Business Brains

Why we'll all soon be software developers in one way or another

Posting in Design

'Citizen developers' will soon be building up to a quarter of all business applications.

Attend any technology conference or read any trade journal or analyst report, and it won't be long before you hear about the lack of "business-IT alignment" that hampers software and systems implementations. The IT department can't figure out what the business wants, and the businesspeople don't understand IT, and so on.

But this isn't 1985 anymore. You don't have a mainframe data center buried somewhere deep in the organizations, spitting out greenbar reports for business users. If anything, business users -- especially incoming Generation Xers and Yers -- are incredibly technology savvy, and understand what technology can do for their enterprises.  At the same time, IT professionals are increasingly growing business savvy. Check out any IT conference agenda, or university curriculum, and you'll see a healthy dose of business-focused education.

Darryl Taft discusses recent remarks by Gartner analyst Eric Knipp, who raised the possibility that many of us will be both producers and consumers of our own software. Knipp refers to this as the rise of "citizen developers," and predicts that within the next five years, 25 percent of all new business applications will be built by non-technical users.

It's the ultimate expression of self-service, in fact. We already know the self-service ethic is a winning approach for many companies. Businesses have seen tremendous gains thanks to self-service portals for customers as well as employees. Customers can manage their own accounts, and employees can manage their on-the-job resources and benefits plans via self-service. Why not self-service IT?

Non-tech user application development has already been around in one form -- the spreadsheet. And lately, there is an emerging area where users are already building a lot of their own applications -- through mashups and widgets. "For years, Excel end users have cut-and-pasted data to feed their calculation engines. Spreadsheet-based solutions have spread throughout the enterprise without the involvement of IT," according to Micheal Ogrinz, author of Mashup Patterns: Designs and Example for the Modern Enterprise. "Mashup tools enable the automation of this aggregation process, and a new clan of users is poised to run wild with the technology."

Mashups or widgets enable business users to quickly design applications that serve specific purposes. In the past, designing an application meant delivering specs and requirements to the IT department, which was typically backlogged with pressing enterprise priorities. Maybe a prototype of the application the user was looking for would show up after four or five months, in an exercise in which further refinement would be necessary.  Mashups, by contrast, can be built within hours or even minutes, and users can immediately put them to work, displaying information.

There may be a huge impact on the bottom line as well.  As cited in an earlier post, we cited a contest staged by the District of Columbia municipal government, which encouraged developers from all walks of life to create applications that would give residents access to data such as crime reports and pothole repair schedules. Forty-seven applications were created in 30 days. McKinsey & Company, which reported the effort, notes that "hiring contract developers would have cost approximately $2.6 million, whereas the cost of running the contest was a mere $50,000."  Citizen developers in action!

The blending of IT and business is inevitable, and by moving more application development to business users, they have greater responsibility and control over the software that drives their parts of the business. As Gartner's Knipp put it: "The bottom line lies in encouraging citizen developers to take on application development projects that free IT resources to work on more complex problems."

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure