Citizen developers are emerging as pivotal components in application development as businesses adapt to new technological and competitive demands. The term “citizen developer” — originally coined by Gartner — describes an individual who contributes to a development project in a way that is fundamentally different from traditional developers. A citizen developer is not defined by their title but by their role in crafting applications, even without formal IT training.
This article will explore the citizen developer movement in depth, including the characteristics of a citizen developer, their contributions, organizational support mechanisms, best practices for managers and contributors, common pitfalls, and challenges (with proposed solutions) facing organizations that wish to leverage the power of citizen developers.
The table below summarizes the key citizen developer concepts this article will explore in more detail.
The citizen development movement provides an excellent way for organizations to improve agility, directly empower business stakeholders to optimize apps to meet their needs and increase development throughput. It can also increase risk and create new challenges that don’t exist with traditional development paradigms.
To understand how to best navigate the tradeoffs involved with citizen development, let’s take a step back and look at the typical citizen developer persona.
Citizen developers are contributors who design, build, and test applications using low-code or no-code platforms, often without formal software development training. The developers stem from a broader citizen development movement, which tries to democratize software development within organizations. Citizen development believes in empowering everyone to contribute directly to creating software-based solutions, breaking down barriers traditionally separating IT professionals from other business units.
Good citizen developers are typically known for their adaptability and deep understanding of business needs. They usually come from a non-technical background, which often gives them the advantage of having unique problem-solving perspectives. These roles could come from management, sales, and finance. The teams that utilize them are cross-functional and highly collaborative, blending traditional IT roles with business expertise.
In current times, where tech agility is paramount, having citizen developers contribute to technical solutions is becoming increasingly vital. Citizen developers cater to this need by accelerating software development and promoting a culture of continuous innovation. Tapping into a broader pool of internal talent can only strengthen organizations that want to address specific business challenges and foster a sense of ownership and involvement across departments.
Different from traditional developers who are well-versed in software architecture, programming, and best practices, citizen developers are there to tackle business problems more directly while leveraging platforms that abstract much of the software development complexities. The primary distinction between traditional developers and citizen developers lies in the approach: while traditional developers emphasize technical proficiency and depth, citizen developers prioritize agility, business alignment, and rapid solution delivery.
Traditional developers often start with business requirements and translate them into integral technical solutions from conception to production, often requiring many months of coding work. To develop code and build their systems, they use tools such as integrated development environments (IDEs), code editors and terminals, language-specific libraries or APIs, infrastructure as a service (IaaS) solutions, platform as a service (PaaS) solutions, or even perform system-level programming when needed.
On the other hand, citizen developers work at a high level using point-and-click solutions in the form of a development platform, sometimes made available to them as a SaaS product. However, they may also use low-code platforms to build more customized solutions, as we will discuss in the rest of this article.
In the ever-evolving software development landscape, platform engineering has emerged as a cornerstone in the last few years. As we dive into this topic, we’ll explore how specific tools and paradigms, especially low-code and no-code platforms, reshape the dynamics of software creation.
We’ll also look at Uffizzi’s solution and how it stands out as an innovative platform that empowers teams to build and destroy environments tailored for development, QA, and staging effortlessly. Uffizzi’s primary focus is to revolutionize the way teams approach testing, offering a scalable solution free from the constraints of traditional shared testing environments.
For example, with their “ephemeral environments” solution, Uffizzi helps developers become first-class citizens in the Kubernetes ecosystem, avoiding the steep learning curve of Kubernetes cluster deployment and management and speeding up their development time.
Low-code no-code (LNLC) solutions and internal developer platforms (IDP) enable citizen developers to build apps that solve business problems. As a result, the LNLC and IDP solutions can directly influence how an organization integrates citizen developers into its development strategy. Let’s look at these two important concepts to understand why.
LCNC platforms are development environments designed to minimize manual coding efforts. They enable individuals to build applications using graphical interfaces and pre-built components. While low-code platforms may require a certain level of coding to develop advanced functionality and customize features, no-code platforms aim to eliminate manual coding, making software development accessible to a broader audience and tend to be more visual.
LCNC platforms are, in fact, the backbone of the citizen development movement. By abstracting away the intricacies of traditional coding, these platforms empower non-technical contributors, such as citizen developers, to build robust applications tailored to specific business needs. One can quickly realize that this democratization of development accelerates innovation and bridges the gap between IT and other business units.
While no-code platforms offer simplicity and rapid feature deployment for citizen developers, low-code platforms also provide more flexibility, enabling a balance between ease of use and the ability to develop advanced functionality.
IDPs are a subset of low-code platforms for internal organization use. They provide a controlled environment where various teams can build, test, and deploy their applications. Of course, this would ensure that even citizen developers adhere to the organizational standards and best practices. IDPs streamline development by offering pre-configured resources and tools and promoting application consistency.
When architecting an LCNC platform, it is essential to keep a few things in mind:
Understanding these facets will guide the development and adoption of platforms that genuinely empower users, foster innovation, and drive organizational success.
Uffizzi’s platform embodies the essence of a quintessential IDP, primarily characterized by two features: Virtual Clusters and Dev Clusters.
