Tackling the Software Developer Shortage with Citizen Developers and Low-Code / No-Code Process Automation

Remember the days when software developers were merely supposed to write code and be nerdy? Those days are gone, and the cliché isn’t going to survive either.

Employer demand for – and expectations of – software developers has risen significantly. Software developers, especially experienced ones that bring interpersonal “soft” skills, have become a rare resource.

A global shortage of highly skilled software developers is a significant risk factor for companies as they transition to truly intelligent enterprises. Not only are there not enough developers to meet demand, those that are available may lack the necessary coding knowledge as well as experience working in a team environment. Especially in larger companies, developers often work together with experts from different teams on projects, making soft skills such as team-building a must-have.

Unfortunately, future labor statistics don’t look very promising. Even a doubling of the number of students currently pursuing an IT degree still wouldn’t produce enough software experts to meet the projected demand of businesses all over the globe.

For businesses, this shortage of highly qualified resources means longer search terms for talent, a spike in compensation, and a possible stagnation in growth if the problem cannot be solved.  

Software building for the masses

The solution might lie with technologies that enable non-developers to build software. These “citizen developers” are business users that show a certain technical affinity and possess business process knowledge, bringing in the best from two worlds. One promising approach is offered by the burgeoning low-code / no-code movement (LCNC), which enables citizen developers to build apps that directly address routine tasks in their business areas.

Cropped shot of computer programmers working on new code using LCNC tools

LCNC tools enable more people – even those without an IT degree or experience – to build software. They either totally remove the need for coding experience (“no code”) or greatly reduce it (“low code”). Using these tools, business units can directly build software tailored to their own needs. This allows the professional software developers in the IT department to focus on more complicated programming tasks, as they no longer need to develop every application that is built within their company.

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The difference between no-code and low-code development approaches lies in the level of coding expertise required from the user. No-code development tools allow users to build apps using simple drag-and-drop icons, menus, and the like. The software provides a user-friendly front end and translates user input into the complicated underlying code needed to create apps. Examples of well-known no-code tools include Airtable or Zapier.

Low-code development, however, still requires some basic coding knowledge. But instead of classical text-based coding techniques, users can employ application designers and graphical methods to build apps. Examples of low-code tools are Appian, Kissflow, or Outsystems.

Gartner expects LCNC to be responsible for more than 65% of application development activity by 2024 for both IT application development and citizen development initiatives. This will result in the democratization of software creation and likely a decreased reliance on the IT department. From an IT perspective, it makes sense not to centrally manage the development of these applications, but rather provide guidance to make sure business users work in line with IT governance.

Robotic process automation and LCNC: A revolution in time and cost savings

As a global business tech trend, LCNC also affects robotic process automation (RPA), software robots that interact with applications the same way a person does. For example, Microsoft Excel macros are a very basic sort of RPA. Working as a virtual business assistant, these software bots complete repetitive tasks, freeing employees to concentrate on more engaging or revenue-generating tasks. Intelligent bot-controlled process automation is one of the core competencies of companies that aim to become an intelligent enterprise. According to Gartner, RPA is the fastest growing segment in the enterprise software market.

Reflection of someone working on code on a laptop

While classic IT projects take an average of several months to complete, an RPA project can be implemented within two to six weeks. During this time automations are built and set live, helping to save costs and time.

“The global pandemic increased this trend,” Sebastian Schroetel, head of intelligent robotic process automation at SAP, says. “A fully enabled LCNC experience will reduce the development time needed to a few days, or even hours.”

With a growing number of people able to build apps and extensions, companies also gain flexibility to react faster to changing environments with shorter innovation cycles. Businesses can no longer afford to only update their ERP system once every five years. Markets and compliance regulations move so quickly that the development of business apps cannot be limited to just the IT department.

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The principal idea of robotic process automation is to keep a system as it is and build a software robot on top of the existing software. This can be done quickly and generates high value. The first version of a bot is usually very simple, but over time can be improved to address more business needs and improve performance.

LCNC shows potential to become the technique for building the next wave of RPA applications. This could become a revolution, as any shared service center could build bots tailored to its own needs without engaging IT. The types of RPA applications that could theoretically be built with LCNC development tools range across the spectrum of lines of business (LoBs) and business processes.

Low-code RPA is one component of what Gartner calls “hyperautomation.” Behind this term lies a combination of tools to help support replicating pieces of where a human is involved in a task. Other such tools for hyperautomation include machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, process mining, monitoring, and data analytics.

Startup team of citizen developers working on new LCNC coding project

Citizen developers on the rise – or are they?

Low-code software tools are already in use, although mainly by IT employees using them to build software faster. But as the technology becomes more mainstream it is sure to be increasingly adopted by line-of-business users, which will drive LCNC’s disruptive influence on all aspects of a business and the IT industry in general.

Pressure is high on development and operational units to build applications tailored to business needs. As businesses become more integrated and complex, the variety of business processes also increases. In response to the global pandemic, for example, remote onboarding processes for new hires had to be created and whole workforces had to be enabled to work from home within a matter of days.

Faced with many competing demands, even the best IT departments struggle to keep up. They must focus on business-critical core processes, relegating many specialized processes to run in “shadow IT.” Business experts know the processes they use every day as no outside developer ever could, and are already helping themselves to some level by automating repetitive tasks using basic functionality in software like Microsoft Excel or Outlook.

Such self-built spreadsheet or email routines fall beyond the scope of IT governance, as they are neither integrated nor automated. These business users are perfect candidates to become citizen developers. To build a Microsoft Excel macro, for example, users need some basic understanding of programming logic. LCNC allows them to broaden their knowledge, working with guidance from the IT department.

Data governance and IT’s role

LCNC is not exactly new, and some companies already have experience deploying it and developing related products. Still, most don’t have an answer yet as to how to enable as many business users as possible without neglecting the governance aspect.

Woman focused on coding project

For LCNC to unlock its full business value, IT should provide training, support, and clear guidance to citizen developers. No-code and low-code apps require different governance models to ensure IT security and data harmony across all apps, no matter who developed them. Hosting the apps or bots and providing software operations also need to be left to IT. Done correctly, this cooperation between IT and business units will allow a greater focus on the needs of the business, faster development times, and more seamless governance.

LCNC may eventually become a philosophy that any software solution or product must offer as a standard feature. While certain industries are early adopters, LCNC as a trend encompasses all industries, LoBs, and company sizes. It is in everyone’s best interest to make it as easy as possible to adjust and extend software for specific business needs.

The idea of an army of citizen developers building tailored apps for their business needs raises the question of a possible reversion in trends. Will the need for highly skilled developers eventually subside? Will some developers even find themselves out of a job?

SAP’s Schroetel rejects such a scenario. “LCNC development and pro-code – that is IT – development complement each other,” he says. “As the need for building more apps or automations increases and cycles get shorter, enterprises face a growing need in developer capacity. Empowering citizen developers greatly strengthens the supply of resources.”

With the support of citizen developers, software experts may use their time for more complex and creative tasks, such as machine learning and supply chain algorithms. Business users will have more time on their hands as well when repetitive tasks are taken over by self-built applications.

Highly qualified developers will likely continue to be a rare resource. But LCNC may help companies take the edge off developer shortage as a showstopper.