Avoiding the Loose Ends of Citizen Development

I’m about to make an incendiary statement that could upset a few industry apple carts:

Isolated pockets of citizen development will not significantly help digital transformation.”

Given that even industry analysts are now advising on how to harness citizen developers, how dare I express the view that they’re not a force for good? Of course, that’s not what I said, but some people might misunderstand or misquote me, so let me explain what I really mean.

Defining Digital Transformation

My stance stems from my definition of “digital transformation”—surely the most used and abused phrase in today’s tech lexicon.

Interestingly, even Gartner hasn’t tried to tie this down, although they have defined “Digital Transformation Consulting.” I suppose if you want to know what digital transformation is, you’d better hire a consultant.

So, here’s my definition, and you can decide for yourself if I’m also abusing the term.

Digital transformation: The continual creation and improvement of new business models and customer propositions enabled via digital technology innovation.

So, what is it about my definition of digital transformation and citizen developers that make them such poor bedfellows?

Yikes! We need another definition: citizen developers. (Last one, I promise).

Defining Citizen Developers

Forrester recently wrote useful guidance on how to “Harness Citizen Developers” although when I tell you they said...

The widely used term citizen developer has too many meanings to be useful in creating a strategy."
Forrester: How To Harness Citizen Developers To Expand Your AD&D Capacity, 2017

... you might fleetingly feel this isn’t going to get any of us very far.

But, please bear with me, apart from more horse-riding terminology (reins, harnesses - at this rate we’ll soon be talking about bridles and bits), Forrester provides useful insight.
Forrester loosely describes citizen developers as non-professional, non-traditional developers who can contribute to—or disrupt—AD&D’s (aka application development and design) strategy.

But, what’s really useful is that Forrester identifies and ranks three types of citizen developers, from most to least professional as follows:

  • Line-of-business (LOB) developers - LOB developers have graduated from administrative roles into full time developers, reporting to business unit leaders rather than IT. They often work in cooperation with the central AD&D group and almost always use a low-code or no-code platform.
  • Business developers - Business developers are business experts first and developers second. They deliver apps in their spare time (software delivery is not in their job description). They fill gaps from the “long-tail” that IT cannot prioritize. They’re motivated to advance their team’s work, and enjoy the technical challenge.
  • Power users - These office heroes aggressively use spreadsheets and databases to speed their tasks, heavily customize their email clients, and introduce cloud-based tools to help their teams. They are personally motivated, developing in their spare time, primarily for their own use, but also to help others in their team.

Forrester’s report is a leap forward, considering that as recently as 2016, they said, “We rarely found these citizen developers in our research.” (Forrester: Vendor Landscape - The Fractured, Fertile Terrain Of Low-Code Application Platforms, Jan. 2016).

No doubt as low-code and no-code platforms have become more widely adopted, it has become easier for Forrester to find citizen developers to talk to. Or, perhaps they’re just getting out more?

Why these descriptions are so useful is that the term “citizen developer” is no longer amorphous. They frame it to reveal different motivations and personas.

Personalities and Crystal Ball Gazing

It’s not often that technologists or industry analysts talk about personas, but let’s take a moment to consider the personalities and possible career paths for citizen developers. How long are they likely to stick around and take the time to maintain the apps that they built?

  • LOB developers are reasonably secure. Development is a full-time role. Normal succession planning applies. 
  • Power users are more variable. Mostly, what they built is for personal use, and it’s unlikely to be business critical. 
  • Business developers are a more complex beast and should give cause for more concern.

These people are not full time developers and don’t want to be. They’ve been motivated to advance their team’s work, and the resulting app may affect more users and be more business-critical.

It’s not a ridiculous leap of imagination to suppose that to make their app, they had to take a stand. They weren’t prepared to put up with the status quo. When IT said “No,” they said “Wrong answer.” Chances are, their boss backed them, making time and low-code/no-code software available, so they could flesh out their ideas.

Now, assuming that development was a success, when annual reviews come around, promotion and extra responsibilities are pretty likely. Their perseverance and ingenuity deserve no less.

Succession planning is much more of a concern here. Who picks up the reins when they move on—whether inside or outside the business? Support and development of their app will now be someone else’s problem.

