‘Citizen Developers’ Emerge as IT Fails to Keep Pace with Demand for Applications

Don Tennant

A “seismic shift” is under way in the application development landscape, created by the IT organization’s inability to keep up with unrelenting demand from the business for new applications. That shift has driven the emergence of “citizen developers,” line-of-business employees with little or no expertise in traditional software development, who are helping to relieve IT of the burden.

If that sounds like a recipe for a shadow IT disaster, it’s actually anything but, argues John Carione, product and corporate marketing leader at QuickBase, a low-code application development platform provider in Cambridge, Mass. In a recent interview, Carione explained how low-code, and even no-code, app development tools are enabling line-of-business employees to work in collaboration with IT to dramatically speed up the app development process. According to Carione, there is an “application crisis” in businesses of all sizes, which has brought IT to an inflection point:

Businesses need to be more agile, they need to have more speed, and they just need to create more applications on a day-to-day basis for lots of different use cases, whether it’s extending their CRM system, project management, financial portfolio management and budgeting, contracts management, vendor management, supply chain engagement, I could go on and on. So there’s an application crisis that has created an IT crisis, where IT is saying, “We can’t keep up with the demand. We need the business to move at the speed of light, not only with new applications, but also with maintaining and updating and changing applications.” The business needs that application agility on a day-to-day basis, or even an hour-to-hour basis, and they really can’t rely on IT. IT does not have the budget or the resources to make all those changes and build all those apps. What’s great for IT is when you implement these types of [citizen developer] platforms, the business gets a lot more involved, and you’re able to offload that technical debt, that backlog of applications to folks that are closest to the problem. It really helps IT become more strategic, so the coders can work on those Tier 1 apps.

Carione went on to discuss some of the findings in the “2016 State of Citizen Development Report” that was recently released by QuickBase:


A citizen developer could be someone all the way down to what we call a “no-coder,” which is just your pure spreadsheet skill set, up to a more semi-technical, low-code developer who might know some JavaScript, HTML, or have some UX front-end scripting skills. We play in that sweet spot along that spectrum, where you’re still not a Java or .NET coder — you’re a business analyst or a non-technical line-of-business participant. And why are they doing this? It’s all about speed. Our survey found that 80 percent of organizations are embracing citizen development today. We work a lot with Gartner, and Gartner actually predicts that by 2020, 60 percent of all these fast-mode application projects are going to be handled outside of IT. That is a gigantic, titanic shift in the market, fueled by the rise of these citizen developers. When we went out to our own builder base at our QuickBase conference, 40 percent of businesses said citizen development enables them to develop apps at least twice as fast as traditional methods. And on top of that, 53 percent of our QuickBase app builders are building apps in two weeks or less. So that is another seismic shift. App development is becoming more of an organization-wide job, so more of our citizen developers are now considering app development as part of their day job. In fact, 76 percent of the QuickBase app builders said it’s part of their day job, which is up from 68 percent just a year earlier.

Carione wrapped up the conversation by elaborating on the distinction between shadow IT and citizen development:

Sometimes I go to these Gartner conferences and they talk about how shadow IT is coming at the business and coming at IT like a tsunami, so you have to accept it, you have to embrace it. The difference between shadow IT and citizen development is that with shadow IT, typically the business goes around IT to develop. Citizen development is where IT is absolutely involved and empowers the business to co-create and build those applications together. We think we’re one of the few platforms that’s driving this unification. QuickBase has been around for many years, and there was a time when it was actually an enabler of shadow IT. But I think the inflection point has come as IT’s budgets keep shrinking, and their role is being redefined. IT is reevaluating its place in the enterprise and saying, “We can’t survive tomorrow the same way that we survived yesterday. We absolutely have to partner, or we’re going to fail, so we have to adapt.” As IT has adapted and started to embrace citizen development over the last couple of years, that’s where we’ve seen the real shift in moving away from shadow IT.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.


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