Empowering your workforce as citizen developers
Phil Simon, Phil Simon, Author, Low-Code/No-Code: Citizen Developers and the Surprising Future of Business Applications
About this podcast episode
Stop repeating all those work tasks ⤵️
In today’s podcast, Phil Simon, Author of the book Low-Code/No-Code, shares how you can automate your work as a citizen developer.
In this podcast, you will learn the following:
✅ What is low code/no code?
✅ What is a citizen developer?
✅ Opportunities to automate repetitive work
✅ Case studies to inspire you
✅ How IT can embrace the low code/no code revolution
(transcripts are auto-generated, so please excuse the brevity)
Bill Raymond: if someone decides they want to do this automation, what are some of the challenges or issues they might look out for?
Phil Simon: Asana did a Anatomy of Work study, I think it was about a year and a half ago, and it was like 37% of the time people were working on work.
Phil Simon: we’ve all been on those email chains with six people. No, I can’t do Tuesday at six. How about Thursday? Four? No, that doesn’t work for me. That’s insane to me in 2023.
Speaker: Welcome to the Agile in Action Podcast with Bill Raymond. Bill will explore how business disruptors are adopting agile techniques to gain a competitive advantage in this fast-paced technology driven market.
Bill Raymond: Hi and welcome to the podcast. Today, I’m joined by Phil Simon, Hi, Phil. How are you today?
Phil Simon: Hey Bill, thanks for having me on. How are you?
Empowering your workforce as citizen developers
Bill Raymond: I’m doing great. Thank you. Today we’re going to be talking about empowering your workforce as citizen developers. But before we get started can you introduce yourself, share a little bit about yourself?
Phil Simon: Yeah, my name is Phil Simon and I professionally focus on the intersection of business, data, technology and people. And I’ve written a bunch of books. My most recent three have been a series, a part of a series on the future of work, including the one we’ll talk about today, Low-code, No-code. I’m currently about 70% finished with the manuscript for a new book called, The Nine, The Tectonic Forces that are Reshaping the Workplace.
Phil Simon: So I spend a lot of time absorbing content and talking to people about how to navigate this new, weird future. But I am stubborn and tend to type fast and not sleep and have moderation issues, so it results in a lot of books.
What is a citizen developer?
Bill Raymond: Yeah, you certainly have published quite a bit, and I’m excited to talk to you about this topic today. Before we even go and talk about technology and how that works, can you explain what a citizen developer is?
Phil Simon: It’s really just another type of developer. But citizen developers don’t possess a formal coding background, right? They might have figured a few things out, HTML is fine, but it’s not really a general-use programming language like Python. But citizen developers don’t need to know those higher level languages because thanks to this new breed of tools called low-code, no-code, they can basically drag and drop.
Phil Simon: So, if you’re using your mouse and not necessarily your keyboard, you can create apps using I’m sure a bunch of the things that we’ll talk about today. And those apps have really evolved quite a bit from when I started as my own sort of citizen developer back before I ever heard the term. It’s fascinating, Bill, to see how much more powerful, extensible, affordable they are.
Phil Simon: I mean, you can really create some powerful things without knowing behind the scenes what you’re doing in terms of writing code. So yeah, that’s in a nutshell, that’s citizen development and I think it’s massive, otherwise I wouldn’t have written the book, particularly in the wake of these IT shortages, developer shortages, all these new needs to develop apps because of COVID.
Phil Simon: We never needed an app, for example, to track who was in the office. And if you create a bunch of requirements or you go agile and create your user stories, you’ll probably get your app, but maybe not when you need it. And you may be able to build something that’s 80% or 90% as good and use it in two weeks as opposed to something that is in theory a hundred percent there, but you don’t get it for six months or a year.
Bill Raymond: Yeah, so that’s the idea that you can go and start working on an app that you need that’s specific to your niche business and perhaps do it yourself, roll your own if you will, as opposed to purchasing some out-of-the-box product that might take months to implement or hiring developers that might cost a lot of money and additional time to get something out the door quickly.
Phil Simon: Yeah, and in the book I detail a number of traditional ways that people have procured software, going back to the mid 90s when I first started around enterprise IT and there really wasn’t contemporary cloud computing or software as a service. So you basically had a couple of options. You could buy it from an Oracle or an SAP or PeopleSoft or you can build it.
Phil Simon: And I’ve seen companies do both, internally or you could hire people to build it for you. And with the rise of open source software, now you can download your own software and fork it if the license lets you. You can rent the software, which is what a lot of companies have moved towards, as you know. But yes, you can, I like your expression, you can roll your own using these tools.
