4 Reasons Why Citizen Developers May Be The Next Big Thing in Application Development

Happy low-code developer

I must be behind the times because last week was the first time I heard the term, "Citizen Developer," a term Gartner defines as a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT. They are referring to a business user and not a software developer in IT, and are careful to distinguish this from rogue-IT which occurs when users select technologies not sanctioned by the IT department.

I have been a strong proponent of citizen development, though I've been using other terms for it on this blog. Self Service BI is a form of citizen development, and a strong practice is a crucial ingredient to becoming a data-driven organization. I also wrote The Best Line of Code is the One That You Didn't Have to Write, referring to PaaS platforms that enable application development with no or little coding required. I heard the term at last week's conference for Intuit QuickBase, one of the best platforms for citizen development of database-driven web and mobile applications.

Why Citizen Development?

Gartner predicted that Citizen Developed applications would be 25% of new applications developed by 2014. I suspect the percentage today is lower than anticipated, so here are a few reasons why this trend may take off in the next few years -

  • Understaffed IT Departments with greater business demand fro technology services - I've never seen an IT department with adequate resources and funding to tackle all the demands of the enterprise or organization. We spend significant effort to prioritize, identify business value, formulate risk scores, and calculate ROI to ensure we tackle the most critical opportunities knowing that we can't manage every need and request equally and simultaneously. So one reason for citizen development is to handle technology needs to automate workflow, develop knowledge repositories, construct reporting dashboards, or process data in domains that are difficult for IT to service. Very often these are operational groups, finance, and marketing who have significant technology opportunities but are too often ranked lower in business priority.

  • DIY by SME's vs. IT's ability to capture requirements and execute solutions - It's also no secret that IT often fails to understand and translate business requirements adequately. When deep subject matter expertise is required to facilitate a relatively easy to implement technology solution, it can be a lot more efficient for a citizen developer working in the organization to develop a solution. Examples include data-driven dashboards, departmental specific task management, lightweight CRM, or no-code content management systems (CMS).

  • No/Low code solutions should be easier and cheaper to maintain -The reality is that custom-developed applications can be expensive and many organizations underfund their ongoing support. Typically, the application development team is asked to go on and build new applications, leaving limited applied resources to enhance or upgrade older applications. In addition, the rate of adding new applications is often faster than the rate legacy applications are retired. Citizen developed applications are mostly low or zero code configurations and often deployed on SaaS or PaaS platforms. These applications should require less maintenance and are more likely to be enhanced if they are mission-critical to the citizen developer's organization.

  • The emergence of tech-savvy business users and functions - Finally, I believe there are technically capable individuals entering organizations in non-IT functions that are interested in taking on more technical responsibilities. They include data scientists working in analytical functions, data stewards working in operational functions, sales operations managers, or digital marketers. Given the right platforms, practices, and governance, these tech-savvy users can become citizen developers.

So What's The Catch?

Needless to say, that citizen development can quickly become a next-generation IT nightmare. A good quote from Citizen Developers Will Ruin Software

Citizen developers are only concerned with their immediate environment, looking at the problem that they are trying to solve so they can do their job, rather than seeing it in the context of the wider IT ecosystem.

I'm not sure I believe this has to be the case. Like all other technologies, it requires IT leadership to provide governance, practices, and guidance for technologies used by citizen developers. More in my next post!


  1. This is a long awaited app that small businesses need to know about. Quick to set up and run and affordable. Word needs to get out and more companies would benefit from this.

  2. There's always been a struggle between IT wanting to keep things standardized to make support easier and users wanting to have non-standard applications and tools that make their lives easier. Often, this is addressed by assigning privileges to small sets of superusers. I like QuickBase because it makes it possible to give all end users the ability to make their own apps, effectively giving them their own sandboxes to play in. When they have something they like, it can be integrated into an existing app or synced with a common app.

  3. I believe citizen developers can be more efficient app builders, as they already know the requirements.

  4. Citizen developers know what they need and don't have to "translate" it to programmers. This is a pretty awesome trend that gives power to the users.

  5. End users usually need something fast that works...once it's in production, things change and features that seemed like must-haves aren't as used as they might have thought—that's why it's important to get something into use as soon as possible, and Citizen Development is the right way to do that.

  6. I completely agree that your final sentence is the key - citizen developers and IT leadership must have communication and flexibility to allow citizen developers to accomplish needed problem-solving or streamlining while making sure not to disrupt the company's overall IT strategy and landscape.

  7. The concept of enabling the business users to become the citizen developers creating their own apps satisfying their needs is an awesome development trending in IT Industry.

  8. I believe low-code/RAD tools are useful for individuals closest to the issue. However, I think that an IT or a process improvement role should be able to look at the issue objectively to help with citizen developer through the process of using these tools. The issue may be a result of poor process development or oversight of an individual too close to the department.

  9. I've been a citizen developer for almost 8 years, and these low/no code programs have had tangible affects on the efficiency of my company's processes and the bottom line.

  10. What about the IT security concerns. Other than that this is a great concept.


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About Isaac Sacolick

Isaac Sacolick is President of StarCIO, a technology leadership company that guides organizations on building digital transformation core competencies. He is the author of Digital Trailblazer and the Amazon bestseller Driving Digital and speaks about agile planning, devops, data science, product management, and other digital transformation best practices. Sacolick is a recognized top social CIO, a digital transformation influencer, and has over 900 articles published at InfoWorld, CIO.com, his blog Social, Agile, and Transformation, and other sites. You can find him sharing new insights @NYIke on Twitter, his Driving Digital Standup YouTube channel, or during the Coffee with Digital Trailblazers.