Chief Content Officer,
Techstrong Group

Providers of backend enterprise applications are almost naturally given to making bellicose statements about how they have automated every conceivable process so there is no need to build any type of customized application. Fortunately, most Digital CxOs know better which is why there are now more custom applications than ever.

Most of those applications are today being built using a variety of low-code and no-code tools by both professional developers and so-called citizen developers, who were once known more simply as “power users” of an application. Most of those applications combine data from multiple backend end applications to enable organizations to drive a wide range of digital processes that revolve around a packaged system-of-record application.

Despite often insisting their applications cover every process imaginable, most providers of backend applications have, somewhat begrudgingly, recognized this reality by either developing their own application development tools or partnering with third-party providers of such tools. For example, SAP in addition to reselling low-code tools from Mendix, has now elevated OutSystems to become an official member of the SAP PartnerEdge program.

Many organizations have, of course, been using the OutSystems platform to build custom applications that pull data from SAP and other data sources for years. “People need to be able to access data from other sources,” says Robson Grieve, chief marketing officer for OutSystems.

The thing that has changed is the backlog for building those applications is the age of digital business transformation has never been greater so the number of organizations using these tools has increased exponentially. There are more applications that need to be created than even professional developers using these tools can handle. Citizen-developers are now being pressed into service to reduce that application backlog.

The issue that creates, however, is that citizen developers typically don’t have the expertise required to build and deploy secure applications at scale that anybody other than themselves really wants to use. Citizen developers are not trained on the fundamental principles that developers employ to build enterprise-class applications.

Ideally, citizen developers should be supported by application development platforms and DevOps teams that ensure guardrails are in place for building secure applications at scale. DevOps teams should also reduce the friction that a citizen developer will most certainly encounter when building any application. The simple truth is in the absence of that support most citizen developers—who typically have other tasks that require their attention—will simply abandon an application development project when things get tough. The problem is that tasks such as application testing and making sure that configurations are not manually changed, or that technical debt doesn’t start to accrue over time, are all issues that are alien to the average citizen developer.

None of this means organizations shouldn’t be working toward building their own army of citizen developers. The increased reliance on citizen developers is part of an inexorable wave of democratization of IT in which individuals that don’t have advanced technology degrees take advantage of automation to build and deploy applications. The challenge is making sure those applications don’t wind up becoming too much of the proverbial good thing that over time may be more trouble than they may be worth.