Phil Simon: And just based on the research I did for the book, it’s becoming an increasingly viable option, companies are not fighting shadow IT nearly to the same extent to they did 15 years ago. It’s now a matter of all right, if you’re going to support it and not open up help desk tickets and it’s from a reputable vendor, then hey go with God. Because we just don’t have the bandwidth to handle our own priorities, much less a whole bunch of people going, oh, we need this, we need this, we need this.
Bill Raymond: Yeah, that’s true, I actually have worked with a few teams that have done this before. For example, when I was in an R&D organization, I was working with some scientists and they needed to track some of the scientific experiments they were working on And it was a very straightforward thing that they needed. But there wasn’t a product available that met their specific needs, and we just wrote it in Microsoft Access in a few weeks.
Microsoft Access, the software that refuses to die
Phil Simon: It’s funny that you mentioned Access. I hopefully didn’t overdo it in the book. I know that I’d gifted you a copy. But a lot of my examples in the book are from Microsoft Access because we love to dunk on it, but we can never get rid of it. Some reporters have called it the software that refuses to die.
Phil Simon: I’ve heard statistics that something like 80% of the Fortune 500 would shut down if you took away Microsoft Access. And yeah, I mean, it very much was an app development tool, it wasn’t nearly as extensible as Airtable, it maybe wasn’t as user friendly as Mendix or some of the other ones.
Phil Simon: But to your point, it got the job done. And there’s an example in the book of Utility in New Jersey that needed me to basically build a quickie app and to make a long story short, Access was perfect for it. And then when I came back, six years later to help them with an additional project, an upgrade, knock on wood, I saw the same thing there.
Phil Simon: I built it as a temporary fix and what is it Craig Bruce said the quote "temporary solutions become permanent problems?"
Bill Raymond: I like your concept though, where IT can, if you will, bless the product and say, this is a reputable organization, we typically can support their products, and they also have low-code, no-code and they do enable the teams that are outside the IT organization to build anything that they might need.
Bill Raymond: I’m sure that there’s some principles where you have to decide with IT whether or not you should go with that low-code, no-code solution first. But I have seen it be very successful in organizations where IT can distribute this and say, this is something you can use.
How to you decide for a low-code, no-code solution?
Bill Raymond: But I guess one of the questions that I would ask is, how do you decide that you have a low-code, no-code solution in front of you? You have a problem, and how do you make a decision as to why you would use that kind of a solution?
Phil Simon: I hate to give the stock a consulting answer, it depends, but it really does. I mean, there are organizations, as you know Bill, that lock things down so much that the idea of building something yourself was just a non-starter.
Phil Simon: I can remember one frozen food company in upstate New York, I won’t mention the name, but they locked their computers down so much that if you had to use the facilities during the day, by the time you came back you were already logged out and had to go through three other layers. And I remember talking to an IT director when I was there saying is there anything else you want to get rid of?
Phil Simon: He said, yeah, I’d love to get rid of Microsoft Excel. I’m thinking. Wow. Should we bring our what’s the plural of Abacus Abacha, Abaki whatever, pens and papers? I mean, in some organizations, that’s just not going to fly. In startups, in my experience, they typically tend to be a lot more laissez fair.
Phil Simon: So use whatever you want. There’s in the book an example of an EdTech company here in Arizona and my friend Lowell Van de Camp is the CIO, and they’re exclusively a Microsoft shop, so if Microsoft makes it, they’ll use it, if not, then they don’t.
Phil Simon: In which case Microsoft with its power platform and particularly power apps, yeah, we’ll use it without any question. And then there are other types of approaches that are there, whether it’s blessing certain vendors or evaluating a few or I guess you could say we’re going to deny them all together like that first one, even though I just think that that’s an untenable position these days.
Phil Simon: So hopefully in that particular chapter of the book, I think it’s eight off the top of my head, people will see the different, for lack of a better term, philosophies and say, okay, this one sounds like us. But there isn’t really a single right way to do it, and to the same extent there isn’t a single best or right tool.
Phil Simon: It depends on the organization, I mean, if you love Airtable, but you already use Microsoft Tools and you’re kind of stretched out on your budget, that might be a tougher case to make. But if you are kind of independent and all over the place, then you could probably use an AirTable or a notion or a coder or something like that because that makes the most sense.
