Dinesh Varadharajan ADT podcast cover
Episode: 82

Dinesh Varadharajan - Citizen developers and no-code/low-code tools

Posted on: 26 Jan 2023
Dinesh Varadharajan ADT podcast cover

Dinesh Varadharajan is the Chief Product Officer at Kissflow, providers of a unified low-code and no-code work platform.

In this episode, we discuss the concept of citizen development and its role in the digital business landscape. We talk about the most common obstacles of citizen developers and how they can most efficiently collaborate with their companies' IT departments. We also discuss no-code/low-code platforms and how these can both empower citizen developers as well as help business through economic uncertainties.


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“If you look at many of the workforce right now, this workforce is digital native. They’re born digital, whoever joined the workforce in the last four or five years. So they can easily understand technology, they can easily understand these tools to solve their problems themselves.” 

Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation Podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host, Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop. 

Tim Butara: Hello, everyone. Thanks for tuning in. Our guest today is Dinesh Varadharajan, Chief Product Officer at Kissflow, providers of a unified low-code and no-code platform. In today's episode, Dinesh and I will be talking about the newly emergent concept of the citizen developer and how no-code and low-code tools can enable them to create great digital experiences, as well as help businesses during times of crisis and uncertainty. Welcome, Dinesh. It's great having you on the show today. Want to add anything before we begin with the questions? 

Dinesh Varadharajan: Thanks, Tim, for having me here. As I said, low-code and no-code is emerging in the last two, three years. Everyone is talking about no-code and low-code. And very much, if you look at any product, every product is actually transforming into low-code, no-code product. So, excited to have a conversation around what no-code low-code means, possibilities in development, and how this category is going to help people in the looming recession as well. 

Tim Butara: Yeah, I think people are already getting familiar with the terms low-code and no-code, and some of them are realizing that they've been using them to some extent for quite a long time, actually. But I think that the newer concept, the newer term here is the citizen developer. So my first question for you today is what is a citizen developer? 

Dinesh Varadharajan: That's a good question. If you look at– citizen developer may be a new term, but the concept is not new. If you look at, three decades or four decades back, any business user who is curious enough to understand technology, they always had some tools which they can use to solve their problems, right? And it started way back with Lotus Notes, with Spreadsheets, macros and all that. 

And citizen development platforms right now are probably the most sophisticated and highly abstracted versions of the underlying platform the engineers normally use, right? So the business users, the segment of business users who are curious about technology, they have the whole power of the underlying platforms, which are abstracted to the extent they can use that to develop applications without relying on IT. Right? So we call this category citizen development. 

And if you look at the last two, three years, these platforms are emerging and there are a huge category of citizen developers who are actually developing this application. This is also because of the generation, right? If you look at many of the workforce right now, this workforce is digital native. They’re born digital, whoever joined the workforce in the last four or five years. So they can easily understand technology, they can easily understand these tools to solve their problems themselves, right? That's what is happening. That is what is leading to this emergence of citizen development as well. 

Tim Butara: And what about the biggest challenges or the biggest obstacles that citizen developers face? What are those? And how can no-code and low-code platforms help in this context? 

Dinesh Varadharajan: The biggest challenge always with citizen development is shadow IT because IT normally owns all the products. They manage all the platforms. If you ask the business users to solve the problems themselves, they may not understand the security, privacy challenges in developing these applications. So most of the time they create something very small, roll it out inside the team, and then they roll out like tens and hundreds of this process inside an organization. And many of the times IT will not have any knowledge about all these systems. Right? 

So the biggest challenge is choosing a platform that is extremely simple for the users to use and develop application. Meanwhile, it should also take care of the security and privacy concerns of the It organizations as well. So the balance need to be there, any platform they chose for the development. 

Tim Butara: I think that this is one of the biggest problems with these platforms, right. You either get, there is a period of time where it's very oriented towards the business user at the expense of things like privacy and security and the streamlined developer experience. And then as a response to that, you get platforms and tools and software that's very much oriented to the developers, but it's hard for marketers and business users to work with. And as you just right now pointed out, Dinesh, I guess finding this balance is what finding the best tool in this sphere is all about. 

Dinesh Varadharajan: Absolutely, yes. 

Tim Butara: And how do you see the role of the citizen developer in the current as well as the future business landscape? 

