Democratizing automation with citizen developers: navigating the pitfalls and opportunities

This article was co-authored by Massimo Pezzini, Head of Research, Future of the Enterprise at Workato.

The uncertain economic environment and rapidly evolving technology landscape have pressured organizations to improve efficiency, innovate, and adapt. Citizen developers have emerged as an approach to bridge the gap between technical expertise and domain knowledge. Those self-taught deeply understand their industry’s needs and pain points, enabling them to create tailored applications that address specific challenges. Citizen developers are a vital resource for organizations looking to streamline processes, increase efficiency, and reduce costs, whilst supporting business innovation and agile change. One can trace the emergence of citizen developers back to end-user computing in the late 20th century. However, the rise of the internet and subsequent development of low-code and no-code platforms, increasingly assisted by AI technologies, are democratizing software creation.

Who is a citizen developer?

Citizen developers are non-technical employees who take the initiative to develop software applications or automate business processes without relying on IT departments or specialized software engineers, if not for training and support. They use “low-code” tools and technologies to address personal or workgroup-level enterprise development and automation challenges that are key for them but not critical enough at the enterprise level to deserve the attention of central IT.

These individuals possess a deep understanding of their industry’s needs and pain points, enabling them to identify opportunities for development and automation that can drive efficiency and productivity within their organizations. Citizen developers are business technologists (that is, they have “enough” IT skills) who can and want to address development and automation tasks alone, by using low-cost or free cloud services. Characterized by the low cost of entry, short learning curves, minimal training requirements, intuitive (often conversational) UIs, and AI-assisted high productivity, these tools empower users to excel.

Their goal is to:

Improve efficiency by automating their own or their workgroup’s formal or informal processes

Respond quickly to opportunities and threats (business agility)

Introduce new creative ways of doing their job (innovation)

Collect and aggregate the data they need to steer their activity or make operational decisions (insights)

Interact with the enterprise systems in a simplified, optimized, and personalized way (experience)

The key point is that they are enabled to achieve these goals at the micro-organizational level (department, workgroup, or even individual), whereas the central IT department focuses on the macro, organization-wide issues.

The implications

Enterprise automation technology providers increasingly offer tools tailored to citizen developers, making them easily and widely accessible through low-cost or free cloud services. While citizen developers can improve micro-efficiency, business agility, and innovation, they also present risks, such as security, compliance, privacy, data quality, duplication of efforts and technologies, and mounting technical debt.

In general, citizen developers may possess different technical expertise than professional developers, therefore the applications and automations they implement might be sub-optimally designed. Furthermore, these applications may need to be designed with scalability, a skill that citizen developers don’t necessarily master, thus potentially creating challenges as the organization grows.

Challenges can also arise in ongoing maintenance and support as the lifecycle of citizen-developed applications may not be rigorously managed. Consequently, outdated applications may remain in place for a long time, potentially harming the organization in the long run.

Additionally, the lack of coordination among numerous citizen developers can lead to fragmented processes, uneven development, and duplication of efforts across the organization.

Lastly, documentation by citizen developers can help others understand, maintain, and modify the applications they create, but usually documenting what they develop is not a priority for them.

Technical debt, that is the accumulation of technical issues, poorly developed and hard-to-maintain code, can arise when organizations do not put in place proper development governance processes. While citizen development has a good deal of merits, the risk of building technical debt looms large on it. Ensuring the appropriate governance guardrails are in place and involving the relevant people is essential for success.

“Strong governance is the cornerstone of successful citizen development, as it ensures that organizations can scale their digital initiatives enterprise-wide while maintaining control and compliance. By meticulously evaluating and choosing the most fitting combination of low/no-code platforms such as apps, automation, analytics, and BPM, organizations can unlock the power of citizen development while reinforcing the crucial role governance plays in fueling sustainable, secure growth.”

Neeraj Mathur, Director of Intelligent Automation, VMware

Citizen development is not a one-size-fits-all solution for building applications and automations. It plays a complementary role in optimizing certain business processes, but professional developers remain crucial for sustainable automation initiatives. Striking the right balance between citizen developers and professional developers is critical to successful enterprise automation.

Organizations that create a foundation of proper governance in citizen development and see the importance of finding the right mix of citizen and professional developers see tremendous success. Professional developers should handle complex, enterprise-wide business processes, while citizen development should focus on locally enhancing customer experience, building customer trust, and driving revenue. By addressing these considerations, organizations can maximize the benefits of citizen development while mitigating potential risks.

Measuring the return on investment (ROI) for citizen development and automation initiatives can be challenging, as they often involve a mix of formal and informal efforts with benefits that are difficult to quantify. Today’s market lacks specific, agreed, and measurable metrics for assessing citizen development success, aside from a number of enabled developers or new applications delivered, which primarily serve to fuel the hype. However, the value of the citizen developer approach can, in many cases, be assessed in terms of faster time to value and improved business agility.

What should CIOs do?  

Chief information officers (CIOs) should recognize that citizen development and automation will happen, whether they want it or not. It is much more effective to view it as an opportunity rather than a threat. Citizen developers can complement professional specialists by addressing the mass of medium or low complexity, local requirements that the few specialists CIOs have in-house will never find the time to tackle. As millennials and Gen Z join the workforce, the number of business technologists will naturally increase. Moreover, as these tools are increasingly enhanced by generative AI technologies, such as ChatGPT and Bard, their learning curve will further shorten, and their use will become even more widely democratized.

“Collaboration between Citizen Developers and IT can bring about the perceived benefits by minimizing the risk of creating flawed automation and receiving support from IT expertise. Although Citizen Developers can address their challenges, they could overlook the interconnectedness of systems and processes, resulting in unintended consequences. IT can provide a broader perspective on enterprise architecture, ensuring all stakeholders comprehensively understand the business.”

Karl Mosgofian, CIO, Gainsight

Therefore, CIOs should collaborate with business leaders to identify potential benefits and opportunities of citizen development and automation and incorporate its support into their enterprise automation strategy. Moreover, they should proactively empower business technologists by providing the right tools, training, mentoring, and support services through a citizen developer facilitation team.

This team should select tools that meet business technologists’ needs while allowing for monitoring, management, and governance. Implementing a marketplace for reusing the developed assets across the citizen developer community, a life cycle management process and proper governance guardrails will help minimize duplication of efforts. Establishing a citizen developer community of practice can foster knowledge sharing and feedback collection.

Periodic reviews of citizen development and automation approaches within the broader enterprise automation strategy will ensure continued effectiveness. CIOs and facilitation teams should aim to establish themselves as trusted providers of a “citizen automation platform as a service,” encompassing technology and enablement services. This position will encourage business technologists to actively utilize the tools provided by Centers of Excellence (COEs) instead of looking at the shiniest new tools that pop up on the Internet.

In today’s race to digital, the demand for customized software solutions will grow, making citizen development more compelling. CIOs and facilitation teams who can strike the right balance between citizen and professional developers and implement a governance framework that addresses risks and challenges will drive enhanced competitive positioning in the digital age. With proper planning, coordination, and oversight, citizen development can drive innovation, agility, and efficiency across the organization.

Developer, No Code and Low Code