Phil Simon: Yeah, you very much could have a decentralized environment in which people pick their own tools, and at some point, if you’re spending a ton of money on licenses, you may want to take a step back and say, all right, look, do we really want to get to this point? Because these tools do overlap so much. Does it make sense for us to land on one? But then I don’t want to be the person in the room making that decision because people, as you know, get so attached to their tools and there isn’t a single button to go, oh, click this and all of a sudden your Notion database becomes a Coda one or an Airtable one,Vendor lock is still very much alive and well.
Bill Raymond: Yeah, that’s true. It’s not like you design the app and export it and then you can just use any other app or code or whatever to fix it later. You have to use that app in the background.
Phil Simon: Right. And even if you could magically export it, there’s a chapter in the book about why citizen developers, as I said at the beginning, are still developers. And they need to think like developers. So are you offering training? What are people doing for support? Is there any type of design consistency? Or if you let everyone build everything in every which way, then no one uses it because use this color scheme or these fonts or the buttons are here and it’s just all over the place.
Phil Simon: What are you going to do if you’re on vacation and someone finds a bug? And those are all basic IT / developer questions, but if you’re a marketing analyst and you don’t have a background in IT and you don’t know what scrum is or agile methods are, or the waterfall method. I thought it was very important to lay out that you still need to think like a developer, even though you’ve got the adjective citizen in front of it, you’re still a developer.
Bill Raymond: Yeah, that’s a good point. And training can go a long way to support that, I’m sure.
Phil Simon: Sure. How are you going to deliver it? Right? Is it going to be automated? Are you going to do workshops? Are you expecting people to just figure it out on your own? I mean, these are all, again, big things that if you’re in traditional development, you’d say, well, duh but a lot of these folks don’t necessarily know that.
Phil Simon: So hopefully people when they read the book will think, oh yeah, that’s a good point. And if IT is backed up or your development shop is backed up, there may be a reason for that. It doesn’t mean that you have to learn relational databases or SQL or Hadoop or anything like that. It does mean though that you need to think more beyond your job. Because if you’re building the app just for you and you don’t train anyone, there’s no one to train, it’s you. Oh, there’s a bug, oh yeah, I fixed it, well, okay, that’s fine.
Phil Simon: But the premise of the book is that you’re building tools that others will use beyond yourself. So it probably makes sense to kick the tires a little bit or do a beta version before you launch it and other people go, I can’t use this and then you’ve missed that opportunity to really gain any kind of momentum.
Phil Simon: Because there are folks that are going to be, I don’t want to learn anything new. I like doing it in Excel or Google Sheets, so there’s a lot to unpack. But yes, they’re still developers.
Bill Raymond: Yeah, that makes sense. And I think you actually tapped on that, with the spreadsheet and excel a few times already, but I suppose one way to look at this is if you have an Excel spreadsheet or you know Google sheet or something along those lines, that’s getting too big and a lot of people need to use it, that’s probably a good candidate for a low-code, no-code solution.
Phil Simon: Oh, a hundred percent. It’s insane to me how they’re these, and I’ve done this with a few clients, looked at these Google Sheets, Microsoft Excel workbooks, whatever. And it’s just tab after tab, after tab. And again, I use Excel or Google Sheets just about every day, but it’s for a specific reason.
Phil Simon: And people don’t understand. Yes, it’s a database in the sense that you’re looking at records and fields, and yes, you can use data validation in Google Sheets and in Microsoft Excel, but it is a spreadsheet. It’s not Access or Airtable. So at some point you do need to graduate, and I make the point in the book that if it’s a holiday party and 10 people are going and you want to track their gift, Google Sheets is fine, right?
Phil Simon: Notion is fine. If it’s a quasi enterprise CRM and you’re not quite ready for HubSpot or Salesforce and you’re doing it all in Excel, I mean, that’s a real problem. There was, I think I mentioned this example in the book. As a Capstone professor of the analytics class, students did some work with a local painting company and their data was a mess, and they said, we really can’t make any recommendations because their data’s all over the place.
Phil Simon: And I said, welcome to the real world. You can’t always assume that you’re going to have pristine data. And yes, you can still make errors in proper databases, but again, as you know, it’s a lot more difficult to do if you put in the structure around a traditional relational database.
Types of low-code, no-code solutions
Bill Raymond: Yeah. And I think you’ve mentioned the number of products, and you’ve mentioned some examples of low-code, no-code. We should probably define the types of low-code, no-code solutions that are out there.
