Bob Violino
Contributing writer

Empowering citizen developers for real business impact

Jul 19, 202310 mins
Data ScienceNo Code and Low CodeSoftware Development

More than just a means of shifting burden from IT, citizen developers can weave domain expertise into valuable solutions — but only if you get your cit-dev strategy right.

colleagues discussing data on a laptop
Credit: Shutterstock

Given the important role of software applications in powering business processes and the shortage of experienced programmers, it should not be surprising that citizen development is on the rise.

Citizen developers are business users who build new applications or modify existing ones without needing help from the IT or development functions. While it’s one thing to have citizen developers in place to provide tactical help when professional developers are not available, it’s another to empower business users to make a real impact on the business through their development efforts.

“It’s important to note that citizen developer benefits are focused on productivity gains rather than the misconception that an enterprise could reduce their expenditure because they think they won’t need as many expensive professional developers,” says Adrian Leow, vice president and analyst at research firm Gartner.

Citizen developers for the most part will be focused on use cases that don’t require high levels of complexity, Leow says. For example, building web and mobile forms for employees, partners, or customers; automating personal and departmental workflows; connecting data and content across SaaS applications; and creating reports and data visualizations within a platform to aid productivity.

By empowering citizen developers, IT leaders can achieve several benefits, including improved business efficiency, efficacy, and agility, Leow says. “With the right low-code technologies, citizen developers can develop, automate, and integrate processes without any direct IT involvement,” he says. “When these users have access to intuitive, self-service tools, they can independently build solutions to solve their individual, team, or departmental process challenges. As a result, citizen technologists can accelerate business-driven hyperautomation.”

Citizen development also enables IT democratization and empowerment. “The workforce is becoming increasingly tech-savvy, and many younger workers are interested in developing their own applications,” Leow says. When employees have a say in the design of their applications, they are more productive, he says.

Finally, citizen development reduces the burden on IT specialists. “By empowering autonomy within business units, software engineering leaders can reduce the workload that would otherwise fall to their software engineers, enabling them to focus on more strategic projects that are better aligned to their skills,” Leow says. “Software engineering talent is scarce and precious, and this will also help companies to fill the gap in resources.”

Building purposeful solutions faster

At energy company Chevron, citizen development has been a big part of the shift toward digital business.

“Over the past six years, Chevron has cultivated a community of more than 2,500 citizen developers that come from virtually every discipline and organization across our global enterprise — from new energies to petrotechnical functions to manufacturing and all corporate functions,” such as human resources, legal, and corporate affairs, says Bill Braun, CIO.

“We’ve focused on making it easy for anyone to responsibly develop solutions regardless of their technical skill level, and that has meant giving them the tools and resources to follow software engineering discipline without even really realizing it,” Braun says.

The company was an early adopter of Microsoft’s Power Platform, which has provided foundational capabilities for citizen developers, says Braun, who continues to work closely with Microsoft to advance functionality in new areas.

“Traditional instructor-led programs do not cut it in this space,” Braun says. “We encourage our people to start with a solid use case — a clear opportunity that is not already addressed by our application portfolio. We then support them through a four-month program that blends some instruction and hands-on coaching.”

Citizen developers are building applications while also learning new problem-solving techniques, ways to break down complexities, and how to teach others, Braun says. “The real success is the impact they make as they graduate our programs, mentor others, and go on to build many solutions over time,” he says.

Citizen developers “are a force multiplier when it comes to rapidly developing solutions not already provided by our application portfolio,”
Braun says. “These individuals are closest to the work, making them the best ones to quickly understand opportunities, parameters, data requirements, and user experience,” Braun says. “Many times, these solutions are niche or needed for a fast response to a developing situation.”

For example, when flash flooding impacted some of the homes of Chevron’s workforce in Africa, one of the company’s citizen developers quickly created a dynamic tool that enabled rapid damage reporting and resolution tracking. 

“These solutions can also be an important first step in replacing manual, paper-based processes,” Braun says. “Another example comes from our logistics team, where a developer designed a tool that allowed forklift operators to calculate verified gross mass of exported products. This made it much easier to select products, automatically calculate the verified gross mass, and send necessary information directly to export coordinators for processing.”

This is not shadow IT, Braun notes. “This is deliberately blurring the lines between business and IT to accelerate progress,” he says. “What’s more, by equipping citizen developers with foundational tools to rapidly build solutions, we also equip our IT organization with telemetry data that spotlights use cases and trends to better inform our core IT roadmaps.”

Creating an army of citizen data scientists

Telecom provider AT&T’s Chief Data Office (CDO) — its “North Star” for data, analytics, and artificial intelligence (AI) — is acting as a catalyst to spread reusable capabilities across the company to support greater data-driven decision-making at all levels of the company, says Mark Austin, vice president of data science.

