeable future? 

You might want to consider becoming a citizen developer or introducing this concept into your company culture. 

How to go about it. As I mentioned earlier, my journey started of its own accord. It arose out of necessity. I clearly don’t have these numbers but I would imagine that the story is similar for a majority of citizen developers. And if you are reading these lines, chances are necessity already arose. 

Were I to be going on the citizen developer journey now, I would follow some sort of a roadmap to identify which tools I should be focusing on. 

Step 1: 

Identify your problems.

Step 2: 

Identify which type of citizen developer tools might solve these problems. 

Some examples are: 

  • RPA (robotic process automation) (e.g.: Electroneek, UI Path) 

  • Applications development (e.g.: Mendix, Microsoft Power Apps, Salesforce Lightning)

  • Common API and visual API tools (e.g.: Zapier, PieSync)

  • Legal document automation (e.g.: Documate, Clio)

  • Conversational automation - here I would be a fool not to suggest Dasha AI 

In closing 

I hope this was helpful. If you want to learn more about citizen development with Dasha AI - we’ve got a whole section of blog articles dedicated just to that. If you’ve got more questions than answers, feel free to schedule a time to speak with me here. 

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