I had the pleasure of talking to Chris Obdam, the founder and CEO of Betty Blocks. Not only is he one of the citizen development pioneers, but he is also from the same home village, and his mum and my mum know each other. We use the same barber. The barber is my brother. You will never guess the name of the place that we are both from.
His brother is the first citizen developer
I asked him where it all started. The origin story started a long time ago. When they were 16, they started to build and sell computers. When they were at university, they started their first custom software development company. That is where the adventure began. Their company started to grow. One day they wanted to fix their internal software and did not have the time to do it (and they were a software company). His brother, who is not a developer decided to fix it himself, but he didn’t want to learn a programming language. So they created some building blocks for him. Hence the claim that Chris’ brother is the first citizen developer.
Therefore fixing business problems is the origin of Betty Blocks and it is part of their DNA. It is not about IT and programming; it is about solving a business problem and enable business people to solve their own problems. The problem they had themselves with fixing their internal software is exactly the problem that every company and organisation is now facing. Has been facing for a long time. But now, the tooling and the technology is available to solve that problem. And you can see business departments embracing it. While at the same time increasing the innovative power of a company.
I asked him why so many citizen developers are from Holland
The Netherlands is a significant low and now code market. The Netherlands might be low code/no code ground zero in the world. Betty Blocks are from the Netherlands. Mendex biggest foothold is in the Netherlands. Paolo Rosado from Outsystems will probably acknowledge that there’s a lot of activity happening for them in the Netherlands as well. There are many others active in Holland. In terms of no code, the space is exploding right now.
Betty Blocks started low code a long time ago, and we did not know that other companies existed. The Netherlands has a rich history in building software tooling. It probably is just the entrepreneurial spirit. There are a lot of IT companies in the Netherlands as well. Holland is quite an open business society. As Dutch, because we are a small country, we know that we need to adapt. We embrace change a little bit sooner than others. We have an innovative culture, and we do like to try new things. But it’s probably just a coincidence.
He thinks that citizen development is becoming a bubble
You can see the valuations going through the roof. Things are getting rather crazy. When you look at the valuations, there are not applying the normal multipliers anymore but base it on the size of the opportunity. Which are the signs of a bubble, and it is rapidly inflating. At the moment, every day, 50% of my inbox is from venture capitalists.
We still get pushback from CEOs. They more or less see it as a threat. They are afraid of losing control. They are concerned about governance. Which why in Betty Blocks, we take governance and control very seriously, and it is as vital as our coding platform. Sometimes it is just cold feet. Other CEOs embrace it because they want to move fast. They are prepared to radically change their approach to innovation and software development.
It is all about making sure that it is done the proper way, and not many organisations know how to do it. We have been talking to a lot of really big, globally operating corporates, and the big question that they have is around the organisation of citizen development. Because they understand the impact, it can have when the entire staff in an organisation can start building applications. What are the rules? Is it allowed? Shouldn’t we be doing our regular day job first? How do we know it is built right? Are we capable? What about security? A lot of questions need to be answered before we get to the toolset.
That is why PMI is so important—sharing best practice—developing the handbook. Because at the moment, there is no global standard. There is no standardised approach. Everybody has different guardrails and has a different perspective on governance. Most of our colleagues have no proper guardrails and controls in place at all.
The perspectives on shadow IT vary. Some organisations are anxious about it and see it as a risk. The more progressive companies see shadow IT as a source of innovation. Whatever the perspective, the exciting part is that it is already happening. If you do not put governance on top of citizen development, it becomes shadow IT. Companies are flooded with this shadow IT. It is not a matter if it’s going to happen. It’s already happening. But you don’t have any control over it.
It is not a silver bullet
Our concern is that organisation are seeing citizen development as a silver bullet. If you have a hammer, everything is a nail. We know it can significantly increase the innovative power of a company. We know it decreases the time to get a product or service to the market. We know it helps digital transformation, process improvement and workforce enablement.
It is about capacity
But the real impact is straightforward. Software is eating the world. There are not enough developers in the world to cover the demand. Every company is an IT company. There is a growing demand for developers. You need citizen development because you dot have enough IT capacity inside your company. If you transfer IT skills to the different department in your organisation and give them the proper tools, the governance and the control systems, then they can fix it themselves.
Where to start
We always advise companies that have no experience with citizen development start with a pilot in the IT department. Or make it part of a change management programme. The maturity of an organisation is a huge factor. If you start throwing citizen development at an organisation that is poorly organised, you are setting up for failure. You need to make sure that you a proper baseline in place. Some people are so overenthusiastic that they want to jump in. But you need to make sure that you take all the appropriate steps before you get there.
In 5 years the pushback will be gone. People will understand citizen development. They will understand the need for governance. People will realise that it is not about the software or the platform but an organisational challenge. There are already a lot of positive things happen. The case for citizen development has been proven. It just a question of time.