The Citizen Development Movement
How many great ideas are languishing in IT development backlogs right now? It’s a bottleneck and a serious impediment to innovation. But what if you didn’t need a professional software developer to build that app you’re convinced could be a game-changer? What if your team could do it on your own—quickly, easily and effectively? Welcome to citizen development.
When it comes down to it, this is a movement that has the possibility to empower a large number of people. But it all really starts with education. So it’s really about making people feel like this is not something that’s here to take their job. It’s something that’s actually an opportunity for them as employees, but also personally.
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This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.
So low-code is hot, and it’s demonstrating vast potential as a tool that can help teams deliver projects in a more effective, efficient manner. You can probably also guess at some of the objections, many of which center on the risks of non-IT professionals jumping into the action. PMI recently announced a plan to bridge that gap by injecting governance into the citizen development landscape, providing resources, training and a certification program. You can learn more about PMI’s citizen development offerings at PMI.org/citizendeveloper.
Despite the potential, citizen development remains an overlooked opportunity for innovation. According to PMI research, only 21 percent of project professionals have some level of familiarity with the idea. So on Projectified® today, we’ll take a broader look at the movement, both to see how it can help companies more easily build useful software and to look at how it can best be incorporated into project teams.
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Now we’ll turn to Arjun Jamnadass, a managing director at FTI Consulting in London. Arjun spoke to Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt about how citizen development can add value and versatility.
Arjun, what’s behind the current surge of momentum for citizen development?
We’ve reached a point of critical mass. The technology that enables citizen development has matured to such a point that more and more people—more people than ever before—can actually become a citizen developer to turn their ideas into apps. The barriers to entry have fallen massively, and the platforms are becoming ever more intuitive.
What value can this deliver to organizations?
All right, so citizen development, it’s incredibly fast. Solutions can be conceived of and launched within days, making organizations extremely responsive to market changes or changing customer needs.
Another facet of citizen development where it really does deliver massive amounts of value in the organization is that it fundamentally reduces the burden on an already overstretched IT department. So business users can now address their own needs and their own customers’ needs directly without having to resort to making a request from the IT department and having to wait to see whether the IT department actually have the bandwidth to address that need. So it allows them to react fast, but it also allows them to take on a lot of the heavy lifting that previously would have fallen on the laps of the IT department.
The final point around that is that solutions are typically going to be of much higher quality, a lot more relevant to the specific need. Gone are the days when project teams, business users, need to translate requirements to a different team and hope that they’ve fully understood exactly what they want. Solutions are actually built by the people who actually need them.
How can citizen development change how teams deliver projects as well as how project teams are structured overall?
What we’re finding is for a citizen development team to be effective, they need to have a practitioner. Someone who is very familiar with how to use the low-code, no-code platform, but also they understand how to build an application. And what we see in CD projects is that the business user is a vital player; in fact, throughout the end-to-end journey of delivering the project, they have increased ownership throughout.
It’s highly collaborative, so a lot of the activities are done in a group, rather than dividing and conquering. There’s a lot of real-time activities, so design, test, build. Typically serial phases—these are all done in sprints together in a room. And of course, as part of this, because testing is happening continually, and of course you can publish an application before it’s even ready, you can encourage real-time customer engagement through this. And ultimately, IT specialisms are sometimes needed. These are pulled rather than pushed. So it really is down to the project team to find the right skills and construct it from their end.
It’s not uncommon for a citizen development project to have a team size of one. And that single person, they could be the project manager, they’re the business analyst, they’re the designer. Right? So, it really depends on what skill sets are available in the team. And you’ll find in a mature organization where citizen development is being done a lot, a lot of projects will be delivered by single individuals, occasionally calling on the expertise of people outside of their domain.
How do you think project teams will evolve in response to the rise of citizen developers?
I want companies the world over, organizations, to be actively looking for citizen developers. To have job ads where citizen development is listed as one of the core requirements. At the moment, we’re not there. There are some people who have citizen development as their job titles. So the movement is definitely starting, and it’s moving very quickly, but we’re not quite there. I would like companies to specifically say, “We need citizen developers.” They’re actually going in for a concerted citizen development strategy. I think at the moment, there’s still a bit of clarifying. There’s still a bit of apprehension about diving in.
I really feel that the future is citizen development is well recognized as a new form, a new strain of project delivery. It is a hyper-agile approach for different types of use cases. It operates in a different frequency, effectively. It’s another tool in your delivery arsenal. In some cases, it’s going to be the right approach. In other cases, the traditional approaches are going to be better. But it’s something that should be in every organization’s delivery arsenal. Not least because you are able to tap into the combined innovative potential of your entire employee base, rather than just the IT department. Imagine what that looks like.
We heard at the very top of the episode from Christian Peverelli, co-founder of WeAreNoCode, an ed-tech startup in Los Angeles that’s focused on training citizen developers—that is, teaching nontechnical people how to build software. I asked Christian about how organizations should think about implementing citizen development.
Let’s imagine that we’re in an organization that has a full-time development function as well. Is there a best practice or a way that you advise organizations to think about when to empower the nontechnical people versus the sorts of things that are best left in the hands of the actual developers for maximum flexibility and so on?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that in terms of approach, the way that you should think about these tools and the way that you can leverage them is like, What is taking the most time? What is costing the most? I would say it’s really about identifying the internal problems first and then figuring out how these tools can be set up to be able to solve those problems.
