The productivity of the citizen developer

August 01, 2013

Where is evidence based IT?

I would like to see a more formal treatment of technical debt and the cost of complexity in designing and building large (IT) systems.

There are countless examples of large IT projects failing or running well over budget. Sound policy development usually makes reference to an evidence base (and as Economists, we place a large emphasis on the quality of data behind assumptions) - but there is little in the way of evidence-backed IT forecasting.

Typical IT project costings are based on estimates of the work required and time/resources to complete the work. The fundamental problem with this approach is that it leaves the project open to significant planning fallacy (the term coined by Kahneman and Tversky in 1979); humans are inherently optimistic - we systematically underestimate the amount of work required to complete a task.

That in itself is not surprising (take a look at this list of cognitive biases, FYI) - what is surprising is that there is not a more formal treatment of this problem in large IT projects.

Frameworks that embrace iterative development (for example, Scrum) massively reduce the risk of imperfect planning because they remove the assumption of perfect foresight while encouraging a strong feedback loop (aka process improvement). While these concepts are by no means new in more mature fields like manufacturing - in IT development, we still have a long way to go.

Cognitive surplus is changing our world

Clay Shirkey’s 2010 TED talk introduces the notion of cognitive surplus: the spare brain cycles (which have always existed) that are now being amplified by digital technologies (which have only recently become ubiquitous).

Open-source software (free as in freedom) is, in large part, both the result and the driver of this explosion in cognitive surplus. It has lowered the barriers to an incredible range of technologies and capabilities. The network effect derived from allowing anyone to consume and contribute to an open-source project must be astronomical.

One great specimen of these effects being captured is Kaggle - the platform for data-science competitions worldwide. Their business is a result of the huge number of professionals, and amateurs alike, looking for interesting problems to solve in their leisure time.

Another emergent feature of this cognitive surplus is the citizen developer - people who have embraced various computer science topics (for example, programming), but never formally studied computer science.

The citizen developer

The term Citizen Developer was popularised in the 1980s by James Martin in the book ‘Application development without programmers’ - it’s not something that is particularly new. What is new is that in the last decade the sophistication of the technology available to these developers has increased exponentially - resulting in a matched increase in productivity.

Today: We can access vast troves of data and then process it at scale using just a credit card. We can use a rapid application framework to maximise productivity and minimise development time while building an application. We can instantly deploy that application to the same infrastructure Google uses to power their billion dollar business. We can do all this from the comfort of our local coffee shop.

The only capital investment required is time. The ecosystems that support citizen developers are inherently open and defined by a fierce competition of ideas, but are vast enough that the long tail ensures a place for everyone. Where creative disruption is the new creative destruction and emergent behavior is king.

Richard Hickey’s fantastic (but rather developer focused) presentation outlines some of the reasoning around the concept convention over configuration (or simplicity over easiness) - which explains why using standard open frameworks as building blocks avoids the problems associated with complexity in large systems.

This does not seem to be a concept that many large enterprises or Governments are comfortable with - the failure to apply evidence based project management to IT projects is only one symptom.

From the perspective of a citizen developer, questions of technical debt and complexity are front and center. How long is it going to take me to solve a problem using language A versus language B? What is the trade-off between my initial investment to learn a framework and its discounted future value? How much of my available time in the future am I going to have to spend maintaining a system if I build it on X vs Y?

Of course there is no single correct answer - but competition is the key. The open-source ecosystem is so productive because it encourages a multitude of competing technologies and platforms, each building on what came before, each open to innovation and to disruption.

For large enterprise and Governments, this is the secret - think and act like a citizen developer - because for the citizen developer failure is acceptable and inevitable but failing to learn from that is not.

This is a cross post from Club Troppo