Dinesh Varadharajan: If you look at any organization, IT always take care of the core systems, the systems that run the organization. And if you look at the software landscape at any big enterprise, the core system is probably like 5% to 10% of all the applications they use. But they're extremely critical for the business. And if you look at– beyond the core system is what we call a satellite applications. For example, you'll have these enterprise products like ERP and CRM. 

And if you want to make any changes to these applications, it's extremely difficult because you need the specialists to come in who understand ERP and CRM, who can actually implement those use cases in the core systems. Right? And again, if you look at satellite application, it would contribute another 20% of all applications that are used. 

But if you look beyond that, close to 70% of the use cases are what we call as long tail applications. These applications are not critical for the IT because these are very small applications. But are super critical for the business to run their teams. And traditionally, IT applications are always small compared to the size of the business. With the available bandwidth, they'll be able to cater only to the core systems, really managing the core systems and improving the core systems, they won't be able to cater to all the long tail use cases. 

So that's what the citizen development turns in. That's where the landscape is changing as well. If you look at the digital transformation as a whole, if you just change the core system, if you just take care of the static application, you won't be able to transform the whole business because the 70% of the applications are still manual, and they’re using so many different tools to manage all these applications. 

And if you're not touching that, then you are probably transforming only 15% to 20% of the software landscape that you have in your organization. Unless you allow the business to take care of the 70% of the use cases, you won’t be able to reach the vision of what you have as digital transformation. That's where the citizen development comes in. Let IT manage the core systems, the systems that run these organizations, and let business assist IT in automating or transforming all these simple use cases that are needed to run their business. 

And if you look at citizen development, these use cases are never implemented by IT, as I said, limited bandwidth. This normally goes into a huge backlog, but they'll never touch it. That's the transformation that citizen development can bring in traditional transformation as well. 

Tim Butara: So one of the best ways they can collaborate with IT and with engineering is to kind of take care of these other aspects in order for the business to truly transform and scale. 

Dinesh Varadharajan: That's right. Yes. 

Tim Butara: Are there any other things that should be top of mind if they want to streamline their collaboration with engineering and with IT? Because I feel like that might sometimes be a problem because of the clash that we spoke about earlier and the need to find this balance. What are some best practices for effectively working together here and bridging this gap? 

Dinesh Varadharajan: So we did a platform. If you look at these categories of local products, there are products that cater to the IT teams and there are products that are extremely simple. They cater to the business users. As I said, unified platform where the IT and business can work together, where IT will have complete control over what actually gets into the enterprise, what is deployed in enterprise, while the business can quickly automate the use case with very less dependency from IT, literally zero dependency from It. 

So this is where the governance comes into play. We need a platform which IT can govern. They will take care of the security aspects, privacy aspects, how the data is flowing from all these different applications, how these applications are integrated to the IT ecosystem, because they might have already different products in the organization, right? So accidentally a citizen developer can build an application which gets the data from these applications and set it outside as well, right? 

So we need a platform that has governance and gives complete control to it, but extremely simple for business users to build their applications. And that is a need right now, if you look at many of the products, they either cater to the IT or the business, right? We need something that can cater to both these use cases, both these personas. 

Tim Butara: This is very nicely leading into the second part of our discussion today, Dinesh, so, about how no-code and low-code tools can help businesses both prepare for and kind of weather through the looming economic crisis that's basically just around the corner. And I'm guessing that these kinds of platforms that we just spoke about are kind of the future here also because of what we talked about. 

Dinesh Varadharajan: That's right. And the whole transformation started happening during the COVID times, right? Because suddenly there is a need to automate everything. People are working remotely, they're not going to office. So what was considered as a luxury, right, automating all these smaller use cases, suddenly became a necessity. And even during looming recession, right, so they need to still find ways to optimize what they are doing every day. 

Everything is in short supply because we can't spend a lot of money in changing all the code systems, buying a very expensive product, a huge consulting engagement. So the businesses still need to run. If they can find the ways to implement all these small use cases which can optimize the way the business is run, they will be able to save huge money as well, right? So that is going to help them in saving over the recession. 

Tim Butara: So really a lot of the value comes from making these small optimizations that on their own probably wouldn't have made much of a difference. But when put all together, all of these tiny automations of different various processes, both business processes and content creation processes, that probably is very important here. 

Dinesh Varadharajan: That's right. So normally code this example, right? This is like you are driving a very old car for 20 years and suddenly you want to change it to a very modern car. Normally you change the engine because that gives the power to the car and you change the body of the car as well. And what they normally forget to change is the drivetrain. Even if they change the engine, the drivetrain gets power from the engine and actually gets it to all the wheels as well. 

