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

Citizen developers help companies broaden the number of employees who can develop, innovate and deliver value for the business and customers, says the head of ServiceNow's IntegrationHub.

What are citizen developer programs?

Citizen developer programs can help companies innovate by encouraging more people within the organization to create new applications using low-code or no-code development tools. In a recent episode of Dynamic Developer, I spoke with Marcus Torres, GM of IntegrationHub & VP of Platform Product for ServiceNow, about how companies can implement a citizen developer program, how to maintain governance and oversight in a decentralized software development environment, how to best move people from power users to citizen developers, and lots more.

The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for readability. You can listen to the podcast player embedded in this article, watch a video above or read a transcript of the interview below.

What are citizen developer programs?

Bill Detwiler: So last time that you and I spoke, we were talking low-code and no-code, and we were also talking about how it empowers organizations—especially now with COVID to rapidly change their processes and adapt to sort of our changing environment. Now, something else, and you touched on this in our previous conversation that companies that the developers are using to respond to COVID are citizen developer programs. Tell me, what are citizen developer programs?

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Marcus Torres, GM of IntegrationHub & VP of Platform Product for ServiceNow

Image: ServiceNow

Marcus Torres: Yeah. Well, first let's start with a citizen developer. The easy answer is there's not a straight answer. Not everyone agrees on what a citizen developer is, but the premise is always the same, which is let's allow a broader group of the organization to actually innovate and create custom applications on a platform or a low-code platform. Now, for some of our ServiceNow's customers, citizen developers are true developers that just work in a line of business. For other customers, they are literally no-code business analysts that are familiar with tools and technology, whether that's Excel or various aspects, and can write a line of SQL. Either way, what a citizen developer program is all about is it's a program of innovation where that innovation isn't centralized to either IT or a core development group and really about broadening the landscape of who can develop, innovate and deliver value for the business and the customer.

Bill Detwiler: I think that's really interesting. When you talk to your customers about doing this, or as something that they should be doing within their organizations, why? I guess, we go back and forth—IT goes through cycles where you have everything decentralized and everything's embedded, you've got analysts and developers embedded with the business units, and then there seems to be a regulatory or something happens and it comes back to centralized IT. And we talk about DevOps and DevSecOps and there's other types of ways to blend development and operations.

We go through different kinds of cycles. And this seems to be a swing back into the time where we're thinking about. We've got to empower more people to be able to iterate more quickly, talk about the companies that you talk to, your ServiceNow's customers, what are they saying about, 'yeah, this makes sense, why I see maybe the value in this and I should do this,' what is the thought process behind going back to this de-centralized development kind of process, as opposed to doing something in a big sort of monolithic way?

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Marcus Torres: Yeah. It's about that backlog, if you really want to get down to it. You were in IT, I was in IT at one point. The backlog is lengthy and think about all of these teams and parts of these organizations—they want to be able to control their own destiny. They have certain initiatives and they can't wait in a lot of cases for what I call the 'app gap.' You only have so many certified or official developers in the world, and there's way too much demand to get everything addressed. And so what they're trying to do is leverage low-code platforms like ServiceNow, and that is ServiceNow's App Engine, to be able to allow people to address their needs for their business or their specific department or their specific workflow in the business, without having to rely on IT or some central development group.

And that's okay. What you're seeing is there's power in these platforms to do exactly that. And what you're really seeing is different decision factors for these citizen developer programs. And so some of these decision factors are things like what's the complexity? What's the overall cost? Is there time sensitivity or business criticality? For example, if you're a tier one retailer in the United States, you're probably not going to allow a citizen developer per se, to go and create the checkout capability on your online shopping portal. But, at the same time, that team could do things around inventory management to really help them be more productive as an organization. At the end of the day, what it's really about is helping to close whether you call it the backlog (the app gap), and allowing people to actually innovate and deliver value for their business without having that centralized model which generally becomes a bottleneck, like anything in this world, if you have one central place and you have too much demand, there's a bottleneck for it.

