Citizen developers: the next generation of SMB productivity

Low code/no-code solutions for software development are nothing new. According to a 2020 article by Gartner research, low-code application platforms will account for 65% of all app development by 2024.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced SMBs and enterprises to confront the challenges of prolonged remote working conditions. This has resulted in citizen developers adopting tools for building cross-functional low code/no-code apps suitable for various systems and departments en mass.

Who is a citizen developer?

This could be you, your colleague, your manager, or anyone else implementing business automation by integrating a CRM system, contract management automation, automated reporting, the use of e-signatures, and so on. Citizen developers are everyday-employees with a deeper understanding of their department’s needs and frustrations regarding existing business processes. It needs mentioning that citizen development is sometimes confused with shadow IT, which denotes coding or development activities, not sanctioned by the company’s IT department.

On the one hand, employees involved in citizen development can help companies create functional apps without significantly exceeding their IT budgets. On the other hand, companies need guardrails to make training and resources available to citizen developers in order to introduce new apps using low code/no-code platforms that remain within the relevant standards for compliance. For companies running a citizen development model, employees aren’t left completely to their own devices. They are in fact supported by IT professionals responsible for the company’s underlying IT infrastructure.

The benefits of the citizen development model

No matter how encouraging citizen development may seem in the times of the COVID crisis, businesses should consider the pros and cons of using it. So, let’s take a closer look at the benefits it could bring.


For many companies, the COVID19 crisis was the trigger for digital transformation. Businesses came to a point when using e-signatures is no longer a choice but a necessity. Today, 81% of business users believe that e-signatures are crucial to maintaining the legal and security integrity of their daily operations. At that, businesses prefer not to limit themselves with particular functionalities by actively using no-code solutions like signNow that combine e-signatures with high-end workflow automation.

Citizen development is a driving force of a company’s digital transformation, which, among other things, aims at streamlining processes for cost savings. The use of low-code/no-code enterprise-level solutions eliminates the need to hire expensive developers which, in its turn, allows companies to optimize expenses. According to the Forrester report, by 2022, the low-code platforms market will show an annual growth rate of 40%, with spending expected to exceed $21 billion.

   Improved internal collaboration

By using low-code/no-code solutions, companies can significantly increase the number of employees eager to assist in digital transformation and bring the business side into development. This way, business and IT professionals can collaborate on building new functionalities to meet the company’s specific requirements. At the same time, the deployment of citizen development can reduce the overload on the IT department allowing them to focus on more critical tasks.

   Faster development speed

According to Forrester, no-code solutions have the potential to speed up software development up to 10 times compared to traditional methods. This allows for reducing the time needed for app testing and development. As a result, productivity levels increase dramatically. As suggested by 451 Research, low-code/no-code solutions can elevate programmers’ efficiency by 50% to 90% compared to traditional software development.

Citizen development model limitations

When it comes to deploying low-code/no-code solutions, there are certain limitations to keep in mind:

   Instruction and training

Despite being involved in citizen development doesn’t directly imply technical training, mastering skills like no-code bot automation would be an asset. To ensure minimal push back, businesses should educate potential citizen developers about the capabilities of low-code/no-code solutions. For instance, the airSlate Academy allows employees involved in citizen development to upskill with free certification programs. The selection of certifications is impressive – from basic courses covering business and document processes to expert programs for automation deployment.

  Need for technical supervision

Citizen development requires the supervision of IT professionals to prevent the production of sub-optimal software code. Beneath the surface, every user configuration for a no-code solution is converted into an actual programming language and database tables for each data entity. Without knowing how these conversions work, the quality of the programming code is easily overlooked. This could result in slow-performing queries, excessive server calls, poorly structured databases, or the so-called “spaghetti architecture”.

   Security implications

Citizen development can have serious security implications. When a large number of people have the possibility to create software, this also means they have access to different facets of its creation. Meaning that many citizen developers may not have the knowledge required to create security systems capable of supporting the applications they developed. For this reason, having a low-code/no-code platform accompanied by an admin in charge of supervising its overall security is crucial.

Why citizen development projects fail

According to a 2018 survey by the CIMI Corporation, 54% of citizen development projects carried out by organizations failed after the first year. Another 28% of these projects had marginal results. And only less than 20% of citizen development projects were successful.