And if you don't change the drivetrain, which is invisible, then you won't be able to get the full benefit of changing the engine or having a fancy body. These long tail applications, all the invisible applications are the ones which actually run the organization, run the business operations. And if you don't change that, you won't be able to optimize your business, you won't be able to actually complete the vision of your digital transformation as well. 

Tim Butara: Yeah, I think this is kind of one of the main qualities of the digital world. It's similar to AI and stuff like that, where you have all of these experiences, either internal business experiences or outward facing customer experiences, that rely on so many of these tiny invisible mechanisms and processes running that most of the people that interact with them don't even know about which ones they are, let alone all the plethora of them. 

Dinesh Varadharajan: That's true. 

Tim Butara: Another concept that we can maybe discuss a little bit are customizable work platforms. Can you tell us a little bit more about those? 

Dinesh Varadharajan: Normally, as I said, the work platform is the whole spectrum of what you do at work. I said it starts with core systems to long tail. Typically there are two ways the companies try to solve it. One, they buy readymade product which allows customization and they try to customize to fit their needs. 

And the other way to solve it is actually using a platform. That is a reason why you're choosing a platform. If you look at citizen development as a concept, it is not giving abstractions over what all the programming languages or the frameworks that you use. Because citizen developers don't understand technology artifacts, they don't understand what database means, what table means, what a schema is, what a data model is. 

So if you look at many of these products, right, if you actually buy a product, allows them to customize, then they need to understand the programming artifact which is extremely difficult for them. That's a semantic gap we are talking about. So the platforms, the citizen development platforms gives a very high level of obstruction where the users don't have to understand systemic artifacts. Yet these platforms talk their language. 

With very minimal learning curve, they will be able to use these platforms and then automate their work. That's what we call work platforms. Right. Instead of buying a product allowing them to customize, choose a platform which is designed for these business users or the citizen developers to build applications. 

Tim Butara: So this is what customizable refers to. That business users are able to customize the work platform to their specific needs, their specific level of tech savviness, I guess. 

Dinesh Varadharajan: That's true. Another thing is the biggest challenge in an enterprise is if the business gives a requirement to IT. IT will implement something and goes back to the business, business will never accept that because the IT won't be able to understand that all the requirements of the business and business won't be able to articulate 100% of the requirements as well. Because this is an iterative process. 

What this work platform, customizable work platform, allows the business to do is it– business can implement a minimal version of what they are thinking and then continue to iterate on that. And if business owns, there’s this psyche effect we normally talk about, right? If the business own it, they immediately put it to production. They don't actually wait for a 100% complete application because they are the ones who are championing it. They are the ones who are championing the adoption of the systems inside the team or a department. So they are okay with something that is working as long as they understand they can continue to iterate and improve. That’s what these platforms allow them to do. 

Tim Butara: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense and that's definitely what will be the standard in the future, if it's not already becoming that. 

Dinesh Varadharajan: Yes. 

Tim Butara: Well, Dinesh, this has been a great discussion and I just have one final question before we wrap up the call. And I'm wondering, what are your top tips for those companies who are looking to adopt and embrace more low-code and no-code development tools and processes? 

Dinesh Varadharajan: One mantra – governance. If you look at any organization, you have citizen developers, people who are curious, who want to do things themselves, right? So most of the time, because of challenges in governing these platforms, IT will never allow the business to implement solutions on their own. 

And if you want to alleviate their fear, choose a product that gives complete control to the IT while giving extreme flexibility for the business to build applications themselves. So that's one of the tips that the IT needs to remember because they are not losing control, rather they are getting people who can work along with them in the digital transformation journey. So that's what they need to realize and then they need to choose the right product as well. 

Tim Butara: Well, that's definitely the key thing to keep in mind here. Thank you so much Dinesh, for joining us today. Anything you'd like to say before you wrap it up, besides your contact info for listeners who'd like to contact you, of course

Dinesh Varadharajan: Yes. Thanks again. It's a wonderful conversation. So I really enjoyed this as well. So if you want to explore further, you can always visit kissflow.com or you can write to me at dinesh@kisslow.com as well. Thank you for having me here. It's wonderful talking to you. Have a wonderful day. 

Tim Butara: Thank you Dinesh. It's been great talking to you as well. And a great day to you too. And to our listeners. That's all for this episode. Have a great day everyone and stay safe. 

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