Inside SharePoint

The Citizen Developer: Reaching New Heights in SharePoint

SharePoint gave rise to the citizen developer a decade ago but the evolution of SaaS including Office 365 and the latest tooling such as Microsoft PowerApps and Flow are empowering a larger community.

In this world, the ability to write code has become not just a desirable skill but a language that grants insider status to those who speak it. They have access to what in a more mechanical age would have been called the levers of power.
- Jason Tanz (@jasontanz), The End of Code, Wired Magazine, June 2016.

In many respects, I believe that statement to be true. So much of the modern economy is tied to technology, and those who can speak the language have a distinct advantage over those who do not.

However, one could argue that one of the major factors in SharePoint's overwhelming success has been its ability to wrest control of data, of content, and of entire business solution from the hands of IT and put that control into the hands of the end user. You can map SharePoint's success back to the WSS days, when most deployments were happening outside of the purview of the IT team, and were typically the result of someone needing to move things along faster than the IT team was able (or willing) to comply. Installs started popping up all over the organization as end users needed a solution, and SharePoint provided a way for them to do it themselves.

Even after SharePoint gained widespread adoption -- with many IT organizations having to go back and support those formerly renegade WSS installations -- many business teams discovered that they could install third-party tools or build simple Web parts without corporate IT intervention.

While not a new concept, the role of "citizen developer" or "power user" has helped elevate SharePoint as a business-critical platform, reaching a super majority of the Fortune 5000 and beyond, and making it one of the most successful products in Microsoft's history (outpaced only by Office 365).

In the recent product announcement of the new Microsoft Flow and PowerApps preview release, Corporate VP and General Manager for Business Applications Platforms and Intelligence James Phillips made the case for the citizen developer, stating:

Every organization faces constant pressure to do more with less. While technology is often key to operating more effectively and efficiently, cost and complexity have often prevented organizations from taking maximum advantage of the potential benefits. The growth of SaaS (software as a service) has lowered barriers -- no need to deploy servers or to install and configure complex software systems. Just sign up and go.

The result? People in departments from sales to marketing, from operations to finance now have the power to select and adopt tools to improve their own processes. And they're not slowing down to ask for permission.

The topic has been covered heavily by members of the community. In an online Twitter "tweetjam" discussion last week. Under the banner of the #CollabTalk hashtag, a group of us shared our ideas and experiences with the citizen developer movement and talked about whether it was on the rise -- or if we're just seeing more of the same -- within the SharePoint community. Responses were mixed about whether it is on the rise, but unanimous in agreement that it plays an important role in the SharePoint space.

If you're interested in the point-by-point discussion, you can find a summary on Storify.

At its core, the citizen developer is someone who steps in to solve a business problem. And just about everything about SharePoint drives the citizen developer mentality. Some examples include:

  • Web Parts, replaced by the App Model, are the bread-and-butter of the citizen developer. By using these core components, a user could modify the content, appearance, and behavior of pages within SharePoint just by using their browser. They are the building blocks of sites. And with the move toward the App Model, everything became an app, including lists and libraries.
  • InfoPath was (and still is for many) a core tool within the citizen developer tool belt. It is a software application for designing and distributing electronic forms containing structured data. Released way back in the 2003 era, it featured a WYSIWYG form designer through which you could add various controls (e.g. textbox, radio Button, checkbox) are connect them to your data. While support was discontinued, it continues to be a fan favorite for many.
  • SharePoint Designer was a descendant of Microsoft's FrontPage, and while for years it caused more headaches than solutions, it matured somewhat and became the de facto solution for designing and customizing SharePoint websites and offered a number of SharePoint-specific site templates.
  • Third-party solutions have long filled many of the gaps within the SharePoint platform, from small Web part providers adding missing functionality, to comprehensive migration, management, and business process management solutions that helped make SharePoint a scalable, enterprise-ready platform. In fact, you could argue that if not for the support of the partner ecosystem and healthy community surrounding SharePoint, it may not have survived its early years.
  • PowerApps is one of the latest solutions to help end users leverage SharePoint lists to access, share, and collaborate around their structured data. As its name implies, PowerApps enables citizen developers to create apps that utilize SharePoint lists as a data source.
  • And Microsoft Flow is another new capability that allows users to create automated workflows between their favorite cloud-based apps and services, providing notifications, helping to synchronize files, collect data, and more.

With the advent of Office 365, Microsoft has clearly been pushing toward more comprehensive, out-of-the-box capabilities rather than requiring companies to configure and customize SharePoint to make the platform functional. With this push, many within the community have asked whether the roles of the IT Pro and Developer would be diminished (a topic I spoke on at Ignite last year).

I don't believe this will be the case at all. For one, while the rate at which Microsoft and the surrounding community are innovating has increased, bringing to market many new features and tools, customer expectations have also increased. Most customers will want to retain some degree of control over the solutions they provide to their end users -- which will keep IT Pros and Devs busy. Likewise, business users will continue to push for new solutions, keeping the citizen developer movement alive and strong.

I'm looking forward to more announcements from the SharePoint team this year, and am excited to see the continued growth and interest in the platform -- and how Microsoft will continue to enable the citizen developer community.

About the Author

Christian Buckley is a SharePoint and Office 365 MVP, who has worked on the SharePoint team at Microsoft and later served as an evangelist at Echo Technology, Axceler and Metalogix. A frequent speaker and blogger, he’s now the CMO of Beezy. Follow him @BuckleyPlanet.

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