Poor choice of staff involved
in citizen development projects


Lack of guardrails


Lack of supervision
by IT professionals


Scope creep

The survey respondents named four primary reasons why citizen development projects fail:

   poor choice of staff involved in citizen development projects

The survey revealed that only a third of citizen development candidates had a credible chance of success in their roles. Sadly, organizations rarely supply a list of requirements they want citizen developers to meet. One way to streamline the employee selection process is to have IT professionals qualify citizen developers. Another way is to ensure the IT organization is actively involved in framing the citizen developer model including projects, development platforms, and policies.

   lack of guardrails

Many line-of-business (LOB) workers are prone to neglecting IT policies. Hence, the workers are not interested in adhering to these policies as part of the development process. As more businesses turn to low-code/no-code platforms, compliance and governance issues inch towards a higher risk of breach. The best way to cope with the lack of guardrails is to establish a direct line between internal audit and governance teams to all LOB workers involved in citizen development.

   lack of supervision by IT professionals

The survey suggests that of all the successful citizen development projects, about 75% were executed within a technical framework set by the IT organization. As mentioned earlier, one of the ways to streamline citizen development collaboration with IT is by working out the citizen development model, including the necessary roles, rules, and tools required. In addition, the IT staff should assist with a project’s review and approval. Project complexity and especially information-use factors should have proper supervision.

   scope creep

Apps built by citizen developers are often prone to scope creep within the first year. As a result, organizations should look into regularly redesigning them based on any new changes that may have been introduced. The scope creep occurs because citizen developers are unable to work out the right approach to, and impact of, a change at the beginning of a project. Neglecting the use of formal project methodology is another problem.

In case both citizen developers and, subsequently, the developers introducing the changes don’t keep to formal practices, project essentials get easily overlooked. The use of project management tools can alleviate this pain point. Organizations must emphasize the implementation of PM features in no-code development solutions to ensure a realistic approach to a project’s scope of work.

How to foster a citizen developer-friendly culture

And now, let’s look at some strategies for fostering a culture of citizen development for a typical enterprise.

   The adoption of standard toolsets

It’s crucial to ensure that all development staff is informed about the standard low-code/no-code tools and that everyone has access to them. Employees must possess a knowledge of the standard approaches for using tools like programming languages and stylistic standards. This way, a company forms a larger base of support among the staff members that are eager to partake in citizen development. As a result, professional developers can focus on more intricate tasks such as machine learning and mathematically complex programming.

   Hyper agility

According to Dave Garrett, chief strategy and growth officer at Project Management Institute, one more way to foster a citizen developer culture within a company is to think hyper agile. This refers to team size optimization, smart PM cycle lengths, and brainstorming techniques. Garrett mentions the “two pizzas” rule by which he means: an optimum number of members on a team is when they don’t need more than two pizzas to share a meal.

A strategically sized team guarantees workflow efficiency and good collaboration. When it comes to cycle lengths/sprints, those should be clearly defined and kept consistent, so that teams get used to working within a given timespan. Finally, brainstorming allows for aggregating talent and bringing ideas together, whether it’s for solving niche problems or working out the best way to complete a sprint.

   Elimination of shadow IT

The use of tools, apps, and workarounds that haven’t been approved within the company can seriously hinder quality control and collaboration. Alongside the adoption of standard toolsets, the use of shadow IT must be discouraged at the enterprise level. Companies must take care to develop a transparent strategy, guidelines, and support to turn rogue IT activity into a structured and controlled force.

  Mentorship and governance

Efficient mentorship is essential for inspiring citizen developers. Once a set of standard tools are identified in a company, it’s time to appoint a proficient IT professional as a mentor that ensures continuous guidance for the team’s citizen developers. Mentorship must go hand in hand with governance performed by technical admins who implement the use of technical standards, tools, and programming styles. In addition, citizen developer permissions must be established in a way that guarantees access control to no-code tools.

  Emphasis on technical and automation training

A company must ensure that all development staff, including citizen developers, have completed technical training to help adopt the standard toolsets and approaches. This may not necessarily include learning complicated programming concepts. However, the use of a no-code solution like airSlate, no matter how easy to use and intuitive it is, may require mastering new digital skills.

Encouraging citizen developers at your company to enroll in automation courses with the airSlate Academy is a good place to start. Not only will they acquire insights into the automation industry’s use cases, but they will also learn the ins and outs of business process automation with airSlate. Below is a list of automation courses tailored to beginner-level users with zero prior low-code/no-code experience:


airSlate Fundamentals is an introductory course covering the basics of document management and automation with airSlate.


Business Processes Automation with airSlate covers the benefits of using an end-to-end solution like airSlate for business process automation.


Automation in Action: Industry Use Cases is a course designed for users already familiar with airSlate’s main concepts. You’ll find out how airSlate works inside various companies and enterprises, depending on the use case and industry.

Enrolling in free certification programs at the airSlate Academy is a good starting point for employees interested in becoming citizen developers. From Business Process Automation to Bot Basics, the airSlate Academy helps people master the most in-demand skills needed for a career in digital transformation.