Low-code platforms are empowering more people to build software.
But is it true that anyone can now be a developer – and is that a good thing for organizations?
A beguiling idea has been gaining currency in the past few years: the “citizen developer”.
The term describes employees outside of IT with little or no formal programming skills who are building the systems that they need to work more efficiently. They’re plugging the gaps that central IT can’t get to, either due to resource or budget constraints, long work queues or lack of business case.
Tools exist now that dramatically reduce the amount of technical skill needed to build proper software applications. Not just workarounds to make teamwork and individual jobs easier, but applications that elegantly automate business-critical processes like customer account signups, new recruit onboarding, trouble ticket logging, and much, much more.
Is an army of citizen developers a realistic – or even desirable – prospect?
In theory, these new tools (of which our own Low-code solution, MATS, is one) can empower whole armies of citizen developers to take matters into their own hands, and start building software solutions that improve efficiency, enable collaboration and improve customer service.
But is it really that simple? Can you really build a sophisticated customer-facing application without programming? And if so, is an army of citizen developers actually a desirable thing for the modern organization?
“Coding without coding” is now a real possibility
Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of citizen development is the idea that you no longer need a background in software development to build applications. At MATS, we’re living proof that this is possible. The developers we hire to build applications for our clients come from a range of backgrounds – and many have no programming knowledge at all.
“My background is in market research,” explains Thomas Miller, a MATS developer currently building applications for some of the world’s largest IT and mobile telephony brands. “I knew my way around a relational database because I’d used MS Access in previous jobs, but I’d never learned a programming language.”
Because the emphasis in MATS is on configuring applications, rather than coding them, that knowledge was more than enough to get him started. “My induction took four weeks. I had a week of classroom training then three weeks of shadowing and experimentation. I was building applications for clients by the end of the month,” he recalls. “It was actually fascinating how easy it was. It’s like building with Lego; you just drag blocks from the sidebar and it works.”
“It’s like building with Lego; you just drag blocks from the sidebar and it works.”
-Thomas Miller, developer, MATS
Trina Burnett, a business analyst at UK-based payment provider Universal Payment Gateway, agrees. As part of a three-strong business improvement team at the company, her role is to identify inefficient processes and build applications in MATS to make them more efficient. Despite having no technical background, Trina found that after one week’s training she could start developing solutions.
“With MATS, everything is based on automating a process,” she says. “The hard part is getting your head around what the process should be. Once you know that, it’s easy to build it in MATS. From a non-technical background, I found it easy to pick up and work with. And the more time I’ve spent on it, the more I’ve learned, and discovered more things it can do for us.”
Building serious business applications without coding
The applications built by Thomas and Trina are anything but trivial. One of Thomas’s applications is being used to manage hundreds of projects involving millions of man hours at one of the world’s largest technology companies. Another is helping sales teams at a global mobile operator to keep track of handset units sold. At UPG, an application built by Trina and two colleagues has doubled the number of customer account applications they can process, with no increase in headcount.
Twenty years ago, these were the kinds of application you might pay a systems integrator a six or seven figure sum to develop – and the process would have taken six months or more. Or, more likely, they simply didn’t get built because nobody could justify the initial outlay despite the promise of long-term benefits.
Today, enthusiastic amateurs can develop applications like these for themselves – after a few days of learning, in just a few weeks, and at a fraction of the typical consultant’s bill.
But, while Trina and Thomas are proof you can develop with MATS with no technical background, Thomas warns against thinking that “anyone” can be a developer. “It’s not for everyone,” he says. “You have to have an interest in problem solving and the drive to learn and improve. If you can visualize the required process, MATS makes it easy to put that vision into practice. If you’re ambitious, creative and enthusiastic – it’s really rewarding.”
Is citizen development the way to go?
So, does this mean that companies should give everyone free rein to build new apps whenever they want? Industry analysts tend to advise against it. Although Forrester acknowledge that Low-code platforms can significantly reduce the dependency on highly trained programmers, they advise companies to establish standards and guard-rails before Low-code development gets out of control across the business. Governance and coherence of the overall enterprise architecture remain really important.
The winnings can be huge though. Forrester have reported an average 90% reduction in development effort across several Low-code projects.
“Low-code platforms for developers can support more rapid experimentation and iteration than coding alone. Some can also empower your business experts to participate in application design and prototyping, as well as to create extensions and maintain key business processes and rules. Offer business experts tools on “our platform” and you’ll take the rogue out of rogue IT, particularly in marketing, sales, channel-management, and customer support operations.”
– Forrester Research, Customer Obsession Will Remake AD&D Tools and Supporting Technologies, October 2014
From experiment to Low-code ‘innovation hub’
In our experience, many MATS customers rapidly mature their use of Low-code from an initial tightly focused project in one department, to a service available to multiple departments. Low costs and ease of getting started are part of the reason – seeing results and benefits delivered so quickly provides the motivation to extend its use. It’s at this point the kind of standards and governance, described by Forrester, become essential.
Because MATS requires no formal programming skills, it doesn’t have to stay within IT – but it does work best when efforts are coordinated around a ‘center of excellence’ that several of our clients now call an ‘innovation hub’.
At Nationwide Building Society, for example, MATS is owned and managed by the Customer Operations Team where process innovators decide on the priorities and approach to development. The team can roll-out customer-facing applications and process improvements faster than submitting them to centralized IT; who have many more competing priorities. This two-speed “bi-modal” approach is helping Nationwide stay No.1 for customer satisfaction.
At Universal Payment Gateway, MATS belongs to the business improvement team within the operations group. They use it as a central platform for rapidly building new applications to make core processes more efficient.
Both these examples show how Citizen Developers can help organizations gain competitive advantage. The advent of Low-code development platforms means creative people can get involved with applications development without needing a background in formal programming.
The high speed and visual way in which applications are configured is well suited to a more experimental approach to application development that stems from design thinking and lean startup principles. Here, co-creation with users and customers pays dividends, as development benefits from the immediate and early feedback of trialling “minimum viable products” (prototypes) before over-investing in development.
When you think about these more collaborative and design focused forms of development, it’s a huge bonus that Low-code platforms like MATS empower people like Thomas and Trina to get involved. Bringing people with different personalities and backgrounds into such development can only help. Conversely, many technical developers with deep programming skills may feel they’re being taken out of their comfort zone, if they’re required to collaborate and co-create with customers.
Which rather turns the initial question on its head. Can anyone really be a developer now?
Evaluate MATS today
Enterprise architects and others who have read Forrester’s report may be interested in evaluating MATS as a strategic, centralized platform for rapid application development. To take the next step, get in touch.