How to crush app backlog by bringing out the hidden development talent in your enterprise

Enterprises today are in a constant struggle to successfully clear their application backlogs and get the apps that employees and customers need. In fact, a survey from Application Development Trends magazine found that 85% of enterprises reported having a backlog of up to 20 mobile apps, while roughly half reported backlogs of 10 to 20 apps.

Why is this happening? It’s because traditional IT practices aren’t nimble, or agile, or, honestly, effective enough to reach the level of application development that enterprises need to succeed today.

As a result, business users are seeking new ways to deliver apps. In a way, these users are accidental app developers, and it’s crucial that CIOs encourage them and provide them all of the tools they need to thrive.

> See also: The new era of app development – mobile vs. legacy

Today’s accidental app developers don’t intend to create apps. Most have never even written a line of code, and would never consider themselves developers. Yet, every organisation has them – those users who have delivered an innovative solution in a spreadsheet or local database that they built to do their job better.

Unfortunately, most of these apps – and the talent that created them – go unnoticed in the enterprise. 

Fortunately, CIOs have ways to uncover the accidental app developers in their organisations, which is essential as more enterprise IT teams find themselves buried under application backlogs. But for you, the CIO, these are not merely backlogs of applications or lines of code produced every day. These are business backlogs.

After all, we aren’t building apps for the sake of building apps. We are working to get things done. And while accidental app developers are known to create apps out of necessity, the CIO can more effectively achieve her or his goals by enabling as many accidental app developers as possible.

One sure way to not succeed at equipping accidental app developers is to turn to the toolsets enterprises have used for several decades now: spreadsheets and database applications.

These tools have sat on millions of desktops for years, and their inability to solve today’s application demands is one of the reasons why Shadow IT is such a strong force in enterprises today. Gartner currently estimates that a full 35% of IT expenditures for most organisations are managed outside of the IT department – and it’s all being driven by the tremendous thirst for more apps, productivity, and innovation.

How can CIOs transform these accidental app developers into the business heroes of tomorrow? The answer is in cloud platforms and the right tools that span across business and developer needs.

Cloud platforms provide accidental app developers what they need to succeed: Apple, Google, Salesforce, and more, offer approaches for business users to create and consume apps via point and click tools.

Depending on the platform, this may be the ability to list an app in a public or private store, add integrated calendaring and videoconference to your daily activities, all the way to creating complete data models and powerful workflows and approvals for entirely new apps.

Where cloud platforms truly excel is that they provide an effortless way to rid the need for on-premise apps – whether they are on a server, or an employee’s laptop.

The secret ingredient to finally ridding the world of those spreadsheet-based apps is convincing users that cloud platforms must be easier than the alternative. If they are not, accidental app developers will use another alternative – typically the tools they know.

Your accidental app developers will bridge from apps to processes: Many business users love Evernote. It is incredibly easy to collect notes, snap screenshots, and more.

Evernote and similar apps quickly become accidental apps for business- but these apps often cause IT to cringe. They pop up in organisations, solve a real need, and grow unchecked. Without integrating these pop-up apps into the rest of your business however, they are not much better than the old school spreadsheets on a laptop.

Accidental app developers bridge apps to business processes, often created in the very cloud platforms identified above. In Evernote’s case, that’s exactly what it did with Evernote for Business. Evernote is not the only app that follows this pattern; more and more action-oriented apps like Dispatch or services like IFTTT can turn any stand-alone app into the next killer accidental app for the enterprise.

Showcase in-house apps in an enterprise app store: CIOs and their IT teams are still faced with the challenges of getting great apps built in-house into the hands of users. With an iPhone or Android-based phone this can be easy. Users know to search the app store for what they need; they find it, install it, and click-boom, they are done.

Enterprises need to make it the same way for their apps. They need a single place to consolidate and showcase apps so they’ll be found by any user who needs them. This is why savvy CIOs are taking a page from the consumer app world and deploying their own stores. This is one reason why the research firm Gartner anticipates that 25% of enterprises will have an enterprise app store for their corporate apps by the year 2017.

Not every app needs to be made available to all workers. With the proper app store design, access to apps can be restricted by department, device, and user level. This makes it easier for employees to find the apps they actually need and stops them from using apps that make no sense for their job or would violate regulatory mandates.

Accidental apps need to be API first: The reality is that accidental apps, and their creators, solve a real need faced by every CIO. But there’s a tipping point where an accidental app outgrows its creator. Cloud platforms, and in particular open APIs, let these accidental apps mature and grow.

> See also: Why expert developers make the worst tech leads

It might not be the actual app itself; perhaps it is just the data, or the workflow, but building it on a platform means that everything is API-first. API-first means professional developers can take these accidental apps and integrate them into the business.

Not too long ago, analyst Stephen O’Grady wrote that developers are the new kingmakers. That is absolutely true. Today, enterprises win and lose in their respective markets based on the quality of their apps and their ability to execute. Software drives it all.

Obviously, accidental app developers won’t be kingmakers, but they can be your princes and princesses in waiting. These users know the business and leverage the tools they know to enact change. But, if they want to be the kings or queens of tomorrow, they can’t do it with pop-up apps, local databases, or antiquated spreadsheets that won’t ever grow or scale. The accidental app developer – a.k.a. hero of tomorrow – uses cloud platforms and bridges across apps. That’s what changes kingdoms.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...