Uffizzi Virtual Clusters provide an efficient and streamlined Kubernetes development environment. They mimic the full capabilities of standard Kubernetes clusters but with the added benefit of virtualization. Each cluster includes its own Kubernetes API, allowing for autonomous development. Developers can quickly create and deploy clusters using commands like:
Virtual Clusters ensure secure, isolated, and cost-effective development environments, ideal for scalable testing and deployment. Uffizzi’s support for multiple Kubernetes API versions further adds to its flexibility for diverse development needs.
Uffizi Dev Clusters enhance Kubernetes development by combining the capabilities of virtual clusters with advanced tooling for building, testing, and deploying projects. Key features include hot reloading of services directly from the IDE and remote execution environment, eliminating the need for local resource concerns and rebuilds. These clusters are designed to replicate production environments closely, supporting domains, TLS for HTTPS, service meshes, and other components.
A standout feature of Dev Clusters is real-time deployment, where changes are rapidly applied via gRPC call. Starting a Dev Cluster is as easy as running:
In short, Uffizzi’s ephemeral environments mirror the characteristics of an excellent IDP, accentuating rapid iteration, efficient resource utilization, and easy collaboration. In summary, Uffizzi allows
Security and scalability: by ensuring robustness without compromising ease-of-use, citizen developers are allowed to focus on innovation.
As crucial as the technical aspect of LCNC platforms, organizations that create a conducive environment for citizen developers often see higher success rates. Citizen developers are more inclined to take initiative, experiment with solutions, and contribute more effectively when they are part of a nurturing community that values their talent and effort.
Management plays a pivotal role in the evolution of citizen developers. Their investment in their citizen developers should recognize potential, provide relevant training, and create opportunities for growth while ensuring that a strong feedback loop is put in place.
The IT and Engineering teams also lay the groundwork for citizen developers. Their primary objective is establishing a robust technical framework that allows citizen developers to build applications without jeopardizing the organization’s security and integrity. It often involves setting up LCNC platforms that ensure data privacy and adherence to governance policies.
On the other hand, citizen developers shouldn’t merely be consumers of these platforms but active participants in their evolution. Their hands-on experience with these platforms in the long term gives them essential insights into potential improvements, usability enhancements, and new feature requests. With their involvement in the design, testing, and feedback process of IDPs, citizen developers can help refine them and transform them into more mature solutions.
For citizen developers to thrive, they must be up to date with the latest technologies they commonly use. Continuous learning allows them to leverage their projects' best tools and practices.
Success in the realm of citizen development is also a collaborative endeavour. Collaborating and communicating with IT, Engineering, and management teams is crucial. Keeping an open dialogue culture allows citizen developers to raise issues, offer solutions, and provide invaluable feedback.
While citizen developers may not have a formal software engineering background, they must understand and implement essential software development concepts like security, scalability, performance, user experience, testing, and documentation. In addition, citizen developers should meticulously document their development journey, usage patterns, and testing strategies. Proper documentation helps troubleshoot and maintain and ensures that their work remains transparent and accessible to others.
Citizen developers, while bringing innovation and agility to an organization, often grapple with specific challenges inherent to their unique role. A lack of formal training in software development can sometimes translate into gaps in technical experience.
Recognizing these pitfalls is the first step to navigating them successfully, and the goal is to adopt a proactive approach that includes these four principles:
While transformative in many organizations, citizen developers can introduce certain challenges. Addressing these requires foresight and strategic interventions.
Citizen developers sometimes overlook vital security protocols, exposing systems to vulnerabilities. A proactive approach prioritizes regular training sessions for these developers and ensures automated application security testing, including governance checks and compliance tests, before deploying to production. Essentially, regard their contributions with the same scrutiny as any other internal or external service.
Citizen developers' enthusiasm sometimes bypasses scalability's intricacies, potentially leading to bottlenecks during high-traffic periods. A proactive approach is integrating training on scalable solutions, closely mentoring them during the design phase, and maintaining open communication channels until they implement the solution.
The zest to create might lead some citizen developers to neglect user-centric design. A proactive approach to prevent this issue is to offer clear guidelines and templates, promote engagement with UX teams, and emphasize the value of iterative feedback.
Documentation might also be neglected or skipped in the rush to deliver, complicating future iterations, maintenance, and enhancements. A proactive approach might be cultivating a documentation-first ethos and training citizen developers in modern techniques like docs-as-code, ensuring they remain informed and receptive to feedback.
Uffizzi’s ephemeral clusters significantly streamline the citizen development process. They offer a production-like, efficient, and scalable development environment that simplifies the workflow, which is especially beneficial for those with limited technical expertise. These clusters facilitate rapid development and testing, providing a consistent, secure, and collaborative workspace. By abstracting Kubernetes complexities and enhancing resource accessibility, they empower both traditional developers and citizen developers to develop, test, and deploy applications efficiently, fostering innovation and agility in software development projects.
Undoubtedly, citizen developers are vital to many organizations. Their success hinges on supportive environments fostered by management and technical teams, the right culture, and tools like low-code, no-code and internal developer platforms. Being developers, though, they should adhere to sound software practices to deliver safe, scalable, and user-friendly solutions. Proactiveness, a commitment to continuous learning and improvement, alignment with the organization's vision, and awareness of their work’s potential business impact are essential for their success.
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