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Looking for citizen developers? Here’s how to spot them in your team

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When growing your organization’s technical talent pool, it often makes sense to look inwards, says Catalytic’s chief executive.

Citizen developer programmes can improve a company’s digital maturity as well as ease pressure on software teams.

Image: Maskot / Getty

Software teams face mounting workloads as businesses ramp-up their digitization efforts in 2021.

At the same time, employers face a looming skills shortage amidst a more competitive tech talent market.
As demand for developers grows,

companies will find it increasingly difficult to meet their lofty software ambitions.

Sean Chou, chief executive of automation platform Catalytic, believes more companies should be looking inwards in order to beat this squeeze.

“I would say a lot of people are not able to get the software engineers they need, and that’s the heart of the problem,” Chou tells TechRepublic.

“I know how hard it is to find this talent, to retain the talent, to keep them motivated, and to keep them engaged. So citizens developers are just a way to really digitize your company.”

Citizen developer programmes can help free up bottlenecks for central development teams by teaching employees to build business applications using
low-code or no-code tools.

Citizen developer programs: How to build them and why companies should


Unlike professional developers, who are trained to build extremely specialized business applications, a citizen developer can be anyone within an organization with a fundamental grasp of technology, or a willingness to learn a new skill.

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Chou sees citizen developers as belonging to two classes: “There’s what we think of as the no-code citizen developers, who are really going to be comfortable with things that get to, maybe, a complex Excel function but they’re never actually writing code, even script,” he says.

Low-code citizen developers, meanwhile, may have a little more hands-on experience, says Chou. “They may not be classically trained, they may not know all the software development life cycle methodology of a professional developer, but they’re comfortable writing the script.”

There’s no defining trait that determines whether or not someone is going to make an effective citizen developer, though Chou says there are “recurring thematic patterns” that can help employers identify potential candidates within their company.

The first step is identifying what Chou calls “the easy knockouts” – namely, employees who aren’t willing to engage in citizen developer programmes.

SEE: The best programming languages to learn–and the worst (TechRepublic Premium)

Once these people are taken out of the running, employers can start looking for employees who embrace technology in their day-to-day lives. These are “the people who aren’t resisting new software rollouts, the ones who might always be raising their hand to be participating in early software tasks or the data tasks,” says Chou.

One trusted method for Chou is the Excel test. “People who really are able to create a complex spreadsheet, that’s almost always a sure marker, because they understand fundamentals of parameterizing a function; they understand a lot of logic; they understand the relationship of how to look up data,” he says.

Citizen developers aren’t able to completely fill the requirements for professional software engineers, though Chou points out that the technical skills gap exists largely because employees in non-technical roles haven’t been offered the tools or training to make them more digitally proficient.

Those companies that do succeed in getting more technical talent in – either through external hiring or by skilling-up current staff – will ultimately be able to digitize more quickly, putting them at a distinct competitive advantage, says Chou.

Employees also possess a lot of knowledge that makes them inherently valuable as citizen developers, being both familiar with the issues facing the businesses, as well as organizational processes.

SEE: The future of work: Tools and strategies for the digital workplace (free PDF)

“If you look at the things that really excite software engineers, it’s very seldom the sort of things that a citizen developer is capable of doing,” says Chou.

“A lot of [citizen developers] are very business process centric and they understand business processes, so they actually bring a unique skillset and a unique perspective, and something that a professional developer may not actually have.”

“The question is how you actually take their skills and their capabilities and their background, and make them more effective in a specific application development.”

This starts with understanding the problems that employees themselves want to fix. “That really makes a difference, because then they have the specific thing in the back of their mind that they’re going through as they go through training,” says Chou.

Beyond that, employers who are serious about levelling up their technical abilities need to set aside enough time to allow staff to hone their new skills; it is not, Chou says, going to be a quick-win or overnight transformation.

“This is a big mistake we see people making, where they hear ‘citizen developer’ and they think they’re going to get magical access capacity from their existing workers. But that’s not the case,” he says.

“They actually need to make sure they make time for the citizen developers to learn the new skill, to train up and that they are touching whatever it is you’re using at least once a week — preferably two, three times a week – so that it’s an actual skill that they can develop.”

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