A few years ago, Gartner introduced the Citizen Developer. A new breed of software developer. A person with no programming skills that can still build business applications, using a variety of low-code or no-code platforms. These days Gartner defines the Citizen developer as follows:

citizen developer is a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT. In the past, end-user application development has typically been limited to single-user or workgroup solutions built with tools like Microsoft Excel and Access. However, today, end users can build departmental, enterprise and even public applications using shared services, fourth-generation language (4GL)-style development platforms and cloud computing services.

One of the no-code vendors, Betty Blocks, wrote an interesting article on who the citizen developer is and what he/she should be able to do. And let’s face it, there is a real need within companies for people that can build business applications to improve the business itself. IT departments are struggling with resources, developers are expensive, and business demands are huge.

A simple search on ‘Citizen Developer’ will return ‘about 248.000.000 results’, showing how popular this person has become. And the number of vendors of low-code and no-code platforms is growing as well. 
So, it looks like life is good for the citizen developer.
But does the citizen developer actually exist?

Low-code platforms and the Citizen Developer

Low-code platforms won’t be the platform of choice for the Citizen Developer, since you still need programming skills to build applications. And although low-code vendors are adding more and more visual tools to their platforms to reduce the coding that is needed,  coding is needed when you build somewhat more complex applications. It is likely that this will change rapidly. Outsystems e.g., will introduce new visual tools early 2020 that will make it possible to build more and more apps, without the need to code. This will give the citizen developer a lot more options when it comes to selecting their citizen developer platform of choice.

No-code platforms and the Citizen Developer

So for now that leaves the no-code platforms. And there is a very strong push from the no-code platforms to enable the citizen developer to build their own applications. The story is compelling: use visual tools to create you business application, no coding is needed, and you’ll be ready before you know it. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well…. maybe not. After talking to several vendors we’ve learned that despite the successes of the no-code platforms, the citizen developer may not be as successful (yet) as you would expect. It turns out that all vendors are very much dependent on their partners and on independent contractors to actually build applications for customers. There are no real numbers, but several vendors state that only 5-10% of the applications that are used in production are built by the citizen developer. A higher percentage of citizen developers does make changes, add new functions, etc. to their applications, but they don’t build the applications from scratch.
So why is that?

There are actually several reasons. Let’s look at them.

The platforms still expect some level of technical knowledge
An interesting statement. But it is a key reason why citizen development is still in the early stages. No-code platforms make it very simple to create applications, and if you create something very simple (e.g. an online to-do list) the citizen developer can handle it. But what if you need an application that needs to integrate with the company’s Microsoft Active Directory for authentication and authorization, needs integration with several backoffice systems and has some complex business logic? And all of that while the data is stored in 40 tables that have references to each other.
This is not a unique scenario. It happens all the time. And this is where all platforms still assume that you have some level of technical knowledge: how to set up the datamodel (in such a way that performance is optimal), how to use OAuth integration that requires a solid understanding of MS AD, how to wrap information in a JSON message and use a REST interface ?
Most platforms make it easy to do all of this, but without the right technical knowledge it is still complex and that scares the citizen developer. That citizen developer is a business person, a business analist, aprocess specialist, etc. Not an IT person.

The no-code platforms will continue to improve and make a lot of complex tasks simpler and simpler, but we’re not there yet. E.g., it would be a great feature if the platform can advise you on how to set up the data model, or even create it automatically, based on business information/rules you provide.

The IT department is not cooperating
Everybody agrees: in order to make citizen development possible, the IT department needs to be involved. Sometimes simply because only the IT department can buy IT tools, but they are always needed to provide access to corporate data (in a safe way) or set up single sign-on.
The problem however, is that the IT department was already overloaded to begin with. That’s why the business wanted to build applications themselves. And if they do have the time to set up a good environment for the citizen developers, they often feel ‘bypassed’. Corporate developers my feel threatened by the low/no code initiatives, IT departments in general want to control all IT related activities, discussions of budget priorities come into play, etc.
In order for the citizen developers to start building their applications, all these things need to be resolved and IT has to play an important part.

Governance is needed
Many of the IT department’s problems can, and must, be solved through a good governance setup. In fact, this may be the most important aspect of setting op citizen development within any organisation.
For citizen development to be successful, there is a basic set of rules and guidelines needed. The ‘business’ and ‘IT’ need to agree on how citizen development will take place. And some of that governance can actually translate into technology.
Example: The IT department can set up integrations to backoffice software, so the citizen developer can safely (and easily) access corporate data. The citizen developer doesn’t need the knowledge to do this, and the IT department still controls who can access what data.

The problem is that most organisations don’t have this governance in place yet, making citizen development hard and sometime even a fight between business and IT departments.

So, does the Citizen Developer exist?

The answer is : yes, and there are some very compelling examples of companies that are very successful. But there are still very few out there. Once the low & no code platform vendors have made their platforms more intelligent, and IT departments start seeing the citizen developer as a welcome addition to their digital transformation processes/projects, things will move fast. And the promises that the Gartners and Forresters of this world are making will become a reality: in a few years most custom software is no longer built by professional developers, but by the people who actually need and use the applications.
The next few months we’ll see lots of activities: citizen developer courses, experience with governance, acceptance bu IT departments and continuous improvement of the available platforms.

Yes, life is good for the citizen developer!