The blurring of the lines between IT and business isn’t a new concept. In fact, I can remember back to the 2015 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, where Brook Colangelo, then EVP and CTO at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, declared that “everybody is a technologist and everybody in technology is in the business.”
More recently, CIOs have begun taking this notion from abstract rallying cry to practical reality by tapping individuals without IT backgrounds for certain IT leadership roles. A recent CIO.com article profiles Lexmark CIO Brad Clay, who has filled an estimated 10 percent of the company’s 400 IT leadership roles with people from the business, including the CISO and an application development and support leadership position for Lexmark’s sales organization. The idea is that their relationships and business knowledge are key to delivering new functionality quickly, allowing IT to be a better, more responsive partner to the business.
Beyond tapping non-IT people for leadership roles, many IT leaders have begun applying this theory to other levels and roles within their organization. One of the more intriguing—and potentially polarizing—is software developers.
Before going any further, let’s consider the following backdrop for enterprise IT organizations. Gartner estimates that, through 2021, business demand for app development will grow at least five times faster than IT capacity to deliver it. This is putting enormous pressure on IT leaders to find, train, and retain skilled developers to deliver an ever-growing number of applications on their digital agendas.
Here’s the rub, though: Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the unemployment rate for software developers is a staggeringly low 1.6 percent, with an additional 253,400 new jobs to be created over the next ten years (a conservative estimate in my opinion). At the same time, Deloitte data reveals that universities are turning out only 28,000 computer-science graduates annually, which means the gap widens significantly with each passing year. And I haven’t even touched on the struggles enterprises in industries like insurance, financial services, logistics, and manufacturing face competing for developer talent with the likes of Google and Facebook.
Facing such insurmountable odds, IT leaders serious about delivering on their digital transformation strategy have no choice but to look outside of IT—to individuals without traditional programming experience—to augment their existing development resources. The good news is that there’s an untapped talent pool that already exists in most organizations. It’s those businesspeople with enough technical aptitude, curiosity, and ambition to build applications to support themselves and their teams.
For years, these individuals have been labeled as “citizen developers,” but that term isn’t precise enough for the different types of individuals found under this broad umbrella. Moreover, the term often carries a negative connotation for IT leaders, because these individuals have historically worked outside of the oversight and governance of the IT organization, contributing to the proliferation of shadow IT.
Labels (and legacy) aside, these tech-savvy business developers are smart, creative, and intellectually curious. They take initiative and prioritize solving problems over sweating over the technical details. Best of all, because they sit in the business, they possess deep domain knowledge, which allows them to understand and translate user needs into impactful software.
In practice, business developers come from a wide range of backgrounds. Because they’re tech-savvy, they tend to be power users of CRM, BI, and analytics tools; they build sophisticated Excel macros or BI dashboards. Some do deliver apps full-time for a division, department, or business unit. But most do it in their spare time, with no mention of software development in their job descriptions.
Many IT leaders are bringing these business developers into the IT fold, making them full-time members of the development team. A great example of this practice in action can be found at Zurich Insurance. To meet growing business demand for applications to help transform the way it sells, services, and manages insurance, Zurich established a devops team that leverages a low-code development platform with the agile methodology. Remarkably, this devops team is comprised almost entirely of business analysts without programming experience. They use their backgrounds to identify and unravel business problems, and then work closely with users to iteratively design and develop new applications.
Through this approach, Zurich has been able to quickly launch web and mobile applications spanning a variety of use cases. According to Barrington Clarke, devops Lead at Zurich UK, “Our devops team is able to deliver customer-facing applications that generate significant, multi-million-pound increases in business though digitization. At the same time, our internal underwriting applications each deliver operational savings between £50,000 and £100,000 a year.”
After years of lofty aspirations, IT leaders are taking steps to blur the lines between IT and the business and make IT part of the business strategy. They’re doing this by tapping business people for a multitude of IT roles, from executives to software developers. These individuals bring a deep understanding of business processes and user needs, which helps ensure the delivery of impactful solutions. At the developer level, this trend also alleviates an immediate and burgeoning crisis: the talent gap. With digital transformation driving unprecedented demand for custom app development, the approach of augmenting existing development teams with so-called business developers is a win-win.
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