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Francis Carden
Francis Carden
VP, Intelligent Automation and Robotics

3 min read

IT's secret to win the future: Citizen developers

Low-code platforms are empowering organizations as never before.

Imagine wanting to build a Lego castle, but first you have to design, mold, and test every individual piece from scratch. For decades, that’s what coding was: a painstaking slog of writing an application line by line, for weeks or months. If everybody wrote code perfectly, it would have been hard enough, but they didn’t, because they were, well, human. That meant time-consuming fixes and patches, or even slouching back to square one.

In 2021, we have all the shiny Legos we could want. We can build anything and make it instantly reusable and configurable. Best of all, we can build it fast, thanks to low code. Low-code platforms, with their array of visual drag-and-drop tools, don’t just mean that developers can skip hand-coding. They mean that non-IT professionals – or, as they’re better known, citizen developers – can build their own apps and automate workflows, whether it’s an accountant building an invoice-tracking app or an HR professional creating an onboarding workflow.

Thanks to low code, we’re on the verge of a coding (or should we say no-coding) revolution. Gartner predicts that by 2024, 80% of tech products and services will be built by non-IT professionals. This is great news for overburdened IT teams, freeing them to focus on more complex and urgent tasks. But for citizen developers to take flight tomorrow, IT will have to be their copilot today, providing the governance and security needed to ensure the viability and scalability of their products. These new yet crucial IT roles are essential to the future of all applications built in this new model.

Gartner predicts that by 2024, 80% of tech products and services will be built by non-IT professionals.

At first glance, this may seem like burdensome hand-holding, but it’s really a blessing in disguise. The partnership is the best path forward for reinventing the IT job of the future, allowing technologists to become true partners in achieving key business goals and driving innovation.

Almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic sent digital transformation – and the demand for digital products and services – into overdrive. At the same moment that the need for software and apps skyrocketed, so did the shortage of skilled IT talent.

One in five CIOs credit the pandemic with creating a severe “developer drought,” according to a survey by Internal. It has also brought the IT talent shortage to a 15-year high, with 69% of employers struggling to fill IT vacancies.

It’s no wonder, then, that most IT teams are underwater, struggling to keep up with crushing demand. Two-thirds of software projects are chronically behind schedule, and 62% of companies report that their IT ticket backlog keeps increasing.

The reality is that IT professionals spend a lot of their time supporting legacy operations and putting out fires, letting technical debt pile up in the process. They’re forced by the whack-a-mole reality of deadlines and competing “number-one priorities” to be largely reactive, not proactive. One Pega partner in the financial services industry recently told me that 95% of their IT budget goes toward “keeping the lights on.” That leaves a meager 5% for innovation.

"It’s no wonder, then, that most IT teams are underwater, struggling to keep up with crushing demand."

IT takes two to tango

Despite low-code tools’ ready availability and growing affordability (not to mention Gartner’s great expectations), the citizen developer movement is still in its early days.

The reason? Just shy of half of all companies have adopted low code, according to a TechRepublic survey. "The State of Low Code 2021" reports that the overwhelming majority of executives are aware of low code’s potential benefits, but 60% say that their organizations lack experience to implement it.

Despite its nascency, the adoption of low code has seen significant growth in recent years, especially from within professional IT. Citizen developers may account for only 6% of the software, app, and workflow development happening today, but the rate of low-code adoption among business users is rapidly accelerating. The ease with which applications can be built outside of IT is incredibly promising, but with that promise comes peril if business-led development initiatives are not run in collaboration with IT.

IT organizations that are already mature in their use of low-code tools are well positioned to provide guidance, but they can also offer oversight to ensure that the apps and intelligent workflows created by citizen developers are built with reusability, interoperability, and scalability in mind. They can also secure a chain of ownership if the citizen developer who built the product moves on from the company, as well as a pathway to “graduate” applications to IT ownership should they increase in complexity or criticality.

Inevitably, it will take a cultural adjustment for IT teams to adapt to this shift toward democratization of the developer domain. IT organizations are eager to find ways to free up their backlog, but they are unprepared to sacrifice security, compliance, and maintainability.

But as the benefits of citizen development become clear, IT leaders’ attitudes are evolving. According to one survey, 92% of IT professionals are getting comfortable with non-IT business users developing apps and software with proper training and oversight. Comfort with citizen development is won as the same platform that is used to empower citizen developers can also be used to enforce security and other best practices in ways that eliminate risk.

In the end, the democratization of application development through low code promises to be a win-win. Because of the rapid acceleration of digital transformation, there’s more excitement than ever before about automating workflows and creating powerful future-proof apps. But to notch those wins, IT and citizen developers will have to work in tandem.

And the greatest win of all for businesses may be freeing IT pros to innovate new products and services that will give their organizations a competitive edge to win the future. Let citizen developers help “keep the lights on.” IT has bigger and better castles to build.