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Will Citizen Engineers Build Most Technology Products and Services by 2024?

8 minute read
Dom Nicastro avatar
Recent research indicated non-IT professionals will build most technology products and services in the next two years. Not everyone agrees.

Professionals outside the IT department will build 80% of technology products and services by 2024 because of the growth in digital data, APIs and other mechanisms to connect systems, business services, resources for rent or hire, low-code development tools and artificial intelligence (AI)-assisted development, according to Gartner researchers

Will shadow IT be the new IT when it comes to building technology products and services? No, said Vladimir Mikhalko, chief technology officer and co-founder of Influ2. Those numbers simply aren't realistic.

“There is a certain level of expertise required to create innovative and complex technology products and services that most people don't just have," he said. "And, while some people are inherently talented, or do their own research, it's often not the same as working with a developer who is experienced and well trained."

Mikhalko said his company has hired expert developers to build and evolve their products, and they haven't had meaningful inputs from non-technology professionals. Other reports tell back up his experience with a different story about IT's involvement in technology-building.

Only 6% of low-code development is done by business users without any IT involvement, according to May 2021 report from Criteo, a low-code platform for process management and CRM. The technology development story may not be so cut-and-dried after all.

Expansion Outside IT Is a ‘Force for Good’

Gartner and others stand behind this predicted surge and takeover from non-IT folks. In fact, 36% of IT spend comes from outside of IT already, according to Gartner.

“Expansion of technology production beyond IT leads to technology as a force for good in more areas — both in business and society,” said Rajesh Kandaswamy, Gartner distinguished research vice president. “As technology spills over beyond (IT), it also leads to new useful services.”

Kandaswamy cited the example of an actor whose Broadway shows were shut down due to COVID. He created a useful Twitter account that showed vaccine availability.

“He did not create a product, but used technology to create a useful service,” Kandaswamy said. “This is one example, but shows how as new non-IT people create technology, they will create new technology artifacts.”

That kind of expansion within a company makes the company nimble, and, as every business becomes a tech business, Kandaswamy said, the ability of all employees to produce tech products and services expands the power of a company to innovate or respond to market better.

“Business folks will create more solutions that are more suitable for individual needs, ad-hoc needs and that combine services or data from different sources,” he said.

Related Article: What's Behind the Explosion of Low-Code and No-Code Applications

Training the Workforce to Be Citizen Developers

Suneet Dua, products and technology chief revenue and growth officer at PwC, said it is realistic that a majority of technology products and services will be built by those who are not technology professionals, something he's seen firsthand at PwC.

“Since the beginning of our digital transformation journey, we’ve trained our workforce to be citizen developers who are proactively building and launching world-class tech products,” he said.

PwC prioritized upskilling its people to ensure they have the tools and expertise necessary to thrive in today’s digital world, and they’re seeing returns on investment as they transform into a people-led, tech-enabled organization, Dua said.

PwC cultivated innovation by training people to become citizen developers. These weren’t people who already knew RPA or AI modeling data visualization before, according to Dua. To date, PwC staff has built 7,000-plus automations, visualizations and bots and downloaded these staff-built digital assets over 5 million times.

“We built a product organization within a firm previously known for tax and audit services,” Dua said. “So, yes, we think this is realistic.”

Non-Developers Likely Can't Solve Automation Challenge

But this kind of citizen-development won’t be without challenges. The majority of the growth in technology products and services will come from companies who are late on the IT stage, according to Sergey Lobko-Lobanovsky, chief technology officer of ElementalTV. While the no-code and low-code solutions that have been popping up may help with relatively simple workflow automation, the “real devil is in details,” he said.

“From two decades of experience in the custom software industry, I know firsthand that the amount of customization any automation requires is significant,” Lobko-Lobanovsy said. “The company either has to invest in customization, or change their processes to accommodate what a software tool feature set provides. In other words, the no-code market will continue to grow. Will people with no software development experience solve the automation challenge? Unlikely in the given timeframe.”

