With an overwhelming majority of businesses digitizing their operations and talented development teams chronically understaffed, the expiration date on complex software implementations is fast approaching.
The talent shortage and the costs to remedy it have come at a time when low-code development platforms are offering impressive solutions. The premise of low code is straightforward: Reduce the complexity of development to the point that business users can build solutions without a deep understanding of programming, APIs, or how to deploy web or mobile applications. Often packaged as a SaaS (software as a service) or PaaS (platform as a service) cloud offering, low-code solutions simplify many intricate details of development so that the user can focus on creating functionality.
Technology research company Gartner predicts that in 2022, the market for low-code application platforms will increase by more than 30% from 2020 levels. As IT project leaders and business process stakeholders, project managers are in a position to serve the sometimes disparate and often siloed interests of both IT and business by adopting these low-code solutions.
But what are the benefits and limitations of these solutions, and how can they be implemented and applied in your project teams? The answer could lie in citizen development—growing a cohort of nontechnical team members to tackle some of the work that encumbers IT teams. As a project manager with the right guidance and best practices in place, you can use citizen development to take low-code adoption from disruptive to business as usual in your company.
The First Movers of Citizen Development
The idea of nontechnical users developing technical solutions is nothing new. As far back as 1987, Apple’s HyperCard used a graphic interface and simplified programming language to let nonprogrammers produce simple applications, similar to the web-based apps of today. But the term “citizen developer” first appeared in a presentation at the 2009 Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando. And in 2014, a Forrester report dubbed a new wave of platforms for creating customer-facing applications “low code.” The report identified several first movers in the emerging industry, including Mendix, Salesforce, and Appian. These first movers were providing “quicker alternatives to traditional programming platforms” and allowing users to “accelerate app delivery by dramatically reduc[ing] the amount of hand-coding required.” They have since been joined by other players such as Betty Blocks, ServiceNow, and Microsoft Power Platform. With proper guidance, these citizen developers can create small-scale solutions for themselves or their teams, or in some cases build enterprisewide digital solutions.
A 2014 IBM survey found that 80% of IT and business decision-makers used citizen developers in some capacity. Even then, adoption was tentative and small-scale. It wasn’t until 2021 that the Project Management Institute introduced a first-of-its-kind series of citizen developer courses. So for almost a decade there were no industry standards, benchmarks, or formalized training for employers to reference, much less for project managers to implement. For most of the 2010s, low-code platforms were considered too disruptive, creating pushback within organizations.
Things have changed since then, to put it mildly. Gartner estimates that by 2024, 80% of all technology products and services will be built by citizen developers, up from just 25% in 2014. It attributes this rapid expansion to the COVID-19 pandemic: As companies scrambled to adopt cloud services and digital initiatives to handle a suddenly remote workforce, new business models and processes emerged. These events followed the accelerated adoption of Agile frameworks in recent years, with their emphasis on speed and shorter development cycles.
All of this, combined with a developer shortage, has created an opportunity for citizen developers to solve a number of problems.
Benefits of Low Code
For IT project managers, citizen developer programs accelerate timelines by streamlining innovation activities and reducing dependence on a limited pool of professional developers. It can take months to get a traditional web application ready for initial release; even a minimum viable product (MVP) takes weeks to develop. Using a low-code platform, a team can put together multiple MVPs in the same amount of time and use information from those to guide their development efforts. Iteration cycles shrink proportionally.
For example, a professional developer building a notification tool could spend an entire day architecting a simple front end to interact with an API, configuring authentication and security, testing, and finally deploying the app for internal use. On a low-code platform, a citizen developer can achieve the same level of functionality and security in a few minutes, and three clicks later share their creation with the rest of the team.
Off-the-shelf software doesn’t always fit a business’s workflow or structure. But the solutions built on low-code platforms can be customized to your business’s particular needs. For instance, if your business process requires the ability to escalate an issue to a certain manager and the off-the-shelf package can’t do that, a custom low-code solution is a good alternative.
A low-code solution can also fill gaps in integration between your existing systems without having to work directly with an API. For example, if your existing CRM isn’t capable of posting a message to a specific Slack channel, a low-code solution could quickly and easily bridge that gap. Most platforms have extensive options for integrations that allow their service to communicate with the databases and APIs of popular cloud-based or on-premise applications like Jira, Gmail, Oracle, or Shopify. These integrations give a project more options than an ill-fitting, off-the-shelf solution or an expensive custom-built one; you can build with more capabilities using low code.
Imagine the difference this could make for your projects. The development team’s backlog can be reassessed, with some needs spun off and targeted for a low-code, citizen-developed solution. This can allow IT the time to address problems like technical debt that can often go ignored when schedules are tight. And solutions that are implemented through an IT-approved low-code platform can mitigate the problems created by shadow IT. The development team itself can look at a set of needs or requirements, then recommend and implement solutions using a low-code platform as part or all of the tech stack.
When to Use Low Code
As much as low code can improve speed-to-solution rates and reduce costs to build software, it comes with a few drawbacks. As a project manager, you’ll need to understand the limits of low-code services so you can make sound decisions about when the platform you’ve chosen is appropriate for a project. Here are some tips:
- Prepare to stay on one platform. Low-code structure and functionality are different with each service, so a useful solution you build on one generally won’t port over to another. This means that as organizations use a particular low-code platform for more solutions, the cost of subsequent change grows with increased reliance upon that platform, creating a strong disincentive to try a different one in the future.
