The article below initially appeared on Technative, and was written by Andrew Ofstad, Co-founder at Airtable.
It presents a good case for the use of Citizen Developers, to help companies to deliver solutions faster then before. Although I agree, I also think that Andrew misses a few crucial aspects of the Citizen Development process. Without going over everything that is needed, I would like to mention a few:

  • Governance. Without a good set of agreed upon processes a company won’t be successful in the citizen development approach. And these ate both technical as well as organizational processes.
  • “Shadow IT”. Andrew briefly touches on this topic, by mentioning ‘fragmented workflows’. When you start to use no-code or low-code tools, it becomes extremely easy to create apps, with the risk of an enormous amount of apps that a) only the developer uses, b) nobody uses, c) have overlapping functionality d) are not managed, e) won’t comply with company (security) standards, etc. Which results in this thing we call ‘Shadow IT’.

A good article, but it does lack some crucial topics that are needed to make “work from the middle’ really work.

Software has eaten so much of our world that developers have come to dominate the ranks of problem-solvers and tinkerers today

I’ve met many intelligent business people who wanted to shape their environment but couldn’t because they never took to building software. The irony is that we have an ocean of tools at our fingertips, but only specialists can make them work. Everyday people in the middle of organisations are constantly frustrated by broken processes and lack the resources to do anything about it.

Democratising software creation

Imagine a world where the people in the middle of every department have the skills and products to make software that meets the needs of their teams. There’s enormous latent potential in workers at all different levels of organisations (but especially in the middle) to turn their ideas into action.The people closest to the work understand their problems best, and they’re often the ones tasked with improving the performance of their departments, thats why its predicted that most enterprises (80%) will have policies in place for citizen developers by 2024

However, historically, the software industry has failed to give people control of apps beyond a limited set of feature customisation. Engineers created software for the masses, and “users” used it — with little room to make tweaks needed by their team. Over the past ten years, the amount of tools accessible to enterprises has exploded. According to Productiv’s “State of SaaS Sprawl” Report, the average company has a jaw dropping 254 SaaS apps, with enterprises averaging 364 apps.

The proliferation of tools created a new problem: fragmented workflows. Several reports have cited app sprawl as the cause behind increased discord across teams and, as a result, slowed work processes. We need apps that can finish each other’s sentences but that’s been difficult to achieve because no product engineer can understand the deep needs of every team.

The software industry needs to start making tools for the people best equipped to solve their problems – the people “in the middle,” closest to the work. They’re almost always non-developers, but they understand the needs of their department and the broader organisation. We believe this is the future. In fact it’s predicted that by 2025, organisation will build 70% of their new applications using low-code or no-code platforms. Already in the mix without an engineer among it is the creative team at West Elm built an app to manage the lifecycle of its retail products from idea to store. The app is a central place to update the location of every product type and set up live links to the most recent photos from the creative team so the merchant partners can see the latest designs on the website. This visibility led to a promotion for the Senior Photo Studio Manager, who orchestrated this workflow and helped the entire Creative Ops team scale the brand.

Meeting the needs of the middle boosts morale and profits Happy workers make for better organisations. But what makes people happy? Experts on the topic say it’s about being able to solve your problems, having a sense of freedom, and progress toward something meaningful. Science has proven that having a strong locus of control – a feeling of agency over your life – is closely associated with happier, healthier, and more successful people.

Software, if built correctly, is one small way of giving people back their locus of control. For the person in the middle, software creation offers the satisfaction of knowing that the work is driving a tangible impact on the organisation. For the executive, it means tracking progress better. For the broader team, it’s a meaningful connection to the big picture. And engagement and a feeling of meaning at work, research from Gartner indicates, equal results.

What’s more, giving people the tools to build their better workflows exposes where organisations are aligned and where they’re not. For example, when product priorities are exposed companywide through an application that provides a single source of truth, the sales team will know what to sell based on what the product team is planning to ship because transparency is built in. With the right system in place, teams can spend less time communicating status updates and ownership around projects and more time iterating on how to achieve what they’ve set out to do together.