The rise of low-code tools have given companies a better way to quickly spin out new products and services and elevated a new kind of knowledge worker: citizen developers.
These are technology enthusiasts within organizations who, despite not having a formal technology position on the org chart, have been involved in business process and service design for years and have developed low-code solutions to tackle bigger challenges, says Gregg Aldana, global senior director of creator workflows at ServiceNow.
Using popular low-code platforms and tools , these organizational tinkerers are using drag-and-drop interfaces to create new apps without writing a line of code.
“It’s not a new role,” Aldana says. “It’s just a new way of describing things people have already been doing.”
Aldana has worked in pro-code and low-code development for years, using early forms of cloud based low-code technology for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation before joining ServiceNow in 2017. Now he helps companies understand how low-code technologies can dramatically accelerate achieving business goals more efficiently and effectively.
In an interview, Aldana talked about the shift in application development to the front line, who’s got their hands on these new low-code software tools, and how companies are reaping the benefits.
Who are the “citizen developers” who use these tools?
It’s people who traditionally aren’t in IT. They’re in lines of business, such as marketing and sales, or business analysts, or people who know how to do amazing things with spreadsheets and write macros. They’ve always been there trying to find better ways to operate the business. Technology has now evolved to a point where they don’t have to write much code to deliver a custom app. They are actually developing very sophisticated and useful business solutions.
I call them knowledge workers because they’re the ones who know the business inside and out. They think, “I’ve got a great idea” or “how can I automate this?” Now there are technologies that are making those ideas and abilities much more powerful and impactful.
Millennials and the younger generation have grown up with these no-code and low-code tools. They don’t understand having to go to a separate IT department and ask them to build something when they can choose from a variety of low-code tools available in the cloud and design and deploy their own custom app in hours.
Why wait for some IT shop or third-party developer to build what they need when they can build it themselves?
That seems like a big shift for IT departments.
CIOs and IT directors are coming to terms with this and the most progressive companies are proactively developing a low-code strategy to get ahead of the movement and empower their citizen developers with powerful technologies that can still be governed. Over the next five years, there are 500 million new apps that have to be built in every industry. You can’t hire enough professional developers to do that. They’re thinking that if they don’t tap into these other emerging roles, these citizen developers, they’re going to lose to their competition. The companies that already had this kind of program in place previously thrived last year during the pandemic. They were prepared.
There are numerous examples of citizen developers helping out because everybody was remote, they had to automate all these things, and they didn’t have enough developers to do it all. There was much more reliance on low-code platforms and citizen developers to help them automate things that hadn’t been automated before.
So will this cut out engineers entirely?
Every citizen developer or low coder is going to hit a cliff where they need a professional developer. At some point, they’re going to get to a complex integration or a need for some real complex and custom logic. So it’s never going to be that the citizens developers take over and eliminate the need for professional IT application developers.
The biggest fans and proponents of low-code technologies are professional developers. It lets them move faster. They don’t have to write all this code. They can spend time on the really complex stuff that they have to write from scratch, not the mundane items that could be solved with low code. Probably the biggest users of low-code technologies are professional developers. They love it and promote the use of it more than any other group in the enterprise.
And when the citizen developers hit a rock and have questions, the pro developers can say, “Oh, that’s easy. You do it like this.” It’s very symbiotic.
What’s an example of an organization where these tools made a big difference?
At St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital last year, everybody was sent home, but they still had to route and sign contracts. They used a technology that could handle electronic signatures, but it turned out that the electronic signatures were the least of their problems. The bigger issues involved the routing of contracts. Different contracts required different levels of approvals and workflows. They didn’t have a solution, and it was holding up business.
A hospital employee built a custom, low-code app with ServiceNow’s App Engine to automate all of it—in three weeks. Then they rolled it out to thousands of employees.
The citizen developer had an interest in this, knew all the different workflows involved in contract routing and signatures, was tech-savvy, and had played with the technology before. That was a great example of a mission-critical process that was rapidly addressed by an ambitious citizen developer.