IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Will citizen developers really take over software development from the big IT companies in future? The market for citizen development is growing fast and what are often called ‘low-code platforms’ allow people to develop software without much knowledge of software development. The market for these systems is currently worth over $4bn, but is predicted to grow to over $27bn by 2022 – that’s extremely rapid growth for any market.

But let’s take a step back to understand what is going on. In the early days of software development programmers would need to use machine language (or code) to get computers to do anything. This machine language is exactly as it sounds, essentially instructions that are directly manipulating chip functions and data. It was extremely difficult to learn how to do this and because the code was hard to read it was not only hard to create, it was hard to fix problems and maintain too.

These days, machine coding is still possible, but it is only really used where speed is essential or there is some other very specific requirement – such as being able to directly address the functions of a video chip. Most software developers now use a programming language, such as C, Java, or Basic – many are available and they are constantly evolving. These languages are much easier to read and use and the developer can either use a system called a compiler to translate the code into the required machine code, or they can use an interpreter that converts the software in real-time as it is running.

These languages have dramatically increased the productivity of software developers, but to use one of these languages is still a specialised skill. The software developer not only needs to understand the language they are using, but also has to be comfortable with many other basic programming principles, such as how to use variables to store and manipulate data. This is not something that an untrained individual can do easily. So what is low-coding?

Essentially it is software development, but at a high level so the focus is just on business processes or queries. The developer doesn’t need to think about underlying issues such as graphics or data storage, they just need to describe what they want the system to do. A good example might be a Human Resource platform that offers the user the ability to create a filtered interface  – only show me candidates over 21 years old with a degree for example.

These queries are essentially basic coding and this will become an increasingly important skill in the modern workplace. It’s easy to argue that this is not really software development and therefore the companies offering software services can feel safe that their business is not about to collapse, but it does represent an important change in skills that will be required for jobs that are not traditionally connected to IT.

Automation is increasing across many industries, particularly Robotic Process Automation (RPA). This means that some basic coding skills will be required of accountants, credit analysts, lawyers, and HR professionals (to just name a few) if they want to be able to manage and control the software systems they are using.

So low-coding does not mean that citizen developers will be building the software that IT companies are now delivering. However, it does mean that almost all office-based professionals need to consider how they can learn about basic coding skills – their future employability depends on it!

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