CIOs Struggle With The New Challenge Of Citizen Developers

CIOs have to deal with users who are creating software to solve business problems
CIOs have to deal with users who are creating software to solve business problems
Image Credit: Randy Merrill

As though CIOs didn’t already have enough to worry about with the importance of information technology, it now turns out that within their own company there may be a shadow IT department at work. What has happened is that there is a growing demand for software and this has given rise to pseudo-programmers who, though not professional developers, build applications that help their business lines. These so-called “citizen developers” (cit-devs) build apps because the IT department is not willing to build the software they require when they require it. Clearly this is an issue for a CIO. What are we supposed to do about this new army of developers who don’t work for us?

The Arrival Of Cit-Devs

Clearly the person with the CIO job needs to take the time to better understand the new groups within their firm who are developing software. It turns out that Cit-devs fall into two camps: those who don’t code, and power users who do some coding. A recent survey revealed that forty-one percent of business respondents are running active cit-dev initiatives, with another 20 percent either evaluating or planning to start. It is predicted that the number of active citizen developers will grow to be at least four times the number of professional developers by 2023.

One of the reasons that CIOs need to get involved in this area is because the number of people who can participate in citizen development is growing exponentially. The motivation for this growth is that they see that their IT department is not up for it and a shadow IT is created because the business is growing more and more frustrated. That mention of shadow IT is crucial for CIOs to understand.

Some citizen development may be sanctioned, while some isn’t. But whether it happens with or without IT’s knowledge, cit-dev will present a new challenge for you who is going to have to decide whether to support or thwart these types of programmers. The stakes are high: if the person in the CIO position doesn’t provide oversight of citizen development then they won’t know what tools and platforms are being used or how data is being governed, opening their companies up to security and privacy risks.

Things Just Keep Getting Bigger And Bigger

One question that a lot of CIOs are asking is where did all of this come from? It turns out that citizen development finds its roots in IBM’s Lotus Notes/Domino and Microsoft’s suite of Office applications. Business workers began building macros — small programs that automate tasks to save time — for Excel. At the same time others were creating files for storing data using the Access database management system. Even more workers built enterprise portals, or intranets, using SharePoint.

This was just the start. Later on Cit-devs crafted more sophisticated apps, such as reports for business intelligence and other functions. Data collection, workflow orchestration and automating data capture are turning out to be the top three application types created by citizen developers today. In many cases, these do-it-yourself projects are a good thing and save overwhelmed IT departments from having to allocate professional developers to solve these ad-hoc business issues. However, cit-devs often can’t maintain their own creations, particularly as more users adopt the tool. They lack the skills to modify and refactor their apps — some of which become mission-critical — let alone handle the repositories of data the apps may create.

Where things can get tricky is when cit-devs reach limitations that, if not addressed, create a truly damaging shadow IT. When this happens, IT gets called in to rescue them from their own software Frankensteins. The good news is that there is a way around this problem. Help is coming from so-called low-code or no-code platforms that enable cit-devs to build software with minimal or no coding. Using these tools, cit-devs arrange application components, including data and logic, via drag-and-drop interfaces in a process akin to snapping together digital Lego blocks into an application workflow. These low-code tools do require some script writing, however, to enable access to older apps, create reports, or build custom interfaces. Each low-code platform has its unique characteristics, but they all give IT the ability to govern, and in some cases, audit, how cit-devs build software. This results in the citizen developers being provided with the freedom to build what they need for their business department, while enabling CIOs to create guardrails that will protect the enterprise.

What All Of This Means For You

The result of all of this is that tech and business staffs must collaborate on citizen-development initiatives, with IT empowering the business with self-service capabilities that have identity and security baked into the low-code or no-code software they choose. The CIO can delegate this task to application leaders, who work with business leaders to identify and enlist cit-devs. Making this shift enables IT to transform from always being in control of operations to being a facilitator.

Regardless of what platform the CIO chooses and what governance mode are employed — from white-listing apps to setting granular data permissions — empowering rather than thwarting cit-devs is the way to go. We need to understand that the reality is that you’re not going to have enough professional developers to build the software your business needs, so why not enable cit-devs to lighten the load?

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Department Leadership Skills™

Question For You: What rules do you think should be used to limit what a citizen developer can do?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

As the person with the CIO job, it’s your responsibility to make sure that the IT department is successful. In order to do that, you need to be able to lead the department in the right direction in order to realize the importance of information technology. What this means is that you have to plan, organize and launch new strategies and initiatives. Changes in business trends, security issues and increasing government oversight of many IT activities, combined with a seemingly never-ending series of disruptive technologies, make it essential to be thinking about tactics and goals all the time. How should a CIO go about doing this?