Don’t undervalue the power of the dorm room citizen developer

One of the big findings from the 2014 IBM Business Tech Trends study was the fact that companies are finding more value from attracting armies of developers who had no previous affiliation with themselves (who we call citizen developers). For instance, IBM in partnership with the City of Honolulu opened up a platform to allow local programmers to build useful mobile apps based on information such as bus timetables and walking routes:

Anything new? At one level, barely. After all Linus Torsvalds energized a body of developers to build the Linux OS and revolutionize the software industry almost 20 years ago. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of Kaggle, Kickstarter and hackathons in just about every major city bringing ‘citizen developers’ to work on all kinds of projects. 

However, at another level, we are now seeing businesses big and small really start to engage the citizen developer. Why? Huge amounts of compute power are now available via the cloud. Mobile has simplified the distribution and consumption of applications. Analytics helps organizations understand which services are most popular and prioritize those.

Get it right and businesses can get many more solutions faster to market than they could ever do with their internal teams. Also, many times citizen developers build apps that are useful to themselves and by extension a broader audience.

So, if you’re bought in this far and wondering how you get hold of a bunch of citizen developers, I’d suggest there’s two great places you should look: inside your own walls and inside dorm rooms. Look for a follow-up post on the employee as citizen developer. Right now I want to focus on the student developers.

Why do students develop code?

So, what’s their motivation? They are itching to build a name for themselves. They often have more time on their hands and they may be to some degree suitably disgruntled with the status quo. Enough to try and shake it up.

In an excellent post in the New York Times, writer Ariel Kaminer, looks at students that have been building apps to make college life simpler using available college data, many times without the knowledge of the college. Based on the work of these student citizen developers:

“Students now arriving for fall semester may find course catalogs that they can instantly sort and re-sort according to every imaginable search criteria. Scheduling programs that allow someone to find the 47 different classes that meet Thursdays at 8:30 p.m., then narrow them down to those that have no prerequisites, then narrow again to those that count toward requirements in two majors.”

Can you think of a better way for a CompSci major to stand out with their peers?

Ariel goes on to show how some schools have embraced and legitimized these kinds of grassroots applications, but in other instances these have caused a headache for unprepared colleges, bringing down parts of their IT services.

There’s a clear lesson here for business: if you bury your head in the sand and don’t think citizen developers (students or otherwise) can scrape your content and build applications on top of it, beware! On the other hand if you build a platform and enable the citizen developer, you may be pleasantly surprised.

As was the University of Stuttgart when they ran a hackathon on the IBM Bluemix PaaS platform. Within 24 hours student teams had built apps that “ranged from the photo-sharing via Twitter analysis to the weather-dependent wake-up call, the eventual winner app.”

Getting started

So, businesses can potentially get better by engaging citizen developers, some of whom are on a local campus. How can you engage them?

If you have a training arm or other part of your organization that works with educational establishments (even if it’s predominantly faculty you work with), reach out and see what opportunities exist. If you don’t have current links with educational institutions, you can look for on-campus computer science clubs or even reach out to specific computer science faculty members (many of whom are listed on college websites these days) and look for effective partnering opportunities, eg: 

– Engage in hackathons like the one in Stuttgart

– Embed cloud-based platform and data services into the classroom experience

– Bring students onto your premises to show them your development process

If you want to learn more about organizations that are partnering in inventive ways with citizen developers, check out the IBM Business Tech Trends 2014 On-Demand Presentation.

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