Why it’s time to embrace and empower citizen developers

IT experts aren’t the only ones creating innovations in workspace technology. Learn about the citizen developers in your organization and why you should empower them to succeed.

ARTICLE | 5m read
June 29, 2021

Picture the best employees in your organization, and imagine they discover a dysfunctional process in how their team works. How would you expect these ideal employees to respond? Would they elevate the problem to you? Complain about the issue to IT? Ignore it and hope that someone else figures out a solution? No, when your best employees are faced with an inefficiency, you’d expect them to take on the problem themselves and only elevate it if the issue was beyond their abilities.

This ideal of empowered employees creating and sharing their own solutions is the foundation of the citizen developer movement, which 33 percent of technology leaders report seeing more of at their organizations. By learning more about citizen development and identifying the citizen developers in your own organization, you can inspire greater innovation across your workforce and gain an edge over competitors. In this article, we’ll examine what a citizen developer is, the advantages of embracing citizen development, and how to mitigate the organizational risks of citizen development.

Who are citizen developers, and how to find them?

Gartner defines citizen developer as “an employee who creates application capabilities for consumption by themselves or others, using tools that are not actively forbidden by IT or business units.” As business technologists who work outside of the IT department, citizen developers look at processes and see how they can enhance and automate them. Rather than waiting on a busy IT team to provide technology fixes, citizen developers advance business goals by creating new solutions: 65 percent of citizen developer apps help users get work done, 42 percent improve business efficiency, and 27 percent are created with the customer in mind.

So how do you find citizen developers in your company? Your first instinct may be to look for self-taught programmers, but today’s low-code and visual environments enable employees without development backgrounds to design their own enhancements to existing work platforms. Instead, ask managers if their teams have created any homegrown enhancements or automations to simplify their work. Once you identify these customizations and make it clear you see their value, the citizen developers behind these improvements will feel comfortable coming forward. You can also gamify your search for citizen developers with hackathons and other internal competitions. By knowing who your citizen developers are, you can support and encourage them to continue their innovative work.

What are the advantages of citizen developers?

There are numerous reasons to embrace citizen developers at your organization, but the most important one is speeding up problem solving for your business. Citizen developers work fast, completing software development cycles as much as 10 times faster than traditional methods. And as digital workspace environments become easier to customize, citizen developers can make sophisticated fixes by developing microapps, defining automation, and integrating with AI and machine learning. These time-saving citizen developer fixes also mean IT teams have more time to tackle difficult problems while also improving morale and employee engagement.

Beyond efficiency advantages, citizen development helps increase understanding of key processes and automation opportunities. Many homegrown enhancements to your apps and processes can be scaled up to benefit your entire organization as well as your customers. By publicly recognizing the citizen developers who make these fixes, you can also open up new career paths and leadership positions within your company. This shows citizen developers that you not only approve of their new solutions, but encourage and reward them for their innovative work.

How to manage the risks of citizen development

While citizen development has many advantages, it is not without risks. The biggest potential pitfall of citizen development is these employees often lack a sophisticated understanding of data security and compliance. Citizen developers are often more focused on the end result of their enhancements than making sure they are architected to organizational security and privacy standards. Without proper governance, this can expose your organization to compliance issues and data breaches. It can also be difficult to oversee and manage homegrown optimizations because citizen developers often don’t document and share their work outside their teams. Because development is a lifecycle process, the lifecycle from inception to retirement must be respected by every type of developer.

The best way to manage these risks is to integrate citizen developers into the IT governance systems used by the rest of your organization, such as code reviews and adherence to organizational secure development practices. Train your citizen developers in security-minded coding practices and data compliance rules. Also, be sure to monitor the use of APIs to assess proper use of internal and external Application Programming Interfaces. By treating your homegrown developers with the same respect you give to your full time IT staff and software engineers, you can both improve their skills and motivate them to continue their innovative work.

Capitalize on the innovations of citizen development

As long as you have motivated employees who seek innovative solutions to problems, you will have citizen developers emerge in your organization. It’s vital you embrace their upstart innovations and do not discourage them. By recognizing, supporting, and training your citizen developers, you can help create a culture of innovation inside your organization that will not only optimize business processes, but motivate every employee to imagine newer, better ways of doing their best work.