Dynamics 365 and the Citizen Developer


There has been quite a bit of chatter in the channel lately about this new “Citizen Developer” role that Microsoft is attempting to better support. Not surprisingly, many “real” developers have been none to pleased with the idea. I thought I would try and unpack this sticky-wicket a little bit.

New Term for Existing Crowd

I’m not sure if Microsoft coined the term “Citizen Developer” or not, but they did recently start using it… a lot. It is primarily used to describe a person at a customer organization who has some level of technology skill, or at least comfort. It could also be used for Partners, who typically have technology skills, but might not actually be developers. These people are not new, they have been around forever, we just have a new term to describe these “citizens”.

Developers

When you think of the term “Developer”, you probably imagine some person in a darkened room, typing at lightning speed, what appears to be gibberish on the screen. That is probably mostly true. These would be the people who write code, and can actually read it. Everything that is delivered to you by Microsoft is based on code written by developers. Coding is a high specialized skill, not something you are going to pick up over a weekend from a “For Dummies” book. Developers for Dynamics 365 are typically associated with a Dynamics 365 Partner. So I personally do not think “Developer” is the right term to use for this role, it probably should be “Citizen Configurator“.

Configurator

Even though my auto-correct is telling me that “configurator” is not a word, I am still going to use it, as it is a good description. Configuration generally refers to things that can be done, including vast customization, without needing to actually write any code. You will be hearing terms like “No-Code” or “Codeless” a lot going forward, meaning that you can customize business applications to your needs, within the applications and the options and processes that are available, without requiring the services of a Professional Developer. This is 100% true, but it’s not the whole story. Before I get into the rest of the story, why is this “No-Code” even a hot thing?

Dam Busting

In the not-to-distant “pre-Cloud” past, with Dynamics Business Solutions, if you wanted to do anything different than the way the application was delivered, you had little choice but to engage a Developer. Simple actions on a form often required someone to write Javascript, and it only got more complex from there. Of course before you fully realized this, you would have already purchased your hardware and licenses, so development… was just another expense that you were now committed to. Whatever you ultimately paid, and kept paying, to a developer, did not impact Microsoft one way or the other. Microsoft already got paid for the software, and they did not make any money on the relationship you had with the developer, that was just between you two. However, all of that changed with the Cloud.

Microsoft no longer gets paid upfront, they now get paid monthly. Combined with the elimination of your server expenses, your commitment level to using the products is significantly reduced. Instead of having to generate a ROI on the huge upfront investment you made, if things don’t feel right for any reason, you can cancel, and are only out a couple of bucks. This new cloud “Dynamic” changed everything… for Microsoft… Partners… and their Customers. Customers are no longer “stuck”, in fact, it is the opposite, cloud has empowered customers. But customer empowerment arrived with some unintended consequences. If they discover a high development cost will be involved, they can, and many did, just pull the plug.

So, while not entirely eliminating the need for Developers, Microsoft had no choice but to at least attempt to minimize it. Some customers were leaving, and others were not starting, as a direct result of high development costs proposed by partners. Again, costs that did not accrue to Microsoft in any way, but instead got in Microsoft’s way. I can’t blame Microsoft, I would do the exact same thing. You can’t have the channel you depend on to sell your products, be the very reason customers won’t buy them. From Balmer screaming “Developers, Developers, Developers”, there is now a growing “cold war” between Microsoft and Developers, at least in the Business solutions space. The winner is going to be the customers, and these “Citizen Developers Configurators”.

Specific Efforts

The no-code mindset has swept through Microsoft, and nowhere is it more evident than in the Business Solutions business. Things like App-Designer and the Business Process Designer that sit within the apps, as well as things like Flow and PowerApps that are connected to the applications. The entire Dynamics 365 for Marketing Application, for example, is code-less. Microsoft is attacking every aspect of their business solution applications that typically generate a need for, and cost of, Developers. The only people this is bad news for, are developers, who made a living doing many things that Citizen Configurator can now do. And Microsoft is not finished, they are just revving up this no-code revolution.

A Jet gets a Steering Wheel

Before we get too carried away with the possibilities… imagining that Dale, who is a whiz with a smart-phone, will suddenly be able to “Digitally Transform” your business on his own, there are a few other pieces to consider. Like… who will be the “Citizen Architect”? Even Developers are typically executing on a plan engineered by someone else; usually an “Architect”. Similar to the Architect/Builder relationship in a construction project. While a Builder might construct the staircase, it was an Architect who determined where it will take you. In fact, the most critical key to success with Business Solutions is not being able to build your own Business Process… it is understanding what that Process should be.

Microsoft is still quite a ways from everything being push-buttons and check-boxes. But what we are already discovering, are “Citizen Configurators” using what they are able to use, to build overly-complex solutions to problems that could have been simply solved by other means. For some, Flow is the new hammer, and every issue is a nail. I have seen more and more Dales lately; they’re building endless loops, dead-ends and forks to nowhere, using “logic-less” logic.

Help or Hurt?

In this post, I may seem to have gone back and forth on the “Citizen Configurator” role. In truth, it will depend on how a customer uses it. If a customer is of the opinion that these new capabilities will allow them to successfully deploy business solutions without any outside help, they will be in for a surprise. In a worst-case scenario, a customer with no budget, heads down the “Citizen” path, makes a huge mess, and has no funds to fix it. This is not theoretical, it happens all the time. In a best-case scenario, a customer heads down the “Citizen” path, and builds a usable system, that is missing 90% of the available power. “So Steve, you’re saying you don’t like the Citizen role?” Actually, I am a huge fan.

We’ve Seen This Before

Back in the old days, if you wanted a website, you hired a web developer. They would build you a lovely website. Then you moved… and the only person who could change your address on the website was the developer. This “Nickel and Diming” infuriated many. Then along came Content Management Systems (CMS). Now you could easily change your address yourself. But this did not make you a web developer. We have all seen websites out there built by DIYers.

Bringing this back to Business Solutions and Dynamics 365, if you truly want to succeed, you will need a team. On this team should be a Dynamics Partner who can not only “Architect” a solution to actually solve your needs, but can bring in development expertise where it is the best option. “What about Dale?” Dale is absolutely a key member of this team. Thanks to Microsoft, some of the things that only your partner could help you with in the past, Dale can now do as part of the team. Will this dramatically reduce the cost of Deployment? Over time, as Microsoft makes more tools available for the Dales, deployment costs will come down. You will always need an Architect in order to get maximum value out of the vast palette of Dynamics 365. But today, Dale should at least be able to limit the nickels and dimes.

 

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