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A coding revolution in the office cube sends message of change to IT

"I think it's going to take over every industry, every segment, every country, every sector." — Salesforce.com executive

Coders in a circle, hack, hackers, tecnology
Luke MacGregor | Bloomberg | Getty Images

An unlikely job led Damian O'Farrill to catch the coding bug: salsa dance instructor.

O'Farrill was teaching salsa lessons in Mexico. He didn't have a tech background, but he knew there had to be a better way to keep track of his students' progress and keep up on billing than with old-fashioned pen and paper.

He turned to low-code platforms — products that allow users to build applications with very little coding knowledge. Low-code platforms focus more on dragging and dropping prebuilt components than writing code. Using a low-code platform from Salesforce.com and instructional videos from Salesforce.com's Trailhead website, O'Farrill built his own application to monitor his students' levels and payment schedules. But it didn't stop there.

O'Farrill caught the coding bug, inspired by all he could do with low-code platforms. He started trying more tools and learning programming languages online. A few years after O'Farrill built his first application to monitor salsa dance lessons, he began searching for jobs in the United States. He knew it would be particularly difficult finding work as a foreigner who needed sponsorship. "If I didn't have my Salesforce knowledge, I'm pretty sure I would not have been sponsored by any company," he said.

Today he is in charge of marketing and sales automation at software design and services company Autodesk. "I was really doing creative work then. I had nothing to do with coding," O'Farrill said. "Now people perceive me as the tech guy."

$15B emerging market to battle with traditional IT

Low-code platforms are giving rise to a new generation of coders like O'Farrill. They're called citizen developers. These developers don't necessarily have formal computer science education. Nor do they work in IT. But with low-code platforms and online tutorials to help build new applications, citizen developers often solve problems encountered in their day-to-day work.

Anyone can build a web or mobile application with minimal coding knowledge using programs from low-code platform vendors like QuickBase, Caspio and Zudy, or from tech giants like Microsoft and Salesforce, which offer PowerApps and Lightning, respectively.

By 2020 at least half of all new IT line-of-business applications will be created through such platforms, according to Gartner. A Forrester report has identified more than 40 companies in this space and projects a $15 billion market by 2020.

"Citizen development is a revolution," said Adam Seligman, executive vice president and general manager of the App Cloud at Salesforce. "I think it's going to take over every industry, every segment, every country, every sector."

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The traditional IT department grew in size and scope as computers flooded the office markets in the 1990s. But today, executives are turning to citizen developer platforms instead. While some see this as a risky maneuver meant to circumvent the security and compliance safeguards of a traditional IT department, others say it is an inevitable outcome of the push for businesses to be faster and nimbler in their problem-solving abilities. Why should an employee wait weeks or months for IT to address a work ticket if they can build their own technical solution using low-code software in a few days?

Global food services giant Sodexo has staff in operations, finance, human resources and procurement that use QuickBase software to build applications. The initiative has brought down the time it takes to complete project plans for new clients from a week to one hour.

"We have been able to empower non-technical individuals to become citizen developers. The outcome is always better because the people that need the outcome are the ones that are building solutions," said Bruce Squibb, senior director of program development corporate services at Sodexo North America.

Even tech companies, such as Alphabet, are turning to low-code platforms to speed up the development of simple applications.

"The bullet is much larger and the gun is much larger, so if you shoot yourself in the foot, you'll blow your whole foot off, not just the toe." -Mark Driver, Gartner analyst, on the need for IT departments to retain a critical role

That doesn't mean IT departments will become obsolete. Gartner analyst Mark Driver said complex projects will still require experts with a background in programming, and technical expertise will be vital to ensuring the security, scalability and efficiency of applications created by non-coders. There is greater potential than ever to lose data, overload systems or bring about other technical nightmares.

"The bullet is much larger and the gun is much larger, so if you shoot yourself in the foot, you'll blow your whole foot off, not just the toe," Driver said. The long-term success of citizen developers depends on a partnership with IT, he added.

QuickBase, which has been selling low-code software since 2000, now has more than 500,000 business subscribers, including 50 percent of the Fortune 100 and companies like Google and Procter & Gamble. Microsoft made its new PowerApps platform generally available earlier this month after a pilot period.

Many experts attribute the recent increase in such low-code platform offerings to the growth of cloud and mobile technologies, which have fueled citizen development. Nearly 2 billion people in the world own smartphones, and 95 percent of businesses use cloud technology.

"Citizen development in one form or another has been around since the beginning of the PC," Driver said. "What is new is the breadth and depth of these kinds of applications. Twenty to 30 years ago, work that was done in the business unit had a technical limitation. ... Today we have cloud. You can subscribe to a platform and build applications with worldwide users."

A Forrester study commissioned by QuickBase found that businesses on average will reap a 260 percent return on investment for low-code platforms due to the reduction in the time and cost to develop applications and the need for fewer IT hires. "You're empowering people who are closest to their work to help solve their own problems," said QuickBase board member Allison Mnookin. Mnookin transitioned out of the QuickBase CEO role on Nov. 16, which is now being assumed by existing QuickBase board chairman Rick Willett.

O'Farrill's experience proved to him the career opportunities that low-code technologies could create if he was willing to explore them.

"These platforms are giving you a sandbox for you to play in," he said. "They are telling you to use it and do whatever you want with it. ... If you want to, you can make a career out of it."

With more than 220,000 open software developer positions across the nation and only about 55,000 computer and information science degrees awarded in a year, there is a talent gap. That means companies are eager to hire people with software development knowledge even if their degree is in another field.

"There are so many job openings in tech, but if you only look at computer science grads, you have a crisis of talent," Mnookin said. "The citizen developer trend is one of the key things that can address that."

A 2015 QuickBase survey found that more than half of the 148 respondents did not have front end web interface or traditional back-end coding skills. Yet 62 percent of these citizen developers built applications for their companies in less than two weeks.

Low-code platforms are also eradicating geographic barriers that once relegated software-developing opportunities to Silicon Valley or New York City. Ryan Cunningham, principal product manager for Microsoft PowerApps, said these tools are giving users in rural America some of the same opportunities as those in urban centers. He pointed to one customer who operates wind farms and who built an application to optimize the process of sending service professionals to maintain wind turbines and gather data off of them.

"He did all that without writing code or being in a traditional software hub," Cunningham said. "There's a ton of opportunity here beyond the places and people we traditionally think of as software developers."

— By Aneri Pattani, special to CNBC.com

(Updated to reflect CEO change at QuickBase announced on Nov. 16.)