Maintaining guidance requirements with a decentralized development system

Bill Detwiler: So I think one of the things that, and you touched on this when you were talking about sort of the checkout application, how do you maintain, or how have your customers been maintaining the governance that's required, and the guide rails that are required, to ensure that there aren't security holes, or someone doesn't make a mistake that ends up harming the business or harming customers? How do you maintain those guidance requirements with such a decentralized development system?

Marcus Torres: Yeah. I'm going to speak for ServiceNow obviously, and what we have put in place, but we actually have something called HealthScan and what it allows our customers to do is really look at what we have sort of best practice rules around development, but customers can apply their own guardrails. And then as a citizen developer program, as people are developing (and I mentioned this in our last conversation), it's a team sport. They're working with a center of excellence or IT who is reviewing, at times, their application and different organizations have different risk profiles. And if you have a platform that can provide different guardrails and you can make that configurable or customizable based on the kind of role, or in some case, the aptitude of the developers, if you sort of segment the citizen developers in different buckets, you can apply different guardrails.

So I'll give you a couple of interesting examples of this. We have some customers who say, 'Hey, the second you have an idea for an application, I want you to submit it.' It goes through sort of a central team, they evaluate the use case, does it connect to business critical data—those kinds of things. Other organizations essentially think of it as an internal training certification, 'Hey, go ahead, play with App Engine, play with ServiceNow build a few things, when you believe you're ready to do this broader, we have a certification test, and if you pass that, you have not unlimited access, but you kind of have a trust system that allows you to promote certain things yourself.' And what it really comes down to, if you really look at successful citizen developer programs, there is collaboration on the use cases.

There is a community of developers, not only citizen developers being a community to one another, but also that connection within whether it's IT or a center of excellence. You establish guardrails like HealthScan and being able to actually create and configure. Think of it as rules that checks applications against those rules. 

And then there's an empowerment model where the team understands, just like anything, the better you get at it, the more skilled you are at something, the more trust and empowerment comes with it. And it's really critical that the business is behind this. What I mean by that is, it is a visible program from the executive level, you have an executive sponsor and there is an overall encouragement to innovate. And I think when you take those factors into account, you're going to get tremendous value.

I'll give you an example. Medtronic is a customer of ours. They developed a citizen developer program with about 25+ employees. And they accounted for 44% of all the various changes we were seeing in ServiceNow because they were innovating themselves. Suncor is another great example where they created a back to work app for COVID-19 using App Engine. And they rolled that out to 16,000 employees. What they quoted was saving about 90% of their development effort—traditionally development if they did that full stack versus using a low-code platform. In both cases, they had an empowerment model, they had a sponsorship by the business and by executives. And they created that community to really make sure that those outcomes and the value that they were delivering had visibility and had governance and had overall support by the rest of the organization.

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Steps organizations can take to make citizen developer programs work

Bill Detwiler: So I think that's really important. You touched on sort of business unit buy-in, you talked about executive leadership, so it kind of comes down. What are the other key factors for setting up a program like this in your org, if you don't have a history of development within the different lines of business or within small teams? And that's something you can touch on too, which is how far down is the right mix for citizen developers? Is it what (to use an old school term) end user—is it pushed down that far? You talked a little bit about pro developers and we talk about low- and no-code developers, but I guess talk a little bit about, I'm thinking about sort of just the mechanics of the process. Got executive buy-in, you've got people that say, 'yeah, we want to do this, you've got business units that want to do this.' What are some of those other steps that organizations need to take to make this work?

Marcus Torres: If you have a supported citizen developer program in your organization, at the end of the day, you want everyone to feel it's trusted. And if there's three pillars you want it's guardrails, visibility and community. In kind of the first part of your question you asked, what if I don't have that?

Bill Detwiler: How do we get started with this?

