Understanding the difference between Low Code, Citizen Development, and Sales Bull

Lying salesman
I started with low code development environments over a decade ago. We were a ~10 year "startup" with multiple businesses and limited technology resources to support them all sufficiently. One of our emerging business required some automation to enable an internal and customer facing workflow. They were an early form of an ad network essentially selling banner ads to US national advertisers and buying placements across a number of local websites. They needed a system that would track the proposal terms, the inventory acquisitions they were making across websites, and have the ability to ensure profitability. They also needed the ability to invoice websites and to capture ad inventory from them.

We built the entire workflow in Quickbase. It included a back-office process that used platform's native interfaces and a customer facing extranet that was developed using their APIs.

That's how I got started with low code platforms, but that's not where I stopped. I've used low code platforms across several organizations and have several posts covering the best line of code you didn't have to write, four reasons why citizen development may be the next big thing, and what IT it takes to be successful on low code platforms.

What are low code platforms?

Low code platforms enable the development of applications without a lot of formal coding. In the '80s and '90s, we called them 4GLs to differentiate these languages from more native, lower level 3GL programming environments like C++ and Java. The idea of 4GL was to eliminate a lot of the coding expressions that enable an application to function and free the developer to focus on the business logic and presentation. The goal was to enable developer productivity and platforms like PowerBuider, FoxPRO, even Microsoft Access and others enabled rapid application development within a specialized scope of application.

There were a few fundamental issues with 4Gs. First, they were highly proprietary so if you built apps on them, you were stuck with their dialect and code base. Second, even though they offered some productivity improvement over 3GLs, they still required a lot of coding performed by a developer that was trained and had experience working with the development environment. In other words, you had to hunt for a specialized skill set. Third, the productivity improvement was possible on a class of applications that the software vendor targeted, so until you experimented with the platform, it was hard to know its true capabilities and deficiencies. Finally, many of these programming languages emerged pre-web, pre-mobile, and pre-digital and are ill suited to today's device, data, and integration requirements.

Some answers emerged about a decade ago when "low code" platforms emerged. These platforms came out of the web 2.0 and mobile and rather than just target simplifying the coding dialect, their goal was to minimize or eliminate it. With platforms like Quickbase and others, you could eliminate a lot of coding entirely and instead, configure forms, reports, and workflows without having to write a lot of formal code.

What are Citizen Development Platforms? 

Forrester has 10+ platforms evaluated under low code and Gartner has 15+ under their Magic Quadrant for Enterprise Application Platform as a Service, Worldwide so you have a lot of research to do to evaluate and select one or more platforms nowadays. Some of these platforms will work successfully across a broad range of business applications, others are more niche. But what's the difference between low code platforms and citizen development?

The answer lies in who the vendor is targeting for the application development work. If the platform is designed to be operated by application developers and aims to make them more productive, then this is a low code platform. These platforms can be extremely powerful like enabling developers to connect to multiple data sources without a lot of heavy lifting, but at the potential cost of vendor lock in if their dialect is proprietary. Some of these platforms generate 3GL code (Java, C# etc.) and alleviate that risk.

To be a citizen development platform, it has the added criteria that they are designed from the ground up to be used by business users. Citizen development platforms maximize digital transformation because they empower individuals and business units to enable business process automation and even customer facing workflows without having to engage software developers until absolutely needed.

And sales bull?

Now there are a lot of platforms out there that look RAD, 4G, low code, or even citizen development to the untrained eye, but a seasoned CIO, CTO, application architect, or anyone who has skill to evaluate technology platforms can recognize where they fall short of delivering to any of these promises. The word is out and every organization has to develop more application, data capabilities, and algorithms faster than their competitors. So if you're a sales rep for any platform, you have to sell and demonstrate RAD capabilities to have a good chance at closing a sale. In addition, RAD is the music targeted by the untrained business decision maker looking to enable digital transformation.

It all looks good in concept until six months later when the business is hiring platform expertise at a premium and has yet to deliver a full functioning applications. Even if the application is delivered, can it be extended easily without a lot of rework? Can core business logic or user interfaces be reused in multiple applications? Do the applications require a lot of testing whenever the vendor updates their platform or APIs? What are the boundaries of performance, i.e., can it work with larger data sets, quantities of users, or multiple user roles or personas?

The simple answer to platform selection and implementation

When you're going to make an addition to your home, you hire an architect and a contractor to develop the plans. When you think about savings for your retirement, most people will work with a financial advisor or wealth manager to aid in financial decisions. If you have to draft or review a business critical contract, you're likely to seek advice from an attorney.

The same is true for platform selection and implementation. There's no shortcut because the type of platform benefiting one organization may be a complete miss for another business' opportunities and challenges. You need a CIO, a CTO, an application architect, or someone technical enough to guide selection, implementation and management of the platform.

I've been asked this question a lot. Hope this helps.


  1. Isaac,
    Great post. Thanks for sharing these insights. It helped to clarify some things in my mind that I have noodling on related to "shadow IT" and how to enable, yet protect.

    1. Thanks Jeff. Worse than shadow IT (when business leaders and users select their own tech) is "shadow IT leadership", where non-IT disrupts governance/process to push their own agenda. Not sure that's the best name... I might cover it in a future post

  2. Right on target and the moral of the story is hire a real pro.


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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.