Phil Simon: It was very difficult Bill to create a taxonomy. And I took solace in the fact that I think Gartner and Forrester have also said this is tough, because these things overlap and they change. But I took my best stab at it in the book and I think I prefaced it with the classic George E. P. Box quote of "essentially all models are wrong, but some are useful".
Phil Simon: So hopefully this is useful. Although I’m sure that at some point, a CMO of one of the vendors said, how dare you compare us to company X. So you’ve got these flexible swiss army knives that can do a bunch of different things, then let’s say you’ve got work and project management tools. It’s certainly something like a monday.com or a click up.
Phil Simon: Then you’ve got these multi-use application builders, something like Mendix comes to mind or Webflow another one. Then you also have Automation and Chat bots. So with Automation you’ve got, I guess, Kauna is Zappier, but then there’s Workado or Ordo, there’s make.com. Even IFTT lets you basically if this, then, that without knowing how to code.
Phil Simon: And then with some of them, you could even turn them in the chat bots. So, off the top of my head, I forget the one that I monkeyed around with, but I have messed around with a few of them and turn the forms on my website into these interactive apps, if you will.
Phil Simon: And if you put I can’t afford your minimum rate for speaking, there’s a sad cat emoji or something, or a animated gif. Then you’ve got plenty of form builders that are out there. Form Stack is one of ‘em, but Jot Form andthere’s so many of ‘them, You also have things that facilitate payments or commerce or transactions.
Phil Simon: There’s a whole bunch onsome of this tech that works behind the scene to facilitate those types of transaction. There’s also this data category, I know Domo’s up there, they call them data apps, I think that’s a terrible name. I don’t know what a data app is. But is anything that would let you kind of manipulate data or present data.
Phil Simon: So I would put Tableau in there or Power BI. You are creating effectively an app and with some of the events functionality of those dashboards, you can absolutely do projections and make predictions about the future. Who knows if they’re true? And then finally, I’d say websites and content management systems.
Phil Simon: So WordPress is the most popular CMS of the day. Sporting, last time I checked, I think is it 40% of the web? It’s getting up there. And their native builder is called Gutenberg, which is very much low-code no-code, you can drag and drop. You don’t have to code. But I use Divvy, which is a premium theme from elegant themes.
Phil Simon: I said way too many acronyms in that sentence, but they’re all true.
Phil Simon: And they’re like amoeba. So now is notion and automation tool. Kind of sort of, so. The point is not so much that this tool is in this bucket and it’s not in that bucket, the point is that these tools are going to evolve. And I think it’s incumbent upon the reader to realize that your mindset, even though it’s tempting, isn’t okay, this is a spreadsheet, this is a Word document. This is a task management tool, It’s almost a canvas, if you like. And a canvas that’ll probably evolve.
Phil Simon: Now against that backdrop, it does make sense, if you know you’re building something like a CRM to think database don’t think, you know, Coda, but I can see the benefit of going, you know what, we can get in the same tool 80% of the functionality, do we want to learn a new tool? Buy a new license? So hopefully it lets people put some categories around it, but it’s more art than science.
Bill Raymond: I definitely hear you there. I kind of like to think about this as there are solutions out there where you kind of have a canvas, it’s almost like a PowerPoint where you can draw your user interface and you say, I need to collect these fields from someone. Maybe it’s a request for a conference room and you just don’t have that app. So you create it. And it creates a database and you just say connect this to Microsoft Office, or you know, Google Calendar and it will just book it for you.
Phil Simon: It’s funny that you mentioned that there’s a tool in it from, I don’t, is it Mendix up the top of my head? I forget. But basically it’s a no-code tool specifically for remote work and reserving office rooms. And it even has kind of a CAD element to it. So you can see the office or the room that you are reserving, in advance.
Phil Simon: And yes, you could absolutely, if you had the time and the budget and the desire, build that from scratch. But if I could purchase something and then map it without having to devolve proper developers, yeah that’s one of the case studies in the book, specifically around remote work and how you’d say, well, can I see what the room looks like first, or how do I know it’s available?
Phil Simon: And yeah, you could probably build a database from scratch, but yeah, I don’t purport to have all the answers to all the solutions. But hopefully I provide a framework and help the reader frame the question in such a way that they can find the answer or they know where to find me for help.
Bill Raymond: Yeah, for sure. I think it’s kind of interesting the amount of things that you can do with these and understanding why you use one over another. For example, you used Zapier as an example. For those that aren’t familiar with it, and by the way, these are tools that almost any independent like myself or yourself, you know, that runs their own business, you’re always looking for ways to automate things. One thing is to create the form like we talked about, another thing is to say, well, you know what? I just wish that every time I, for example, published the podcast, it automatically sent an email to the guest, sharing with them the link with some copy for their social media post, things like that, and it just got automated.