Citizen developers or "technical domain experts" can help with rapid prototyping using the available no-code toolset. After that, however, in the majority of cases, business will face the situation when it is not possible to evolve an in-house, low-code/no-code solution to meet new requirements, according to Lobko-Lobanovsky. “Especially if the business wants to make their system public to be able to benefit from online scalability,” he said.

Related Article: How Digital Transformation Is Driving Low-Code/No-Code Growth

Adoption, Cost and ROI Remain Challenges

The three biggest challenges are adoption, cost and ROI, according to PwC’s Dua. Adoption is the new engagement margin, he said, meaning if people don’t adopt the automation technologies you provide, then you’re not going to change the business. “People have to make the adoption of automation the fabric of their job,” Dua said.

Learning Opportunities

The cost of access to the tools is also a challenge, since organizations need to prioritize investment in upskilling across the organization to be successful, according to Dua. Investing in upskilling a small user group will not provide the long-term adoption, culture and ROI to make the program a huge success, he said.

“We look at IT spend holistically and prioritize technology projects based on our business strategy, investing in those products that will give us the best outcomes against our strategic initiatives,” Dua said. “We then empower the business to find the best technology solutions to address the challenges that their teams are facing, working hand-in-hand with both citizens and IT teams depending on the type and size of the project. In addition, we stood up a central product and technology leadership team that governs IT spend and monitors business outcomes for each project.”

Business teams innovating on digital solutions do need to be held accountable for the business outcomes, such as increased revenue, reduced costs or increased employee retention, Dua said. “Every dollar spent has to contribute to driving business outcomes,” he said.

IT Must Not Resist Growth of Citizen Development

Will this emergence of technology product and services built outside IT bring challenges to IT leadership? Yes, but only if they choose to resist, Gartner’s Kandaswamy said.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” he said. “IT leaders that proactively channel this will ensure that they are preparing their organization, while those who resist will be marginalized at best. IT leaders should address this at multiple levels.”

Kandaswamy said IT leaders need to:

  • Understand where expansion of IT production can help their company in the future.
  • Invest in new mechanisms that welcome business participation in IT, such as building self-serve mechanisms, involving more people in technology builds earlier, creating internal competitions, and hiring from the business team.
  • Actively seek to promote the concept that technology is everyone’s responsibility within the company and that they welcome help.

“While shadow IT was a construct of the past where business invested in tech without IT’s blessing and was frowned upon by all, this one is much more direct and has more organizational support,” Kandaswamy said of the citizen engineering trend.

Related Article: Citizen Developers: Some Assembly Required

Development by Citizen Engineers Makes 'Tremendous Sense'

The estimated 80% of technology products and services being built by non-technologists in the next two years seems very high, but understanding the definition of "products and services" is important to the context of the conversation, according to Sean McDermott, CEO of Windward Consulting Group.

“As enterprise data becomes more ‘democratized’ and controls are enabled for tighter control of data sets, the ability for non-technologists to build applications and data analytics makes tremendous sense, resulting in products and services that are more contextually relevant to the business units and more rapid deployment by not having to go through a central IT application development process,” he said.

The rise of no-code platforms and applications from Salesforce, ServiceNow, Microsoft and Zoho increases the ability to build new applications by business professionals. In addition, there is significant research currently in developing low-code AI platforms, which has been traditionally heavily reliant on IT.

According to McDermott, business units have two primary ways to develop new products and services:

  • Funding a centralized IT organization to build the product offering.
  • Funding their own teams to build products and services outside of IT.

“When building applications off of major enterprise platforms like Salesforce or ServiceNow, we see primarily option 1, where the business works closely with the IT team responsible for the platform and coordinates requirements, funding and testing,” McDermott said. “For more specialized (or custom) business applications that may be cloud- or mobile-based, the business unit employs both a centralized IT applications development team or spin up their own application team.”

Many times the requirements may be so unique that central IT sees little economy of scale using a centralized team, or the IT team cannot deliver fast enough for the business requirement. That's when funding a separate team outside of IT makes sense, but it still requires coordination.

“When business units deploy their own application teams,” he said, “coordinating with the CIO on security and general standards is critical.”