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Cybersecurity In-Depth

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You Can't Opt Out of Citizen Development

To see why low-code/no-code is inevitable, we need to first understand how it finds its way into the enterprise.

A few months ago I had a conversation with the CISO of a multinational logistics company who told me that his company will never allow citizen development. "I see that the benefit could be massive, but we will never allow it," he said.

This statement made perfect sense. Allowing employees with little IT or coding experience to develop applications seems counterintuitive to companies that are used to seeking strict controls over developers, applications, and digital assets. For many executives, citizen development seems to belong to a distant future.

In a follow-up meeting with that same CISO a few weeks ago, the conversation went in a very different direction. Marketing teams found their way around the CASB and started using no-code automation. Business applications teams started using Salesforce to streamline business processes rather than focus only on sales and customization. Employees all around the company were using Microsoft's built-in platform to build custom applications in Teams. "Turns out, we didn't get to choose. Citizen development is now a reality, and I am now expected to mitigate its security risks," he told me.

This CISO is not alone. The world's largest banks, retailers, and manufacturing companies are going all-in on citizen development. At a recent online event, Microsoft announced that 97% of Fortune 500 companies use its low-code/no-code platform.

How Low-Code/No-Code Platforms Find Their Way Into the Enterprise
To understand how organizations can transition from "low-code who?" to "business developers" in just a few months, we need to understand how low-code/no-code finds its way into the enterprise. We also need to look at low-code/no-code platforms' go-to-market (GTM) strategies.

1. Land-and-expand: Low-code/no-code platforms follow multiple paths into the heart of the business. The first and most obvious one is a top-down approach. In organizations where digital transformation is a strategic effort, senior management often looks for platforms that can accelerate the productivity of their business teams. Low-code/no-code platforms are built to do exactly that. Two popular choices for digital transformation are low-code application platforms (LCAPs) and integration platform-as-a-service (iPaaS).

In the digital transformation scenario, an organization would typically set up a center of excellence (CoE) that starts off by finding key use cases that quickly produce business value. Think of business applications used to manage a giveaway campaign by HR, welcome vendors to your facilities, or facilitate IT equipment orders by employees. Even more importantly, the CoE serves as inspiration for business users to think of more ways in which they can improve their productivity with business applications and automation. This centralized team leading by example doesn't have to be explicitly called a CoE. It can be the business applications team, the intelligent automation team, or the integration team, for example.

Once users start getting an appetite for applications that streamline business processes, the CoE's backlog quickly overflows. It is at this stage that business users start building their own applications, either with guidance from the CoE or on their own.

Both LCAP and iPaaS vendors rely heavily on this process of expansion within the enterprise as their core growth strategy. While it's easier to get through the door with a solution used by a centralized team, the value that can be realized grows significantly when low-code/no-code tools are placed directly in the hands of business users. Indeed, LCAP and iPaaS vendors are investing a lot in making their platforms easier for citizen developers to use. Slowly but surely, business teams across the organization become aware of these platforms and start to use them to get their job done.

This land-and-expand model is a win-win for vendors and customers alike. Centralized teams bring these platforms into the corporation and demonstrate their value, leading to business teams realizing their potential by addressing a wide range of business needs quickly, on their own.

2. Bottom-up (shadow IT): The marketing team at the aforementioned logistics company has been hard at work on a big conference. The company plans to make a few key announcements, with the intent to make it a big deal and generate lots of buzz. To translate this hype into leads, they want to set up a dedicated landing page with content optimized for conference visitors. The marketing team hires a vendor to build the page. In order to deliver quickly, the vendor uses a no-code automation platform to set up an email campaign and sync leads to the company's CRM. The end result is a great conference experience, powered by a no-code automation platform connected to the company's CRM.

In the rush of things, however, the CRM integration was set up with an administrator account shared with all developers on that account. At launch, only a few developers have access to the account, but after seeing the value, the whole marketing team is granted access, inadvertently sharing administrator privileges to the CRM. Security teams found out about it after the fact. The platform was purchased out of pocket due to time constraints, so there was no security assessment or an opportunity to say no.

This is a typical story, where platforms are introduced directly by users to solve a specific problem, without security visibility or guardrails. Once inside, they continue to expand to additional use cases and business groups. Vendors call this product-led growth (PLG), and it has been the hot GTM trend for the past few years.

Indeed, users are introducing these platforms because they actually solve their problems. Manual processes around order-to-cash, customer care, and marketing operations are a common example. This is great for business productivity. However, over time organizations can find that their business-critical data and processes have slipped out from under the security umbrella.

3. SaaS becoming the new business cloud: Name your favorite corporate SaaS platform. Chances are, it's a low-code/no-code development platform too, and your business users are already building with it. Don't just trust me on this — I encourage you to check it out yourself.

In recent years, SaaS vendors are increasingly shifting toward becoming low-code/no-code development platforms. Microsoft, Salesforce, ServiceNow, Workday, Slack, and other leaders in SaaS have all introduced their own low-code/no-code platform, embedded right into the platforms your business users are already using. Some vendors are focused on if-this-then-that automation and others on custom application development. But all of them are reaching out to business users directly, empowering them to do more on their own.

Back in the previously mentioned logistics company, the CISO found out that users across the organization were using Power Platform, Microsoft's low-code/no-code platform embedded in Office, to build custom applications for their Teams channels. These applications gained access to resources on behalf of their Teams users to do useful things like set up calendar invites, send emails, or share SharePoint files. Inadvertently, it also gave the application creators control over application user identities, allowing them to impersonate their users through the applications. Like any application that gains access on behalf of users, that access could be used to do harm, either by malice or by mistake.

SaaS vendors are pushing strong on low-code/no-code as a way to expand their business. They are using their advantage of already being at the fingertips of business users and are building app development platforms for their specific personas. This, again, is great for innovation and business velocity.

The Time to Act Is Now
With all of the different ways low-code/no-code finds its way into the enterprise, it's becoming clear that organizations can't just opt out of citizen development. Gartner has predicted that the number of active citizen developers at large enterprises will outnumber professional developers four to one by 2023. Other analyst firms have predicted similar numbers. Even if we end up having just one citizen developer per professional developer, can we really let that slip outside the security umbrella?

Instead, security teams should embrace low-code/no-code and help guide the new generation of citizen developers in line with enterprise requirements. The sooner this is done, the better.