- Account for UI/UX limitations. To make the experience simpler for citizen developers, a lot of finer control around event handling, styling, and niche functionality is predetermined and relatively unchangeable on low-code platforms. It’s restricted enough to frustrate a good designer. For example, low code typically offers fewer choices for offline mobile capabilities, multiple authentication methods, and specialized user controls like color wheels. Ask yourself if the project will be OK with “good enough” design. If your team needs exquisite control over the look, feel, and flow of the app, low code is not the way to go.
- Watch for maintenance issues. Citizen developers may not have a deep understanding of effective software testing or an experienced point of view on how solutions may need to change in the future. For simple solutions, this isn’t much of a problem, but as a low-code solution becomes more complex, it is more likely to be buggy, insecure, and difficult to maintain. If your planned solution has a high degree of complexity or is mission critical, consider a tech stack without low code, or involve more experienced developers in constructing the solution.
Low-code platforms are not ideal for situations that require:
- More than 200 consistent internal users, which could affect licensing and performance.
- Highly specialized capabilities, such as blockchain, gaming, or real-time navigation.
- Emphasis on low latency and top-tier performance.
- A carefully designed user experience.
Despite these limitations, there is no shortage of potential use cases for low-code platforms. Consider them for projects that involve:
- Creating internal tools such as onboarding apps, task trackers, or asset management solutions for thousands of company devices.
- Updating legacy systems by adding new features to outdated but embedded infrastructure or by digitizing workflows.
- Designing low-risk prototypes or MVPs that can serve as a simple proof of concept in the early stages of a project without massive investment of time or resources. (Once user testing has begun, the leap can be made to traditional IT and the greater scalability it offers.)
Empower Citizen Developers
Low-code platforms are designed to reduce the learning curve to a more manageable level, allowing project managers to cultivate citizen developers within their organizations. Citizen developers can come from any non-IT field and are drawn from areas as diverse as business analysis, project management, financing, or operations. Anyone with tech savvy and an eagerness to learn can be trained to incorporate low-code development into their job—provided the project manager understands the gaps between their capabilities and those of professional developers. Citizen developers don’t have to be coding masters to collaborate with IT to bridge tech and business needs. By gaining a better understanding of the software delivery life cycle and taking on some of the responsibilities that traditionally require programming knowledge, they become part subject matter expert, part business analyst, and part IT resource.
Organizations get the most from low-code platforms and citizen developers by following these best practices:
- Provide training. Facilitate low-code adoption through training sessions and demonstrations of relevant use cases.
- Teach new concepts. Introduce citizen developers to testing, documentation, and reusable component concepts to improve the quality of the solutions they create.
- Establish guardrails. Provide governance support for citizen developers, such as adding specific data-loss protection policies and setting up sandbox environments for experimentation.
- Encourage collaboration. Encourage citizen and professional developers to generate solutions together, particularly on complex projects that integrate low code. This can lead to a better understanding of requirements, opportunities for cross-training, and a greater appreciation for their distinct roles in the organization. Combining the technical expertise of the IT team with the business acumen of citizen developers can lead to solutions that better serve the organization.
Citizen developers must have these types of guidance. Some will be too timid to try anything beyond a first step, and others will create messes due to their overenthusiasm. Providing training and guidelines helps new users of low code find a better middle ground, leading to higher-quality adoption within the company.
Citizen developers offer a new capability to the organization that can be leveraged tactically and strategically. Some will use their new skills in their existing business roles, contributing to digital change efforts and IT projects with a newly enhanced understanding of challenges and workflows. Others might step into an entirely new job, taking on low-code app development or feature design as part of their primary duties.
Low-code platform providers know that strong support matters and are adding capabilities accordingly. The most developed platforms offer enterprise-level governance features, thriving user communities, and multiple ways to learn.
To encourage wider adoption by professional developers, some platforms are embracing familiar concepts such as source code control, testing modules, and application life-cycle management. This offers the best of both worlds: They can use low code with a robust set of tools to build quality applications quickly without giving up their existing tools for more complex solutions. And innovations like design-to-code methodologies promise to alleviate the existing constraints of these platforms, like limited UX/UI choices, in the years to come.
An Expanding Field
Significant investments are being made in low-code platforms by both established players and startups. Microsoft recently reported 97% year-over-year growth on its Power Platform, and is releasing new capabilities at a dazzling pace. Investment in low-code/no-code startups like Bubble and Airtable rose by $415 million in the US market over a five-year period. As businesses seek to further expand their digital capabilities, professional developers will continue to be in short supply and the number of citizen developers will grow. Projections show that citizen developers will outnumber professional developers 4 to 1 by as soon as 2023.
For an important subset of applications, citizen development can offer a practical mix of speed, simplicity, and flexibility. It won’t replace the work of professional development teams, but it can yield powerful solutions to enhance those teams as they navigate the ever-changing software landscape.
Understanding the basics
Citizen development is the practice of empowering nontechnical team members to produce technical solutions through the use of low-code/no-code platforms.
The terms “low code” and “no code” refer to the degree of coding knowledge that users need to use the platforms. Some require a minimal understanding of coding and programming, while others are entirely GUI-based and require no coding knowledge.
The best predictor of a successful citizen development rollout is the support received from the project manager. Providing training, teaching new concepts, establishing guardrails, and encouraging collaboration can all lead to a cohort of first-rate citizen developers.