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On a sunny day in June 1789, a mob of peasants stormed a tower in France, desperate for gunpowder. They were fed up with not being able to vote under an out-of-touch king. What followed was known as the French Revolution. He overthrew the monarchy, extended power to the people, unleashed chaos, and ended up with…another dictator.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and history teaches us that great companies without leaders eventually appoint someone. (It is called a “revolution” because it ends where it begins.) If no one steps up, we tend to have poor leaders. This is all the more important given the rise of so-called citizen developers, people who don’t code but nevertheless create software thanks to no-code/low-code (LC/NC) tools like Microsoft Power Apps.
It is an exciting moment. Tens of millions of additional people can now create software. But as someone who has spent his career thinking about what methodologies and tools build high-quality software, I can assure you that empowering people to build things is not the same thing as ensuring they are built effectively. I think the citizen developers are going to need a leader.
The global population of citizen developers is not huge, just a few tens of millions, according to The Economist – but it’s growing at a dizzying 40% year-over-year rate. That’s three times faster than the developer population is growing (25 million).
In 2021 alone, Microsoft Power Apps, one of the best examples of democratized app building suites, doubled in size to 10 million users. Half of the big insurers, many of them victims of legacy internal systems, are reportedly considering giving access to applications like this to their entire company.
No doubt all of these newly appointed “developers” will identify and address niche issues that no core team would have noticed or prioritized. Freed from the benevolent gaze of central IT, people are free to create apps that make their lives easier, which will no doubt spill over into after-work hours, flexing enterprise development capabilities to unimaginable heights. But the warning signs are already clear.
What The Economist reports, an employee of the Australian telecommunications company Telstra created an application that unified 70 internal systems used by 1,300 co-workers. The challenge? The interface presents users with 150 atrocious buttons and resembles a space shuttle control panel.
Perhaps there is a parallel with other creator platforms, such as YouTube, TikTok or Minecraft, where the vast majority of what is created is of low quality, has bugs and is enjoyed by only a few. I think people with no engineering background are very unlikely to think about interoperability, security, or compliance, let alone interface.
What could the sum of all these problematic interfaces and user-generated applications create? What happens when these apps collide, overlap, conflict and can overwrite each other’s data? Who maintains them, especially as the underlying systems evolve? Who handles support requests? Does it eventually grow enough for IT to inherit it?
Not unlike the site of the fated Bastille in 1789, people can pick up gunpowder. The question is whether they will know what to do with it.
Citizen developers need two guides: one internal and one external
I started my software career in the early 2000s in a time like today, full of new technology, rapid experimentation, and a sense of limitless possibilities. I was very influenced by the paradigm shift from heavy to light processes. These were the days when the Agile Manifesto was written, unit testing became accepted practice, Gang of Four Design Patterns were on everyone’s reading list, and some poor souls had to deal with Languages of unified modeling.
Part of what made the small group of people who defined that era so influential was that they were just a handful of leaders you could pinpoint, point to, and follow. They were also interested in seeing how the industry developed, not just seeing a given software vendor win, so they could say anything in search of the truth. Together, they had a profound impact on the people within the companies who were actually creating the software or learning about it in school.
I see that dynamic as a model for how leaders could emerge for citizen developers. I imagine there will be two classes:
- Industry agnostic innovators — public figures trying to solve the challenge of coordinating the work of millions of citizen developers. In my opinion, it is crucial that they are vendor independent so that they can remain honest.
- internal business engineers — a handful of architects within each company or business group who coordinate citizen development. They bring all the powerful tools and methodologies of software development to ensure that all those federated applications are intertwined and are secure, compatible, available and easy to use. They spread these methodologies and tools to others.
Consulting firm Gartner strongly advocates hiring people who fit that second group. They could even sit outside of IT, Gartner says, given how closely they’ll need to understand the business. If you empower these “business technologists”, you are reportedly 2.6 times more likely to accelerate digital transformation. At Salto, we call these people “business engineers,” a composite moniker that conveys how important it is that they not only set up systems, but do so to benefit the business and the people who use those systems.
Whatever you call yours, I think that every company that seeks citizen development needs them. And whoever those industry agnostic innovators are today, I hope they start giving many more talks and give the rest of us the methodologies and tools to guide us through this revolution.
The French Revolution ended with a second dictator: Napoleon Bonaparte. You don’t have to read a lot of history to know that he wasn’t very benevolent and led the people into ten years of devastating war. When leaderless organizations don’t select their leaders, their leaders select themselves and tend not to be the people we want to be in charge.
Amid the rapid rise of citizen developers in your business, you must be wondering who will lead them. I think it’s important to find out now, before fate decides for you. History tells me that you will not be satisfied with the result.
Gil Hoffer is the CTO and co-founder of Salto.
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