Citizen Developers: How Citizen Development Works & Reduces Dev Shortages

Business applications can be a powerful tool and streamline almost any business process. As a result, many companies and their team members are requesting mobile apps to reduce costs and enhance efficiency.

The problem? There aren’t enough developers to build these apps for them. In fact, more than a third of respondents in a recent survey said that recruiting developers will continue to be challenging in 2023.

To overcome the slow development and deployment of critical apps, many employees and leaders are taking matters into their own hands. Fueled by no-code and low-code platforms, non-IT employees have more freedom than ever to realize their tech ambitions. In fact, 4 out of 10 non-IT employees use these platforms to build their technology solutions on average.

While app development has long been in the IT wheelhouse, citizen developers are disrupting how mobile apps are built. Here is what you need to know about citizen developers, including their benefits, risks and best practices to enhance their work.

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What are Citizen Developers?

Citizen developers are non-IT business users that leverage low-code and no-code apps and tools to solve their business challenges. They use these development platforms to create solutions that:

  • Automate processes.
  • Improve workflows.
  • Enhance overall efficiencies.

Citizen developers are gaining popularity as the tools supporting them become more sophisticated. They can create applications without relying on traditional IT departments, reducing development times and costs and increasing the speed of innovation.

As businesses seek to become more agile, responsive, and efficient, citizen devs fill a critical gap as developers struggle to keep up with demand.

Differences between Citizen Developers and Professional Developers

Citizen developers differ from professional developers due to their expertise level and the tools they use to create software applications:

  • Professional developers typically have formal education and training in computer science or software engineering and use programming languages and advanced development tools to build complex applications.
  • Citizen developers use low-code or no-code platforms that do not require extensive coding knowledge to make more straightforward applications.

A critical difference between the two is the level of governance and control over the development process. Professionals typically work within established software development frameworks, with formal quality assurance, testing, and deployment processes. However, citizen developers usually don’t have the same level of governance and may need to rely on IT teams for assistance with deployment and security.

Both citizen and professional developers have critical roles in software development. In fact, their different skill sets and tools often complement each other in innovating effective solutions.

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Benefits of working with citizen developers

Companies are starting to note how citizen developers add value to their organizations. Some of the most vital benefits include:

  • Shorter development time. Because they don’t rely on and aren’t waiting on overloaded professional developers, citizen developers can quickly build and deploy applications. As a result, businesses can enjoy faster time-to-market and quicker solutions.
  • Improved agility and flexibility. Businesses move fast, and their needs often shift, but developers struggle to keep up with the changes. Citizen developers respond quickly to fluctuating company needs. They develop applications that meet their departments' or teams' specific requirements or goals.
  • Cost savings. Citizen developers typically rely on less expensive platforms than traditional development tools. Combine that with the savings on the expenses associated with hiring and managing a full-time development team, and it can be considerable cost savings.
  • Empowered employees. Employees can become frustrated if they feel their great ideas are bogged down in bureaucracy and waiting for developers. Citizen developers can feel a sense of ownership and empowerment by creating their own solutions and contributing to their organization's success.
  • Enhanced innovation. Citizen developers introduce new ideas and solutions that professional developers might not consider. They have a unique and up-close perspective that can help drive innovation and creativity within the organization.

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The risks of citizen developers

Citizen developers offer organizations several benefits and can inspire creativity and innovation. However, left unchecked, they can also create significant risks. Leaders need to be aware of the risks to ensure they properly account for them.

Shadow IT

Shadow IT represents one of the most significant challenges for implementing citizen developers. When different departments build their own apps, controlling the process becomes far more complex. Citizen developers can start introducing applications and tools unknown to the organization.

Organizations open themselves up to significant risks without proper oversight or approval from IT teams. It can lead to security vulnerabilities, data breaches, and compliance issues, as applications may not meet established security protocols or data management standards.

Compliance risk

Citizen developers often do not have a complete understanding of compliance requirements or regulations, especially when it comes to applications. These risks vary by industry and country, and failing to comply can have severe legal and financial consequences.

For example, the healthcare industry has strict HIPAA regulations governing patient data management and protection. Likewise, the financial sector has laws such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) that require rigorous financial reporting and data management controls.

In addition to industry-specific regulations, general data protections such as GDPR and CCPA apply to all organizations that process personal data. If citizen developers create applications that fail to comply with these regulations, it could result in significant fines and legal liabilities.

Governance risks

Without proper training, citizen developers are likely unaware of governance policies or standards regarding app development or may not have the same level of expertise as professional developers in adhering to these policies. It can lead to application development and deployment inconsistencies and a lack of proper controls.

For example, a citizen developer may create an application that doesn’t comply with the company’s data management policies, causing unauthorized use or disclosure of sensitive data.

Alternatively, they may develop applications incompatible with the organization’s existing IT infrastructure, leading to compatibility issues and a lack of proper integration.

Security risks

Security protocols can be exact and specific. Citizen developers may not have the same expertise in the protocols and may not follow established policies. It can lead to significant vulnerabilities and potential data breaches.

These risks can manifest in several ways. Attackers may exploit them to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data or systems. They may also unintentionally introduce malware into applications through insecure coding practices, compromising the organization’s system’s security. Malicious actors within the organization can also exploit sensitive data and systems.

Best practices for Citizen Development

To mitigate these risks and ensure efficiency, organizations should follow the best practices of citizen development.

Establish guidelines and standards

Organizations should establish clear guidelines and standards for citizen development, including application development, deployment and management guidelines. This can include:

  • Establishing standards for data management, security and compliance.
  • Creating guidelines for testing and validation.

Providing training and support

Proper training and support are critical for citizen developers navigating low-code and no-code platforms. Organizations should give them the information they need on secure coding practices, data management and compliance requirements.

Encouraging collaboration and communication

Encourage cooperation and communication among citizen developers and IT teams to ensure that applications meet governance policies and standards. This can include:

  • Establishing communication channels for feedback and support.
  • Fostering a culture of collaboration and innovation.

Ensuring governance and compliance

Clear governance policies and controls for citizen development are crucial. They should include:

  • Application validation and testing processes
  • Change management
  • Documentation

Managing risks

Identify and manage the risks associated with citizen development, such as security, compliance, and integration risks. This should include establishing risk management processes and controls and ensuring applications are monitored and managed throughout their lifecycle.

Following these best practices is key for leveraging citizen developers’ expertise and skills while still ensuring the apps meet established standards for quality, security and compliance.

Meeting the dev shortage with citizen developers

The role of citizen developers has become crucial in today’s digital world. By leveraging low-code and no-code platforms, they provide key benefits to organizations. Companies are increasingly utilizing their talent for applications, from reduced development time to improved agility to enhanced innovation.

However, there are risks associated with citizen development. To mitigate these risks, leaders need to implement best practices, establish clear guidelines and standards, and provide citizen developers with the training, support, and communication they need.

By embracing citizen development, organizations can tap into the skills and creativity of their employees, driving innovation, agility, and efficiency. Their success depends on a collaborative effort between citizen developers, IT teams, and leaders, ensuring applications are built with quality, security, and compliance in mind.

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Kayly Lange
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Kayly Lange

Kayly Lange is a freelance writer. As a tech and SaaS specialist, she enjoys helping companies achieve greater reach and success through informative articles. When she’s not writing, she enjoys being out in nature, cooking, and reading a wide range of novels. You can connect with Kayly on LinkedIn.