Marcus Torres: Quick wins, honestly, quick wins. And what I mean by that is when you don't have an organization that is pushing or advocating for a citizen development program, that doesn't remove the fact that you have a need for one, which there are people and departments that want to be able to improve various workflows and parts of their job and to automate it, to integrate it, to digitize it, but they feel they're potentially handcuffed because there's not a developer program. Then great, get that operational team try it out, but go to developer.servicenow.com, get a version of App Engine and App Engine Studio and start to play around. 

What you'll quickly find is you can start to get value. And once you can show that value, once you can demonstrate, get a couple of quick wins, pick a use case, start to build that out. And if you start to show that value to your organization, to your manager, to your second line manager, to the organization as a whole, no one says no to value. That's the trick, like 'oh, you've already built it and it works.'

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As far as the persona, if you will, of where it should go, I really see in those cases, when you don't have sort of that established program, what I call the 'power user,' it's not always...anyone can use a low-code platform and I'd advocate anyone to try, but usually what happens is you have that, the power user—someone who's in a given department, who's constantly trying to improve things and make things better, and they're sort of the hacker. They go and they try things out and they try to make things a little bit more efficient. And that person tends to be a little bit more familiar with tools, a little bit more familiar with technology.

They're usually the person who can take on a given low-code platform, get value out of it, learn it and then sort of rinse and repeat that with others. And the one thing I would probably add to this is every low-code platform has its similarities, but they all have, I want to say a familiarity curve, you have to get used to what it does. And yes, there's very simple Excel-like no-code platforms out there, but you hit a complexity cliff pretty quickly. And so if you have a power user, they can go further, they can understand the platform without a lot of help. And then they can really grow that in the organization.

Closing the skills gap to take a power user to citizen developer

Bill Detwiler: So we're talking about sort of from a macro level, the importance of wanting to do this in the organization, having the support within the organization, where the support should come from the C-suite and then the business leaders, a line of business heads as well. And then we're talking about how to identify the individuals within the organization that aren't already within your development org, who might be good candidates for this. And that was something I wanted to touch on and go further with, on an offshoot of something, what you talked about with the complexity cliff that ramp up. How do you recommend businesses and are you seeing what are the best practices from some of the orgs, like you mentioned, who are doing it right once they identify that individual? What then is the next step? Beyond sort of saying, 'hey, look, we have a platform, this enables it,' whether it's ServiceNow or whatever other kind of platform you have working in your organization that enables this.

So assuming you have that, because I guess if you don't have that, then that's something you'll need to do. But assuming you have that, what's then that next step? Is it, 'hey, look, we've identified you because your manager has come to us, you've come to me and said, you're interested in this? I'm going to give you 10% time, 20% time to work on this, to do tutorials.' How do you close that skills gap to take that person from power user to citizen developer?

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Marcus Torres: Encouragement and empowerment. There's nothing that stifles innovation by more than trying to give somebody that as their second job. The reality is time is always a factor for all of us in regard to how much we have to get done and the activities we have during our normal job. And the reality is when you look at those power users, they usually self-select to some degree, but you know who are those people that are like, 'Hey, I want to innovate, I want to try something new here. I want to do something different or I want to improve this process.' And those are the folks who get satisfaction by going and tinkering around and creating value and getting that quick win.

The real benefit though, is once you identify that person, encourage them and empower them, give him or her that time, a half a day a week, or just set up a hackathon, in all honesty, try it out. And pick a use case and go for it, encourage them, because if you don't, and it's sort of an assigned aspect, 'hey, your job is now to do this.' That's where it doesn't necessarily breed success all the time, but when you can give that encouragement and you can give that empowerment, you create grassroots. And guess what? When someone gets value, they share it with somebody else, they get value, they become their own community and it just sort of explodes from there.

Bill Detwiler: So would you see a person who gets identified and brought into the program and sort of tinkering as they transition maybe from what they were originally doing to development full-time? Or, does it stay really more of just another tool in their toolbox to use when the need arises? What have you seen works best or does it really depend on the organization, the individual, the line of business? What have you seen with that respect?