“We have empowered business managers with self-serve access to ‘single version of truth’ datasets using business intelligence tooling,” Austin says. “We are also extending low/no-code AI creation capabilities across the firm. This unlocks a larger segment of analytic talent beyond just our code-savvy cohort within AT&T to create optimized and responsible AI solutions.”

Leveraging automation and data management tools and services from a variety of vendors, including Microsoft and Databricks, AT&T’s CDO has been focused on analytic skill development and employee growth to mobilize this larger segment of analytic talent that it calls “citizen data scientists.”

“We are revolutionizing how employees across AT&T navigate the data and AI lifecycle, from [finding] and getting data; to engineering the data for machine learning; to creating, deploying, monitoring, and governing machine learning models used in artificial intelligence,” Austin says.

As a result, AT&T’s 300 professional data scientists are now greatly outnumbered by the 3,000 citizen data scientists from across the company in almost every department. “They are deploying and using AI in everything from marketing campaigns to network design and management to calculating the most efficient routes for technicians headed out on the road to service our customers,” Austin says.

The combination of professional data scientists and citizen developers “has been incredibly powerful,” Austin says. “In the last year, AT&T has seen $3.1 billion in business value from AI, including both cost savings and additional revenue from AI-enhanced products and services,” he says. “That’s a 24% increase over the previous year, and we expect that growth rate to increase.”

Empowering staff and customers

MDaudit, a healthcare technology software provider, is using an AI-powered analytics platform called Thoughtspot Everywhere from ThoughtSpot to enable nontechnical users to help create dashboards to better serve the needs of their teams.

For example, MDaudit’s product management team, which includes more than 10 citizen developers, created curated content for healthcare customers based on personas, says Ritesh Ramesh, CEO at MDaudit.

“These personas include the executives, functional leaders, and operational employees that are driving compliance, coding, and revenue integrity outcomes,” Ramesh says.

In addition to its internal teams, MDaudit has enabled citizen developers at customer organizations so they can create their own dashboards and insights through MDaudit’s self-service model.

“Our solution enables healthcare executives to measure their teams’ productivity, as well as performance measures and outcomes when it comes to compliance and revenue risk,” Ramesh says.

The approach of delivering curated insights and do-it-yourself development across the customer base has accelerated the ability of customers to put insights into the hands of users at every level at the right time for them to drive real-time decision-making, Ramesh says.

For example, one of MDaudit’s customers has 15,000 providers and is looking for insights to continuously monitor risky providers to audit almost on a weekly basis. “The analytics we have delivered [via citizen development] helps them do that.”

How to succeed with citizen development 

nterprise IT leaders offer hard-earned advice for those seeking to make the most of their citizen development strategies. 

Focus on business value. As with any technology project, citizen developers should be encouraged to direct their efforts toward solutions that matter to the business, AT&T’s Austin says.

“Our mandate across CDO is not to invent or deploy technology for its own sake. Rather, our mission is to deliver value to the company and to our customers,” he says. “That mentality is critical for both professional data scientists and citizen developers. We encourage our citizen data scientists to find the pain points for employees and customers and address those.”

Build tools and support systems. While citizen development offers the lure of hands-off IT, the strategy’s true payoff can only be realized with IT involvement and investment. “We launched a Center of Excellence that trains and assists our citizen developers. And it’s working,” he says. Of the more than 3,000 software bots that have been created at AT&T, 92% of them came from the business units, not the CDO, he says.

Communicate and train often. IT leaders should also institute ongoing processes for nurturing citizen development efforts, through both summits and additional training. “Have weekly or biweekly forums for sharing and use case result reviews, and hold summits midyear,” Austin says. “Fund the platform centrally, to avoid delays and allow people to use [tools] and create value.”

Open pathways to data. Organizations should embrace citizen developers as a force multiplier for IT, Chevron’s Braun says. “Demand for IT talent and services will always outpace supply,” he says. “We have to make it easy for anyone — regardless of technical skills — to responsibly develop solutions to the problems they understand best.”

That means providing them with foundational technologies that ensure secure, reliable, and efficient design and access to data, Braun says. “With that foundation, you also arm IT with clear telemetry data to ‘see’ what is being developed and used, bringing what might have once been shadow IT into the light,” he says.

Spotlight success. It’s also important to champion citizen developers and encourage other leaders to do the same. “Some leaders will ask potential citizen developers why they’re doing something that is an ‘IT thing,’” Braun says. “The reality is that the future requires everyone in an organization to have digital skillsets — capabilities once only thought to be IT responsibilities. These skills will only make your workforce more valuable. Help others understand that dynamic.”

Institute safeguards. For citizen development to work, it’s vital to have the right safeguards in place. “You can build a citizen developer program without increasing the risks we’ve all seen from shadow IT,” Braun says. “Put engineered technical controls in place to manage the path to production and ensure cyber, privacy, and operational risks are part of your design, trainings, and expectations — all from the start.”