Bill Raymond: We can use all of the tools that are on your desktop and then just link them together with some of these tools like Zapier and IFTT, I think is the one other one you mentioned. Which it just says here, connect this one tool to this other tool, and here’s when to do it. Once someone presses a " I’m done" checkbox next to this, automatically send the email and that way you don’t have to worry about all those extra steps of creating the email and making sure that you don’t have any spelling errors.
Bill Raymond: You just do it once and it does it all for you automatically.
Phil Simon: It’s fantastic and you can set up with Zapier and some of these other tools, multi-step ones or conditional logic. So again, in your example, if the person isn’t going to be on for another, I don’t know, six months, maybe there’s a follow up that you set up versus under that. I mean, the stuff you can basically set up in a very visual way too.
Phil Simon: Which, you know, if you’re coding right, I’m not great at it, butas a college professor, couple of Python lectures, I mean, yeah, there’s, you know, you can use an e lift statement, but again, citizen developer goes what? But you can, if you visually see if it’s more than this, then do this, if it’s less than that, then do this.
Phil Simon: It’s all very, I mean, they can get involved if you’ve got a zillion steps. And then you have to ask yourself, do you really want to automate it? If they’re, you know, 30% of the time you have to, oh, well I have to undo this. But yes, you’re absolutely right. If you constantly want to tweet your post or share it on LinkedIn, you absolutely can wait till the post is published, and then copy it and paste it and da da with the image, or you can automate it. And I love the opinion that if we can focus on just the creation side, we’ll be less fried and happier as employees than if it’s, ah, I have to do this, it takes two hours every week.
Phil Simon: There’s an example in the book of someone who began a job and the first month she was there, there was this manual process that pretty much took her the whole month.
Phil Simon: And then she got it down to, I think it was a week, and then it was, I think it was two hours and then I think it was 15 minutes. And she said, I don’t think I can automate it more than this. And you might say, well, gosh, you’re costing yourself a job. And maybe that’s true. But who wouldn’t want to hire someone who made their own jobs less relevant?
Phil Simon: And where else can you improve? I guess I’ve got a perennial fear or hatred of manual work when I know, you know, at a previous job I had to spend two hours, probably every three months doing something manual that should have been automated like that. And it just, every minute of it was, I’d say it was like being at the dentist, but at least when you’re finished at the dentist, you’ve got clean teeth. This didn’t make me any better.
Bill Raymond: Yeah. I’d love to hear some other examples of how people use these tools. Do you have some other good case studies to share?
Phil Simon: Yeah, my favorite is probably of a company that did party favors and delivery equipment, tents and all that in Florida. And there was a guy, I just immediately hit it off with after watching the air table, air podcast or whatever, video, podcast, whatever they called it on YouTube. So I found him, I connected with him and he basically told me a couple of stories about how his company had about 80 different drivers, and for years, since this is a 30 year old company.
Phil Simon: So pretty much since it’s inception up until about 2019, it recorded a voicemail every Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, trying to cram all the drivers times into one. So it was like that FedEx commercial from the seventies, I’m totally dating myself, but it was, okay, Bill, you have to be here at eight o’clock …and you wouldn’t fit it all in. If people didn’t understand it or they’d have to rerecord it, it was a mess, but it was the best they could do it. Oh, by the way, voicemails were limited to 90 seconds. So it was not an efficient process.
Bill Raymond: So wait, you have multiple drivers and they have to call a voicemail and wait for their name to be said and then hear what they’re supposed to be doing the next day and write that down and probably miss it, and maybe have to do that a few times, okay? Mm-hmm.
Phil Simon: Let’s just say that the word efficient does not describe it. And the person involved, Charlie, the son of the owner said, we can do better. So he built an Airtable system and they were able to bring over the scheduling data from their scheduling system, and then through Airtable, they were able to blast out a text message in the driver’s preferred language. It’s in Florida, there’s a big Hispanic population. Never left another voicemail when I talked to him a few months ago researching the book, it was something like 36,000 text messages sent without an error. Again, zero code. And that was just fantastic. There was also an example of same company, they would get damaged trucks sometimes and because the drivers drove different trucks and sometimes the drivers didn’t report that they hit a branch or they ran over something, who did what when? That was very difficult and time consuming to figure out. So again, using Airtable and everyone’s got a phone, they used QR codes and they just told the drivers, Hey, make sure you do this. Scan it after every time. Because if you don’t, then we don’t know if you turned it in right, and they were able to, I thinkreduce by 90% the amount of time that it took to find out if there was a damaged truck, and then who did it.