I’m really into not focusing too, too much on the technology side until we focus in on the goal. Because I think too many people at the moment are talking about no-code platforms, low-code platforms, automation, all of this, and what’s possible. But then the bigger question is actually, What is the end goal? What is the problem you’re currently having? Instead of being like, “Oh, here are the possibilities, let’s use them,” it’s like, “What’s the biggest problem? What’s the biggest roadblock? What’s the biggest bottleneck in the system? And is there a way for us to make that smoother, make that more automated, and then simply teach people how to leverage these tools so they can become more effective employees?” instead of this idea of like, “Oh, well, if we have technology, we can just replace people.”
I think it’s much more interesting for companies to think, How could I increase the productivity of my workforce by 10 percent? That would have a huge effect on the bottom line, if we’re talking about the interest of the CEO or organization. But really this idea of upskilling individuals in companies.
Let’s talk about citizen development in practice. What are the advantages of going this route, and in what contexts does it work best.
There is a really big difference between what you’re using the technologies for. There are going to be different tool sets that are better adapted to different circumstances. And so that’s something that often for people is difficult to navigate. We get founders, we also get business owners who are interested in leveraging these tools, and it always comes down to not necessarily to the technologies but to what is the end goal? What are you trying to do?
Are you trying to automate a department or a section of a department? Are you trying to empower some of your teams, potentially those who are nontechnical? I’m currently seeing that this can be used in a number of different use cases. I think within larger companies, there is a couple of dynamics happening. I think the most severe pain is basically the cost of development. And then also the fact that every nontechnical person depends on those technical people to get some of the things they need done accomplished. Right?
So, for me, it’s a great way to essentially take some pressure off technical people by empowering some of these nontechnical people to at least take responsibility for part of the technical side of things.
It seems like low-code or no-code aligns well with agile projects. Is that true?
Yeah, and even in there, there’s a lot of discourse, right? Agile has been great; it’s really been fantastic for startups and for larger companies. Honestly, I would say that this is something where people have to take emphasis, realize that there’s a change in how things are being done.
The way that you build software with no-code is fundamentally different because as an individual, you can do the design, the front-end development, the middleware and the back end. So it’s going to be a different dynamic. The question is which part is who taking responsibility for and then essentially empowering them with those tools to do that.
Does that alter the timeline then or the sort of things that you aim for at each stage?
Dramatically. Basically, we’re talking about having one individual doing three individuals’ jobs. And the development process, since you’re not writing out these lines of code individually, we’re talking about building like a first iteration of a product when you do it with custom coding. And you’re trying to really do it with designers, developers, front-end, back-end, etc.; we’re talking about a six-month, nine-month, 12 months, sometimes even more, sometimes years, to develop products. You can basically just put that in a number of weeks when we’re talking about building things with no-code.
Now, of course, you need to learn the skills before you get good at it and you have the ability to do that. But, yeah, we’re talking about something taking nine months to something taking eight weeks. So it is dramatically different, and it lends itself really well to entrepreneurship. But also to intrepreneurship. So when you’re testing out different things, you want to have the flexibility to quickly adapt things. You want to have the flexibility to quickly get something out there to understand how the market is reacting to it, and that’s where these tools are very powerful.
And when we talk about no-code, just to be clear, low-code is basically just saying, “Hey, we’re going to build some of it with no-code. We’re going to build another part fully coded, and those two will essentially be well married together.” So I think it’s really just a spectrum and to figure out which parts you want to put your highly trained developers to work on and which parts you can actually get some nontechnical people to work on.
If you’re a project leader, a team leader, even a more senior executive, how do you structure your organization in a way that harmonizes the use of low-code, no-code modules with the full-time developer team just to make sure that everyone is able to push in the same direction and that sort of purely technical, classical software team can work alongside the way that you’ve empowered other folks to use low-code, no-code solutions?
My recommendation would be as follows. First of all, the biggest risk when you’re a team leader is the team, right? Is the team not getting along? Is there internal issues, people feeling threatened? There’s this idea that, essentially, we won’t need developers anymore, and it really couldn’t be further from the truth.
And I would encourage leaders to basically have conversations with developers and show them why it’s also interesting for them to learn some of these tools, because it really is. It’s a much quicker way of developing specifically when we talk about front-end, CMSes, and then to really focus their time more on more complicated tasks—tasks that they’re actually going to be excited about because it’s pushing the envelope. Basically, to make the developers feel secure that they still have a future within the organization. To make the nontechnical people understand, “Hey, this is not very complicated.” And to invest in training those people so that they can acquire the skills and feel empowered.
Internally for leaders, it’s more about figuring out what the goals are, figuring out what the current problems are, being transparent with the teams in terms of how this is going to go down, and then to really invest in training your teams so that you can get more results. It really comes down to people. The technology is just a means to an end.
Software, at its best, is empowering—it helps us accomplish amazing, innovative things with speed and ease that would take a whole lot longer otherwise, often removing gatekeepers and middlemen in the bargain.
Now, with citizen development, we’re seeing that classic sort of tech disruption come for software development itself, by equipping teams to build their own tools, and in so doing, to tailor them to their specific needs. It feels like the software revolution is about to come full circle—and that’s a good thing.
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