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Do it yourself – will Citizen Development compensate for the global software developer deficit?

The lack of resources for the implementation of IT requirements has now become reality across all industries. It is also undisputed, that this bottleneck situation is not getting better, but getting worse. So far, initiatives to solve the resource problem have mainly taken place at company level, where the objective is only to reduce one’s own bottleneck, if necessary at the expense of other market participants. How does this relate to my latest certification (see picture above)? To explain the correlation, please let me to elaborate on this. I think it is worth devoting some time to this topic.

Labor market, we have a problem

The increasing demand for IT specialists is not matched by an adequate supply. It is clear that there is a need for action on the supply side. The overall number of IT specialists could be increased through advertising for technical professions and targeted addressing of potentials that have not yet been exhausted (e.g. women). In Austria, a new apprenticeship (application developer – coding) was introduced in order to address people for whom studying – at least as a career entry – is not an option. Whichever way you turn it, it is clear: it will not be enough. A certain amount of compensation can still be created in Europe through offshoring (outsourcing of development services to emerging countries such as India) or nearshoring (outsourcing primarily to neighboring countries in the east). It is foreseeable, however, that sooner or later these countries will be able to offer these qualified workers sufficiently attractive job opportunities in their own country, which is of course desirable. In addition, Europe is in global competition here and has lagged behind Silicon Valley, Israel and other regions that have been investing in these industries for a long time. Do we just close our eyes and hope that there will be some solution, even if we have no idea what it might look like? This is not a strategy that you can seriously bet on, although it might look like it at the moment. However, no one can reliably answer the question of how the need for developers can be covered under the given demographic and technological framework.

A paradigm shift is necessary

It therefore makes sense to tackle the problem from the demand side as well. This is where an initiative by the Project Management Institute (PMI) comes in under the title “Citizen Development”. I am not particularly happy with this term, because when you hear it you think of citizens‘ initiatives rather than software development. From a technical point of view, it is about the use of low-code or no-code platforms that enable users to develop applications entirely, or at least predominantly, themselves. Technology is one of many factors that determine success. So the use of a non-technical term certainly makes sense; you will soon get used to it, I can tell from my own experience. Microsoft is investing heavily in these technologies and reports that more than 500,000 companies worldwide are currently (2021) already using Microsoft low-code tools, including 97 percent of the Fortune 500 companies. Gartner expects that low-code technologies will be used in around 70 percent of corporate application developments by 2025 and that the number of active citizen developers will be four times the number of professional developers by 2023.

Citizen development and the collaboration between business and IT

The cooperation between users and technicians is a topic that has accompanied me since the beginning of my professional career. Perhaps because I was working as a psychologist in a technical environment almost from the beginning. First at an interdisciplinary research project at the Vienna University of Technology and the ETH Zurich, then in a consulting company, where at that time I was the only social scientist among technicians and business economists. It is no coincidence, that my presentations at congresses were devoted to questions such as: “The duties of users in prototyping and rapid application development” (1993) or “Is IT a C-level topic? How does business management deal with IT ”(2008). In a broad initiative by Austrian CIOs and international consulting firms, I was given the task of human resource management in IT organizations (2004). Agility was always my guideline implicitly, from 2010 on I not only practiced agile process models, but also propagated them in lectures and publications. I have always spoken out in favor of undogmatic approaches and have combined elements of Scrum, Kanban and Extreme Programming in my projects depending on the specific context and needs. The communication and cooperation of users and IT specialists in various forms is my very own field of activity and therefore I am happy to be involved in the professional implementation of this approach. The certifications offered by PMI have confirmed my positive attitude and brought a number of interesting suggestions with them.

