October 19, 2023

How to Use 'Citizen Developers' to Drive Innovation in Your Organization


One of the most common challenges impacting software organizations is a lack of bandwidth. Roadmaps get filled, engineering teams get stretched, and it becomes too difficult to innovate or tackle new tasks as the need arises.

This is a major reason why many organizations are embracing the concept of "citizen developers."

Citizen developers are individuals who, without formal programming expertise, use low-code and no-code platforms to create, modify and deploy software applications. By using citizen developers to democratize development, organizations can not only alleviate the pressure on traditional development teams, but they also foster an environment where innovation is not limited to technical employees.

In this quick guide, we'll break down what citizen developers are and best practices for incorporating them into your organization.

Who can be a citizen developer?

Citizen developers can come from anywhere in the organization, from marketing to operations, finance, HR and product. Most important is that they are non-technical members of the organization that use their expertise in their area of the business to develop solutions in software.

This offers a number of benefits, including:

  • Faster adaptation to changing business needs
  • Reduced backlogs for engineering teams
  • Unlocking engineering teams to focus more of their efforts on projects that require technology expertise

The blend of operational expertise and the power to directly implement technological solutions has made citizen developers valuable assets in modern organizations. As they break down the traditional barriers between technical and non-technical roles, citizen developers facilitate a more agile, responsive and innovative enterprise, enabling organizations to quickly respond to market changes, customer needs and internal demands.

How did the concept of citizen development come about?

As the digital transformation has accelerated over the last 20-plus years, organizations recognized that traditional software development cycles couldn't keep pace with the evolving business requirements.

This was also propelled by improvements in cloud computing and APIs, allowing for more secure and scalable solutions developed by non-experts. Companies soon realized the value citizen developers brought to the table: rapid prototyping, agility and a closer alignment of software solutions with business needs.

According to Gartner, around 61% of organizations have citizen development initiatives already in place or are planning to implement them.

Key components of a successful citizen development program

A successful citizen development program requires:

  1. Proper governance and security measures
  2. Education and training for citizen developers
  3. Effective collaboration and communication between engineering and business users
  4. Encouragement and recognition to foster continuous innovation

While each of these elements is critical on its own, their real power lies in how they intersect and amplify each other. In the following sections, we'll delve deeper into each of these components, exploring how they collectively contribute to the success and sustainability of a citizen development program.

1. Governance and security

One of the biggest risks with citizen development programs is the creation of "shadow IT." This refers to the use of IT or software systems without the knowledge of an organization's IT department.

Shadow IT can lead to serious issues if, for example, a user leaves a vulnerable resource exposed online. There needs to be clearly defined processes and open communication between IT departments and citizen developers.

Specifically, this includes:

  • Security reviews - Conduct regular security audits of not just platforms but applications developed by citizen developers to ensure they meet organizational security standards.
  • Role-based access control - Limit the scope of who can do what within the development platform by defining roles and permissions. Ensure that citizen developers have only the access they need to accomplish their tasks.
  • Documentation and traceability - As part of the education initiative, maintain detailed logs and documentation of the development process. This helps in auditing and assures that any alterations are traceable back to the individual who made them.
  • Use secure deployment environments - Don't let users test in production. Use sandbox environments for testing and staging.

2. Education and training

Citizen developers must be versed in the following:

  • The tools and technologies they will be utilizing
  • The processes and best practices for application development
  • The security and governance measures implemented for the program

This education can take the form of webinars, online courses, in-person workshops and ongoing support, and it works to serve a dual purpose. First, this training empowers citizen developers to create applications that are both effective and aligned with business goals.

Second, it helps organizations maintain a level of control and standardization over the applications being developed.

3. Collaboration and communication

Without open, ongoing collaboration between business users and professional developers, even the best citizen development program will fall flat.

Here are three ways you can keep your communication sharp and effective:

  1. Regular check-ins and feedback loops - Establish routine meetings between teams to discuss progress, challenges and upcoming projects.
  2. Use collaboration platforms - Utilize collaboration software that integrates well with your development tools. This ensures seamless knowledge sharing and real-time updates.
  3. Clear documentation - Maintain easily accessible, up-to-date documentation. This serves as a permanent resource for both new and experienced developers and ensures that project details are transparent and easily understood.

4. Encouragement and recognition

One often-overlooked element in sustaining thriving citizen development ecosystems is the role of encouragement and recognition. Without these motivational components, even the best-designed programs can stagnate.

How do you best recognize those efforts?

  • Project showcases - Periodically display successful projects within the organization, offering a stage for citizen developers to share their work and inspire others.
  • Skill-building opportunities - Offer advanced training or mentorship programs as rewards, further improving the skill set of your citizen developers.

Leadership endorsements - An acknowledgment from higher-ups or stakeholders lends weight to the achievement and serves as a career-enhancing move for the individual.

Low-code and no-code tooling to empower citizen developers

Of course, one of the most critical aspects of a citizen development effort is platform choice. Low-code and no-code platforms offer a range of features and benefits, such as:

  • Simplified development environments
  • Reusable components
  • Built-in collaboration tools
  • Visual model-driven development
  • AI-assisted development tools
  • Faster development and simplified maintenance of applications

Developers can benefit from these features to streamline their development process and create applications more efficiently.

Integrated collaboration tools provide teams with increased efficiency and effectiveness in their work. These features and benefits, combined with the accessibility and ease of use of low-code and no-code platforms, allow citizen developers to facilitate innovation within their organizations.

8base is a full-stack, low-code platform for building web applications

8base sets a new standard for agility and efficiency in web application development, offering a feature-rich, low-code environment that doesn't compromise on functionality. With its drag-and-drop App Builder, business users and technical developers can quickly create elegant user interfaces. A comprehensive component library expedites design, and full styling control ensures the finished product meets exact specifications.

For those who like the flexibility of custom logic, 8base allows the integration of custom JavaScript anywhere in the application. This opens up avenues for adding complex features and refactoring code into reusable functions, making 8base a versatile tool for both technical and citizen developers. Sign up for free today.

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