Democratizing code

Low-code tools empower citizen developers and enable innovation at scale

Citizen developers can help drive innovation and productivity by creating low-code platforms.

When I was starting my career in tech, software development was the preserve of skilled engineers. That paradigm is rapidly becoming obsolete, thanks to the rise of low-code dev tools that allow employees without coding experience (aka “citizen developers”) to create powerful apps using prebuilt templates and intuitive, drag-and-drop interfaces.

That’s important given the severe shortage of developers with enterprise-level coding skills. In a 2021 survey by the tech hiring platform CodinGame, 61% of HR professionals cited “finding qualified candidates” as the main obstacle to meeting their developer hiring goals. Meanwhile, IDC predicts 30% of high-demand IT roles will remain unfilled through 2022.

In order to stay competitive in the digital economy, companies must deliver the simple, intuitive experiences that employees and customers have come to expect in their personal lives. This requires pervasive automation throughout the enterprise, touching every process, every department, and every team.

In a global survey conducted by ServiceNow and Wakefield Research, 91% of executives and 76% of employees reported that routine business workflows were managed completely or partially offline at their companies. There aren’t enough pro developers in the world to automate all those processes. Gartner predicts citizen developers will fill the gap: “By 2024, low-code application development will be responsible for more than 65% of application development activity.”

What’s low-code good for?

Today, IT pros often argue that low-code dev platforms are fine for simple tasks, but aren’t useful for building “real” applications. Over the history of computing, we’ve heard the same skepticism about every new coding language: Fortran in the 1950s, Basic and C in the 1960s, Perl in the 1980s, Javascript in the 1990s. Personally, I learned to code in C. When Java came along, I initially dismissed it as a language that wasn’t fit for “real” developers!

Each new language reduced the complexity of software development, making the field accessible to more people. In every case, developers started off using the new language to solve simple problems, and then quickly moved on to tougher challenges. I expect the same trend to play out with low-code tools.

By 2024, low-code application development will be responsible for more than 65% of application development activity.

Here at ServiceNow, citizen developers are already using our App Engine Studio tool to create better work experiences. One team is using App Engine Studio to build a deal pricing app for our sales leads. The new app has a chatbot interface and incorporates all the pricing rules that deal desk employees used to keep in their heads. Sales teams will use the bot to answer routine pricing questions, freeing our deal desk experts to focus on more complex issues that the bot can’t handle.

Many of our customers are also building their own low-code apps with App Engine. The City of Los Angeles used App Engine Studio to design, build, and launch a custom COVID-19 testing app in just 72 hours. In Memphis, Tenn., St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is using App Engine Studio to build custom, end-to-end workflows that help deliver critical services to pediatric patients.

The experience is fast, intuitive, and guided. A visual dev environment empowers citizen developers to collaborate and build apps without writing code. And pre-built workflow templates let them build apps even faster without having to start from scratch.

Low-code limitations

Low-code is not a panacea for all the inefficiencies of modern business. For example, I don’t recommend using App Engine to automate bad workflows. The “garbage in, garbage out” principle applies here. I also don’t encourage the use of App Engine Studio to build redundant apps. Even if an employee dislikes your company’s travel booking system, it’s probably not a good use of time for them to go off and build their own booking app!

Basically, you don’t want your citizen developers turning into a shadow IT department. You can avoid that outcome by putting guardrails around low-code app development. At ServiceNow we launched a lightweight governance program that certifies citizen developers, reviews all proposals for new apps, and checks their work to ensure no bad code is implemented in our production instances.

In theory, anyone can build powerful apps using low-code tools. That doesn’t mean everyone in your company should add “developer” to their resume. In my experience, good citizen developer candidates are tech-savvy, familiar with spreadsheets, and interested in building new tools. Here’s the good news: That describes almost everyone from the current generation entering the workforce. After all, they were using technology before they could walk!

[Read also: The rise of citizen developers]

And there’s no substitute for domain expertise. Citizen developers need it to understand which new app will move the needle for their team.

Finally, I don’t see citizen developers putting software engineers out of business. Rather, I see a natural division of tasks in the enterprise where citizen developers concentrate on digitizing department needs, while pro developers focus on more complex, enterprise-level work.

With the right tools and guardrails in place, citizen developers can help accelerate innovation and boost productivity throughout your organization. In a world where software increasingly is the business, they are the fuel your company needs to take off.