There’s one more thing to consider here. According to Forrester’s research, self-motivation accounts for seven times more people becoming citizen developers than the 12% that are asked by superiors. So, if IT doesn’t provide a recommended platform and associated guide-rails for such development, the efforts of these self-starters could become a considerable risk for the business.

Governance Is Needed to Avoid Chaos

Low-code certainly makes it easier for IT to equip citizen developers with an approved and governed platform for citizen development, but that still requires IT to coach and oversee such efforts, or chaos could ensue.

After all, if you look into the reasons that up to 80 percent of IT’s budget is spent on maintenance activities instead of innovation, the reason is complexity. Spaghetti architecture, which involves inefficient integration between too many different databases, applications, and systems, not only adds to the cost of maintenance, but it also slows innovation.

Without governance, citizen development will often add to this complexity, perhaps hiding problems under the veneer of a modernized web front-end.

An Inspector Calls

This is not just a problem for IT, but it’s also a worry for the entire C-suite. Data governance, including the need for transparent data lineage, is an increasing regulatory concern. If data is duplicated, transformed, stored, and reported on in an increasing variety of ways, often via cloud services, this headache becomes a full-blown migraine.

If you’re not sure that this applies to your business, perhaps you should think again. GDPR compliance requires that you document the personal data you hold and where. Banks and other financial services firms are beset by regulations with an increasing focus on data governance—BCBS 239, CCAR, and Solvency II, just to mention three. Whatever industry you’re in, transparency of data and how you process it are increasing regulatory concerns.

Stringent penalties await organizations that fail regulatory audits. Governing citizen development is far preferable to fire-fighting audit concerns that could result in fines, reputational damage, and business interruption.

Where to Apply Citizen Development

Forrester’s report provides a number of pointers for the kinds of governance and collaboration needed to make citizen development a power for good. A variety of use cases are described. Mostly, these are departmental solutions that improve reporting and workflow, and are the kinds of apps known as the “long tail” that stay on IT’s “If and when we ever catch-up” list.

long tail apps that it cannot progress
The Long Tail of Apps that IT cannot progress

Interestingly, “digital transformation” is nowhere in Forrester’s report, which is as it should be from my point of view. Which brings us full circle to my opening premise. Citizen development and digital transformation are bad bedfellows.

Citizen Development Has Little or Nothing to Do with Digital Transformation

Let’s see if you agree. Here’s a self-assessment checklist based on my definition of digital transformation.

  • Is digital transformation a long term, continual effort? Yes. We’re here for the long haul. It has to be a continuing effort that anticipates or responds to customer and market requirements.
  • Do you agree that digital transformation implies new business models? Yes. Transformation is more than linear and incremental improvement of the processes we have today. 
  • Where do customers sit in the context of your digital transformation agenda? Front and center. For us, it’s all about winning, serving, and retaining customers with new and improved products, services, and propositions.
  • How does the need for innovation affect this endeavor? Design thinking and test and learn come to the fore. Expect iterative development that responds to customer feedback. It’s not a one-time effort that ends when a new app is launched.
  • Is this an IT initiative or a business initiative? It’s a partnership. Both have to work closely together. Integrated development teams are needed, not isolated citizen developers working on their own agenda.
  • What are the implications for IT scale, security, etc? Massive. Digital engagement with customers and partners needs brilliant experiences. Scale, performance, and security of customer and financial data will be crucial. Integration with a wide number of back office systems will be necessary. Overcoming the challenges of legacy debt and integration will be critical.

If your answers are at all similar to those above, you’ll have reached the same conclusion as me. To remind you – what I said was “Isolated pockets of citizen development will not significantly help digital transformation.”

Business Engagement: That Old Chestnut

It’s well known that high levels of business engagement counteract the main reasons that IT projects fail. So, for digital transformation, it’s essential to involve business representatives, especially those who have shown motivation and aptitude for development, with or without the “citizen” label.

But, that level of engagement doesn’t come from adopting a laissez faire approach of loosely coordinated or ungoverned non-professional developers. They need to be part of the program. And, once these people are properly integrated into a strategic transformation program, I propose that you’d probably want to apply a different label than “citizen developers,” given the confusion and baggage that seems so laden with.