Marcus Torres: In all honesty, I've seen it all. We've had one of the active member in our developer community literally was an office manager of a law office in San Francisco, California, and a pretty big law office. And he was just trying to do something different. He didn't want to be an office manager the whole time and answered the door and address sort of clerical items. He really wanted innovate, and he ended up training himself on our platform at his own desire. And he actually is now the CTO of his own kind of boutique firm that helps with ServiceNow. Now we've also seen people understand like, 'hey, I'm in this department, this is my operational role,' but they're the go-to person now for their organization for digital transformation.

And we've seen other people become chief digital transformation officers, which is now a title if you search on LinkedIn here and there. So we've really seen it all. And one, I would say is for anybody who understands and appreciates the value of not only innovating, but really seeing the by-product of your effort. Just try it, and if you try it and you start to get those quick wins, as we described earlier, there is no ceiling to what you can achieve because in some cases they become full developers and keep growing, in other cases they become sort of the organizational hero for their business unit. And it's really up to them, but you have to start by giving it a shot.

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Anyone can be a developer

Bill Detwiler: Do you think we've entered a new sort of phase of developers, software engineer, coder, whatever you call it? I remember I started writing BASIC way back in the day, wrote Pascal, wrote COBOL, and there was a very definite, at least conceptualization or path, or how you started for software engineers, people that wrote code, whatever the title was. But you and I talked about this a little last time, which is we seem to be in a new phase with the current generation and not just the current generation, but even folks who (I'll date myself), my generation, whatever that is, but who are curious and like to learn. And now the tools are available to allow people who maybe didn't have sort of a traditional background to add value to the organization, to grow their own careers, to do a lot more. And that seems that we're in a new place, that we need to rethink what it means to be a 'developer.' What do you think, are we in a new place?

Marcus Torres: Absolutely. But anybody can be an innovator, anybody can be a developer. The question is how far are you going to go? I feel I'm very technical in the sense I can write some code, I can go have pretty in depth technical conversations with senior architects here at ServiceNow, but am I going to be the person who's developing our next world-class SaaS application from scratch? Nope. And the reality is everybody can leverage low-code platforms to innovate and be a developer. Do people then decide that that is their new career, that it's their calling? They will become the Jedi Knight of developers, full stack developers that can jump on platforms like AWS or Google Cloud, and literally do everything from scratch, up to them. And if they get started and they find this is where their joy is, take it, run with it. 

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Bill Detwiler: And you need all types. I think that's where you're kind of going, because if that's what you see envisioned for yourself and you want to do it, and if it's your joy, as you say, then by all means do that. But there are also lots of other paths that are just as valuable and can be just as important to an organization. And just as contribute to your own success as that. And we kind of need that, right?

Marcus Torres: Absolutely. Think of it as a hiring sense or your resume. I imagine a time and it's probably already today where people are going to put on their resume, I know App Engine on ServiceNow, I know certain low-code platforms. In the same way, if you're a professional developer and you're hired in, a peer of mine, Joe Davis, who leads our core development R&D group from an engineering perspective, he's looking for people that have very specific skill sets, JavaScript, Java...

Bill Detwiler: Python and Kotlin, whatever you want to go.

Marcus Torres: Python, Ruby, you name it. And because he is hiring a full stack developer, and that is what they do day in, day out. They know how to use automation tools and selenium and CI/CD patterns and all of those kinds of things. That is what I would call a professional developer track. We need those, those aren't going away, low-code is not displacing them. And for the developers who are reading this, they may say, 'Yeah, well, that's what a real developer is.' Absolutely. But you know what? There's another class of developers that is now being empowered by technology. And those low-code developers are going to say things like, I know how to build on ServiceNow, I know how to build customer applications with App Engine and they can achieve and deliver mission critical value applications to an organization without necessarily having all that skillset. And the reality is certain applications require one and certain applications require the other. But the reality is we all work together to provide value for the customer. And I think that's the new age we're in, and I'm happy to be part of it.

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