The recent boom of artificial intelligence, large language models, neural networks, and AI bots and assistants in general has had significant impacts on how we do work in different spaces, and about what work is in general for people. The rise of ChatGPT has created entire professional positions titled “AI prompt engineers” and similar descriptions, making using ChatGPT effectively a full-time job and creating the new citizen developer wave.
There are many implications for how AI assistants can and will change workplace tasks and responsibilities, and there are many already existing examples, but one that seems to be on everyone’s mind, the idea of software development without IT training. From discipline to discipline, the Citizen Developer is making waves.
What is Citizen Development?
In short, citizen development is the democratization of software development. Through the help of various tools and software, notably AI in recent events, individuals with little-to-no formal IT or developer backgrounds are able to create and/or modify software at various levels of sophistication and intensity. Anything from basic automation of often tedious tasks to more sophisticated app development can now be handled by non-IT and non-developer employees, which brings benefits across the board.
For one, workflows can be more fluid and flexible this way. The days are gone when only the IT or dev team need to be able to implement and introduce new tools and software. Having that sort of isolated branch of tech-savvy employees was fine when technology moved at 2010 speeds, but we’re not in that playground anymore. Now, technology changes at lightning speeds practically every single day, and “waiting for the IT department” isn’t a strategy that’s going to get you on the cutting edge and appropriate tools that your team needs.
Citizen development allows individuals and teams to take charge of their needs and aspirations, and to create their own solutions to problems they encounter. Additionally, empowering non-dev employees to create their own tech solutions can simultaneously more directly address the challenges that need to be faced as well as lighten the workload faced by the IT team. This helps everything run smoother, and allows the IT team to focus on bigger, more specialized tasks that play a bigger role in the trajectory of the company.
AI and the New Wave
One of the biggest motivators for the most recent wave of citizen development are the advancements in AI, especially with the newest versions of ChatGPT. It should be noted that ChatGPT, by definition, is a model that constructs a statistically likely response to a given prompt. The construction is very sophisticated and, often, it is fairly if not completely accurate and truthful. However, this is not always the case, and this inaccuracy is something that OpenAI has been quite open about from the beginning.
That said, one place where ChatGPT does shine quite well is with writing code. Creating full-fledged software can be a bit tricky, through prompts and automatically generated code there are still plenty of impressive programming-related tasks you can take care of with the help of ChatGPT. Even without very much—or any—formal programming training. In this sense, ChatGPT has significantly lowered the barrier to entry for dev tasks and, as such, has ushered in a new era of citizen development, empowering non-dev workers to create tech solutions on their own.
So far, this may all seem pretty magical—and, to be fair, it sort of is! But, no tool as convenient as this can be taken without its fair share of cautions. When it comes to ChatGPT specifically, it’s important to remember that its code generation is a bit of a black box, and even more so for somebody that is not familiar with the programming language, or with coding in general. This means that automatically generated code has the potential to be inefficient, inaccurate, or just simply unsafe to use. For smaller, perhaps lower-stakes tasks, generated code and tools can be incredibly useful and time-saving. However, for more critical tasks, it will still be a good idea to have an experienced and skilled eye take a look at the code, especially if you’re feeding the code sensitive data.
Another more general concern of citizen development is the implication that comes with all or even just many non-dev employees generating personalized code for their tasks. Depending on how essential or standard the tasks are, this code can become a more common tool used either by the individual or by a wider team. If tech and tools like this are introduced rapidly and without the proper skilled oversight, you might quickly run into a big problem of incompatibility and efficiency. A big element of a thoughtful IT process is making sure all the complex parts work together. If everybody is generating their own code, there is little-to-no chance of all the pieces fitting together nicely.
Again, there are levels of severity to this issue, but it’s an important caution to have. Citizen development can be incredibly helpful in a large scope of ways, but relying too much on it can get messy quickly. A dedicated team of IT experts and/or developers is still an invaluable asset. Citizen development should not replace these teams, it should free the teams up from more tedious tasks.
ChatGPT and other AI tools have reached a level of sophistication where many tasks can reasonably be automated, even when being controlled by somebody with no technical experience in the matter. That said, as we’ve mentioned throughout this text, relying too heavily on a black box is a recipe for disaster. Although these tools can empower other employees to create custom solutions on their own, being able to take a peek behind the curtain and understand how things are really working is still an invaluable skill set. Combining the traditional power and expertise of IT teams with the flexible and empowering capabilities of citizen development is how we get the best of both worlds.
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