‘Citizen Developer’: Oversold and Misunderstood

First published 2nd July 2021 on The Lawyer

As legal moves to expand adoption of technology, a critical component of success lies in the implementation and ongoing support of that technology. Technology continually becomes faster and easier to use. Implementation now takes weeks instead of years, and bespoke workflows don’t require large teams of developers.

No-code/low-code workflow automation platforms have emerged as powerful tools enabling more efficient product development by reducing the amount of coding necessary to build the end product. There may be no need to write code – or to know any code at all – to create something useful; visual programming allows a user to depict the workflow and actions being automated with a drag and drop interface.

As a consequence, the concept of ‘citizen developer’ has grown as a nirvana for technology adoption. It offers real freedom – what if we don’t need IT at all? What if our business analysts or end users can just ‘do it themselves’? And while this dream can come true, the role tends to be oversold as something anyone can do.

The reality is there are practical limits to this vision which will evolve over time as the technology matures. For example, the freedom to build on an extensive no code/low code platform comes with fewer security “guardrails” than a traditional packaged point solution. A well-intentioned citizen developer could build a workflow that inadvertently exposes sensitive information or distributes privileged and confidential data to the wrong hands.

The idea that anyone can be a citizen developer also tends to undersell the skillsets of those using these tools successfully. There are growing teams of professionals who have wide-ranging skills in product management and information security, who often have pockets of expertise in code, integrations – and, importantly, in legal. They use these skills to craft a more usable product, while considering data security and other technical aspects.

So where do you find citizen developers with the right range of skills? At the moment, there’s a shortage in legal. Within corporations, you might then turn to the broader enterprise. There are likely to be skilled cross-functional resources within IT departments or innovation teams who are familiar with corporate process and can take on projects like these.

For organisations that need but lack such resources in house, there is a growing number of service providers springing up to meet the market demand. Some are spinning out of law firms. Buyers can now engage resources from the likes of Gravity Stack (originating from Reed Smith) and Keesal Propulsion Labs (launched by Keesal, Young & Logan), to name a couple. These groups provide a solution for those leveraging no/low code platforms, who understand the challenge of finding the right skilled professionals, but that may not want or need full time fixed headcount. “We saw a growing number of requests from clients to help solve complex technology challenges,” explains Adam Knight, Client Business & Advisory Solutions Manager at Gravity Stack. “So, we built a team with the technical and legal expertise required to implement solutions from the simple to the complex. Some clients turn to us for all their needs, whilst others use us to augment their internal resources or to tap specialists not readily available in house.”

“We knew there was an unmet need in the market,” says Justin Hectus, CIO and Co-Founder of Keesal Propulsion Labs, “but once we launched a systematic approach to meet that need, the demand was remarkable. From our vantage point, automation and all of the expertise required to implement it will be areas of strong growth for years to come.”

And as the technology continues to evolve, so too will the citizen developer. While not just anyone inherently has the skills necessary to be successful in this role, the skills can be gained, and market demand will create incentive for more individuals to grow into these roles. The market is already demanding it, and savvy buyers will find ways to achieve better business results more quickly, including faster ROI on technology investments.

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