Technology is an enabler of Citizen Development

Atypical for a psychologist and project manager, however, I also have many years of personal experience with the technological aspects of citizen development. In the early 1990s I designed software for product management for insurance companies and launched it in 1995 in cooperation with the Generali insurance group and a German software company. This gave rise to the product VP/MS, which is still used by numerous insurance companies around the world, I however haven’t had any direct reference to it since 1999 after selling it to an international software company (now part of DXC). The idea of ​​this product was to enable specialist departments of insurance companies to implement the rules and the calculation logic of insurance products themselves, instead of documenting it in a specification and relying on its more or less correct implementation. The trigger for this was the experience that there were regular communication problems between the departments (mostly actuaries) and IT, which led to long lead times and high testing and correction efforts. What I designed at the time was a business rule engine with a definition workstation whose user interface could be compared to Excel in terms of its technical complexity. The design of the user interface was based on a customer-oriented and therefore non-technical view of the insurance product. Thanks to an ingenious team of developers on the side of the technical cooperation partner, code could be generated from this product definition, which encapsulated the entire product logic and made available to the application systems. Computer scientists did not need a detailed analysis of the calculation and test logic of various products, but integrated the „product model“ into the various application systems using a generic interface. The practical application showed that with this new distribution of tasks between users and IT, an enormous reduction in the overall effort could be achieved. In addition, IT was relieved of tasks that were not part of its core competency.

Shadow IT comes back?

This case study makes it clear that Citizen Development and classic, professional software development are not mutually exclusive, but can only lead to success if they are meaningfully interlinked and complement each other. For me, however, this experience also showed that technology and procedural models influence one another. Technology is also not an arbitrarily exchangeable element, but enables or requires adequate procedural models if one wants to ensure success. Citizen Development and Governance PMI sees governance as the central challenge in its framework for Citizen Development (CD for short). The acceptance of CD actually suffers from the fear of a proliferation of applications on the IT side. The dreaded „shadow IT“, earlier e.g. in the form of access databases, today through cloud services that users use without coordination with IT, could experience a new upswing through Citizen Development. PMI, on the other hand, sees CD as an instrument to push back shadow IT. For this, however, a disciplined handling of the potential of the low-code / no-code platforms (short: LCNC) is crucial. PMI distinguishes between 3 implementation variants, depending on the technical complexity and risk, as the following graphic (© PMI) shows.

The basis of the decision is a structured and obligatory analysis of projects, which has to be done in coordination with the IT and in a completely transparent manner. While in the „Fast Track“ variant Citizen Developers work largely independently, in the „IT Delivery“ variant they are part of a project led by IT. With “Assisted” the ball lies with the citizen developers, but IT is regularly involved for support, reviews and decisions with technical implications. PMI offers useful and high-quality templates for all relevant criteria that can be used not only for CD projects.

Warning: The empire strikes back

The business rule engine VP / MS described above required an “IT Delivery” process model, but only when integrating the encapsulated product model into the target systems. The hurdles encountered at that time in the acceptance of this approach also apply to Citizen Development. IT often saw working with „laypeople“ as stressful, some also perceive them as competition or fear that they could demystify the myth of software development and thus damage the prestige of software engineers. “The only thing that bothers you is the user”, I didn’t choose this lecture title in 2006 by chance. In some companies we had to watch helplessly as IT gradually pushed the departments out of project work and used VP / MS as a development platform for technicians. As a result, a large part of the efficiency gains was lost again. Companies that understood the potential of this approach built their own skills profile inside the departments. The overall migration of all IT systems of Generali Versicherung on the occasion of the introduction of the Euro could be implemented e.g. through the parallel work of VP / MS modelers and classic developers within the non-negotiable schedule. Incidentally, there are still job advertisements for “VP / MS modelers” today.

The success factors of Citizen Development

I see Citizen Development (CD) as a – more or less new – option for structuring the collaboration between business and IT. The success factors for this are the same as they generally apply. However, I cannot imagine that a company without an agile culture can be successful with it. CD can best be compared to Extreme Programming (XP) and I think that one could benefit a lot from the experience gained with XP. This means that CD can also be integrated into an agile framework such as SAFe, where Scrum, Kanban and XP can optionally be used at the project level. In general, the cooperation between business and IT is the all-important success factor in the age of digitization.

  

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