DIY apps and the rise of 'citizen developers'

By Paul Rubens
Technology reporter

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionDo It Yourself: More and more people are developing their own apps themselves

Don't have the right software to get your job done efficiently? Then why not write your own?

It's a solution that is not as impractical as it may seem, and it's one that an increasing number of people with few or any programming skills are turning to.

For people brought up with video games, smartphones, iPads and PlayStations, the idea of pulling together an application if nothing better is available is completely natural, according to Gartner analyst Ian Finley.

"It's a generational thing," he says. "Many of the baby boomers are now retiring, and they are being replaced by younger people who have used computers in school, who have played with web and blogging tools, and who simply don't fear technology."

The idea of employees bypassing the IT department and writing the software they need is not altogether new. In 2009 Gartner predicted that, by 2014, 25% of new business applications would be written by staff outside the IT department - or "citizen developers" as it called them.

While that prediction may not have come true, Mr Finley believes that citizen developers are definitely on the rise. "End-user application development has been slower to take off than we thought, but we are only two or three years behind where we predicted we would be," he says.

What drives today's citizen developers is the knowledge that they could be more productive if they had the right tools, according to Mr Finley. "They don't want to wait for IT departments to get around to writing or procuring software for them, so they decide to do it themselves," he says.

Customised apps

Thanks to cloud-based application development platforms provided by familiar companies such as, as well as less familiar ones like TrackVia and Mendix, citizen developers can get to work without the need for expensive development tools.

So what kind of applications can citizen developers create?

image copyrightTrackvia
image captionTrackVia's Peter Khanna says the majority of citizen developers create apps to meet niche demands

Peter Khanna, chief executive of TrackVia, says that the majority are used by between five and 25 employees, and are built to meet niche needs that many IT departments are unaware of. "Most companies make an investment in the business software they think their staff need, and then individual departments are left to fend for themselves," he says.

He adds that TrackVia's customers typically build applications to track people, assets or projects instead of using spreadsheets, or build customised applications for marketing, HR or to meet the unique needs of a particular business or industry when commercial alternatives simply do not exist.

As an example, John McGarvey, resource manager at California-based DirecTV, a direct broadcast satellite service provider and broadcaster, used TrackVia's cloud-based development platform to build an application that keeps track of the company's many contractors.

image copyrightTrackvia
image captionCloud-based application development platforms like TrackVia reduce the need for expensive development tools

He says that although the company had tried off-the-shelf software products, none of them were quite suitable. "These applications tend to be designed to work in a certain way, so either you have to change your internal processes to match the way the application works, or you have to reconfigure the software to match your processes."

Cost efficient

Faced with a possible two-year wait before the company's IT department could develop something for him in-house, Mr McGarvey decided that the obvious solution was to build an application himself.

Before he started, DirecTV's IT department examined TrackVia's cloud platform from a risk and governance perspective, and looked at the security of any data that would be stored in the cloud. "Basically they gave it a typical vendor assessment," Mr McGarvey says.

After he was given the go-ahead to use TrackVia, he uploaded data from his spreadsheets to TrackVia's cloud platform and built his application in a matter of hours using a browser-based drag and drop interface. "I don't have any particular coding skills but to build my applications I didn't need any," he says.

He then spent about an hour a week fine-tuning the user interface of his application for the next couple of months before it went into service. It is now used by about 20 co-workers in his department.

Mr McGarvey concludes that his group is now more productive thanks to his efforts as a citizen developer, and his application also costs far less than the software that he was using previously.

'Embrace' citizen developers

image captionJohn McGarvey got clearance from his IT department before starting on his app

For organisations to avoid citizen developers introducing unacceptable security risks or breaching regulatory requirements, Mr Finley believes it is essential that IT departments set up citizen developer programs.

These need to offer approved development tools for would-be citizen developers, and they need to provide a way for IT department staff to monitor what citizen developers and their applications are doing, and what data they are accessing and storing.

Although setting up a program like this involves some extra work for the IT department, in the longer term it relieves them of the burden of acquiring or developing and supporting software that these citizen developers would otherwise need.

"Companies that don't have a program that reaches out and provides rules for citizen developers, or that try to stop them, will just end up with rogue developers who are outside their control, introducing risk," Mr Finley warns.

"Companies need to avoid fighting citizen developers and start embracing them."

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