Editor's note: The following is a guest article from Karen Renner, chief information officer for CommScope.
As companies seek to improve operational efficiency, enhance customer service and transform the way they do business with digital technologies, many CIOs are considering launching a citizen developer program to accelerate their organization's digital transformation.
These programs provide business users with a structured, IT-sanctioned way to use no-code/low-code tools to build new business applications.
With business users empowered to safely and securely build new applications, companies can better develop applications that address specific business needs, roll out these applications faster and do all this without significantly expanding their IT budgets.
However, for these programs to be successful, IT needs to put strong program guardrails in place — policies, training, and other resources that enable citizen developers to smartly, safely and effectively use no-code/low-code software tools to develop new applications themselves.
Otherwise, companies risk seeing their citizen developer programs run off the road, with employees developing applications that fail to work with their existing systems, make the company more vulnerable to attack by malicious actors, or that lead to other problems.
At CommScope, we recently launched a citizen developer program. Though our program is still in its early stages, we have already learned some lessons from its rollout and realized benefits that demonstrate why — if they approach these programs with their eyes wide open — other companies should start citizen developer programs of their own.
What drove the launch of CommScope's citizen developer program?
As any CIO knows, limited resources make it practically impossible for IT to meet business user demand for new applications. We saw a citizen developer program as one way to lower business user frustration that IT was not able work on their new application ideas.
At the same time, we saw the potential value that could be generated by many of these ideas and thought a citizen developer program would provide us with a way to support development of these applications without investing a large amount of IT resources.
We were also concerned that more technically savvy users might start engaging in shadow IT application development if IT was not working on their application development ideas.
Without guidance and support from IT, these shadow IT applications might be incompatible with our other systems or vulnerable to cyberattacks. In addition, they could lead to unexpected software licensing expenses or other issues.
Guardrails in place
For our new program to succeed, we knew we needed guardrails that would provide our citizen developers with the policies, training and other resources they needed to realize their application development goals.
For example, we developed an internal citizen developer website with details on our corporate security and data governance policies, as well as links to online courses and training videos on our no-code/low-code tools.
The internal website also provided citizen developers with details on application costs, including the expenses involved in connecting their application to another system. Having these guardrails in place will help keep our citizen developers from building applications that would violate our security or governance policies, or cost too much to deploy and maintain.
We complemented the internal website with a community forum in which citizen developers could ask questions and discuss application ideas with each other as well as IT staff.
We also created a catalog for citizen-developed applications where IT and other employees can access the applications. The catalog allows IT to inform citizen developers of software updates or other changes that might require them to update their application.
Lessons, takeaways and benefits
We launched a pilot version of our citizen developer program in late April, with around 30 business users. Though still in its early stages, we have already gleaned some lessons from the program that might be valuable to other companies.
For one, we have seen why it is important to not limit participation in the program to certain types of employees. In fact, some of our most enthusiastic and productive citizen developers have come from departments and teams we did not expect to be very interested in the program.
We have also seen the importance of using a no-code/low-code tool set that does not just coexist with IT's existing systems but is also very easy for citizen developers to use, with a lot of outside training resources. In fact IT has received fewer requests for assistance that it expected from citizen developers.
If our citizen developers can't figure out a solution to their problem themselves, chances are they will use training tools or community forums to find an answer to all but the most difficult questions.
We have also discovered that we should not restrict measurement of the program's success to the direct ROI or other benefits of the new applications created by our citizen developers. For example, though our program is still in its early stages, we are already seeing it encourage closer collaboration between IT and business users outside of the program itself.
As far as benefits from the program, our citizen developers have developed a new application that allows us to track the quality of one of our core products in real-time, which has helped us reduce product failures.
They have also built a new project management tool that helps improve collaboration between global teams, as well as a smart-phone app for field workers that helps them work more efficiently with our engineering team to solve customer problems.