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What It Takes to Build a Citizen Developer Program

February 01, 2022 Digital Workplace
tim kulp
By Tim Kulp

Workforce changes seem to be the norm lately. Whether it's record quit rates, changes in vaccination mandates or whole companies getting sick and closing, not a day goes by without some workforce challenge in the news. But it isn't all bad news. One recent trend, harnessed properly, can help solve not only some of your workforce issues but also propel your business into the future. That trend is the rise of the citizen developer.

Citizen developers in business are passionate about their work. These creators are solving problems for their team, sharing their solutions and engaging others. This might manifest in sharing a spreadsheet macro or an automation workflow to process invoices faster. Citizen developers bring innovation to where the work is being done, the front lines. Empowering and enabling team members has another effect in building an engaged workforce which is more likely to stay.

What Makes a Citizen Developer Program?

Critical to any citizen developer program is ensuring the guardrails of governance are in place for the team, the team has the tools they need, and the team engages and supports their community.

These three things are complex with many layers. Fundamentally, start small with your exploration into the world of citizen developers. Do not try to big bang your program out to the entire company. Start small with a single team, ensure that you address the following things to protect your company, empower your team and get the best return from your citizen developer program.

Citizen Developer Programs Start With Governance

Empowering your team works well when you have the guardrails in place to protect your company and to protect your citizen developers from themselves. Start with a mind towards building success.

Citizen developers come in all shapes and sizes. Some may be developers, some marketers, some will be non-technical people. Everyone has the desire to share their work and solve problems for others, but that doesn't mean they understand all the risks or know how to engage without causing harm.

Want examples? A simple spreadsheet macro can damage your company's data if implemented incorrectly. Perhaps that new email rule that's helping case managers ignores a critical case because of an unknown bug in the rule's logic. Maybe the newest process automation handles an invoice using incorrect logic based on incorrect understanding of the business process.

Governance not only creates the security constraints around what can be done (such as what data is accessible to which team members) but also has an approval team who reviews the citizen developer's work. Just like developers have a code review process, citizen developers need a review process to ensure their solutions are working and are bug free.

Building a governance team can be as simple as a cross functional team from information security, the business team being impacted by the citizen developer work, and an executive sponsor. The Info Sec team makes sure the company is not being put at unnecessary risk. The business team ensures the citizen developer's work isn't creating more work for them. The executive sponsor is the champion for the program, sharing the successes and lessons with other senior leaders.

Related Article: Can Citizen Developers Fix Information Management?

Give Citizen Developers the Tools They Need

Just like any creator, citizen developers need the right tools for their job. Just like software developers aren't experts at every code language or software, citizen developers ought to focus on a specialty. That specialty could be tools like Microsoft Excel/SmartSheets, robotic process automation tools like UiPath, StudioX or Power Automate, even application development tools like BettyBlocks and PowerApps.

The goal is to equip teams with all they need to get their work done without going overboard. There are so many tools and resources available in the new low code world that citizen developers can easily go overboard with what tools they "need." Help the team focus on a specialization and let that specialization drive what tools are needed. Data analytics citizen developers might only need Excel/Google Sheets — and not bigger tools like PowerBI or Tableau.

Having only what's needed includes setting user permissions so people can't access data they don't have permission to see. It also includes providing training for new technologies if necessary, having governance in place to avoid mistakes, and more importantly, knowing what you're looking for when reviewing citizen developer's work before it goes live.

Beyond software and permissions, make sure you establish a workflow for citizen developers to test their creations. Beware of citizen developers who build in isolation and then deploy across the company — that is a sure recipe for disaster. Build good testing hygiene to keep support issues to a minimum.

Finally on the topic of tools, the number one tool missing for most citizen developers is time. Often, their developer duties are shoved into an already full plate of work. If you want a citizen developer program, you must give the candidates a serious chance at success — and that means carving out time for their projects. Start small and work collaboratively with the citizen developer to figure out what is needed and how to support them in building the time to be a creator and lead innovation at your company.

Related Article: How Low Code Development Is Transforming Organizations' Approach to Tech

Engage the Community

Citizen developers are about lifting up their business community. Someone who builds their own macros for themselves isn't a citizen developer. An important aspect to this work is operating inside the constraints of the company to create tools for others. To this end, a successful citizen developer program is designed to engage the peers of the citizen developer so the work can be shared.

There are many ways to do this but keep it simple. When a new tool is ready for the team, host a small workshop to introduce the tool, how to use it, and who to call for help. This last element is critical. Team members need to know who to call if something goes wrong (and something always goes wrong).

Establish a clear and dedicated support workflow. Make sure that the community on the receiving end is aware of the support workflow and has the tools to engage/request support.

Empower Your Team to Innovate

Progress and growth in a business requires innovative ideas coming from different angles — and that's where citizen developers come in. They create an environment where ideas are encouraged and rewarded.

With the current workforce environment of churn, burnout and frustration, use your citizen developer program to engage, empower and excite your team. Not only will your team members appreciate the opportunity, your business will appreciate the innovation and transformation these team members provide. Happy creating!

About the Author

Tim Kulp is the Chief Innovation Officer at Mind Over Machines and a member of the Forbes Tech Council. He's trying to change the world.

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