Phil Simon: Again, not necessarily get someone in trouble, but certainly not to blame, Hey Bill, why did you do this to my truck? I didn’t drive that truck today. How do you know? It just made things a lot more efficient. And then Charlie wound up, still doing some work for his father’s company, but now he’s a full-time Airtable expert and consultant and does very well at it.
Phil Simon: And I said, gosh, if I were 20 years younger and had a full head of hair, I would do exactly what this guy did because it doesn’t take that much technical skill. He did work on one of the more sophisticated aspects with a proper developer. But again, if you can get 80 to 90%, I mean that to me, even though you might say reading the case study, we’re not in the party business. It’s just a small business of a hundred or 120 employees. That’s a legitimate business problem. And they didn’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars and months of development time. Charlie told me that he was able to bang out the basically the beta for the first app in couple of weeks, and that’s with having no Airtable experience.
Phil Simon: So when people read the book, hopefully they go huh. Well, maybe we have something similar as opposed to, I don’t want to hear no stinking news about any of this other newfangled technology. It really is incredibly user friendly and if you think about the alternative, which is doing things in a very manual way. I mean, as a general rule, if your business is doing the same thing and it hasn’t changed in 25 years, maybe that’s something you should think about.
Phil Simon: He may not be able to change it for whatever reason, but it just, the old way was antiquated. Charlie knew it. He was curious about Airtable, bada-boom bada-bang. It’s a case study in a book.
Bill Raymond: We have a lot of listeners here that are in corporate environments, that’s actually most of our listeners, and that means that they already have some, if you will, preferred vendors that they use for their enterprise systems.
Bill Raymond: So can you go over some of the more popular ones that IT organization might support?
Phil Simon: IT doesn’t want to support a tool that has a small user base.Generally speaking, they tend to be more comfortable with say Microsoft or Google.
Phil Simon: But in SAP Salesforce, I mean, in some cases your organization may already have an existing relationship. In other words, you’re already giving them money. Now you might have to give them a bit more. I know Salesforce with its no-code tool does not include that with its core offerings.
Phil Simon: But if you’ve got that relationship, you can negotiate with them. And you know that Salesforce, I know they just had a layoff like a lot of tech companies, they’re not going anywhere. I certainly understand an IT directors or a CIO’s reservations about going with some newfangled tool that may not be around in six months because people get all excited about it, you build it and then the tool just goes poof.
Phil Simon: I think in the book I mentioned Groove Shark remember that site for listening to music. It was so good it had to be fattening. Right? They said there’s no way I can listen to it in my browser, all the music I want for free, right? This cannot stand.
Phil Simon: And one day I went to grooveshark.com and it was gone. Just like that. I can understand people not wanting that. Forget music, right? But again, you know, Google and SAP and Oracle they’re all competing with each other. They don’t want to lose your business. If they can get an extra five bucks per user, per month out of you, why wouldn’t they? Now you can debate whether your bigger vendors create with the same level of innovation as smaller ones, I would argue No. And as an example of that, in the book I mentioned how Slack dropped something called Clips, which was their loom inside slack for asynchronous video. And Microsoft said, oh, that looks good. And 10 months later they released it. That’s a long time these days, 10 months. So generally speaking, I find that the smaller vendors can innovate a bit quicker. But going back to my friend Lowell at the company here in Arizona, he’s completely comfortable with that because he’s all in on Microsoft.
Phil Simon: So again, I’m not in the book saying that one vendor is objectively better than another. And it’s the same thing with databases, right? You could say, I hate SQL Server, we’re going to get Oracle. All right, fine. Is Oracle perfect? Probably not. So sometimes people say the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. But in some cases, that existing relationship does go a long way. Now, at a Startup, they probably don’t have SAP or Oracle or maybe even Microsoft. Everyone’s got Macs and they use Google Docs. So in that case, they might say, yeah, let’s try Airtable. Let’s try Notion or Coder, or something like that.
Phil Simon: So, there is something to be said for some level of employee choice, but I’d also argue that if a 4,000 person company is using 3000 different tools, that’s a mess, right? That’s too many.
Bill Raymond: I know that Microsoft has their power apps but then they also have Flow, I believe, which is like Zappier.
Phil Simon: No, now it’s Power Automate.
Bill Raymond: That was what I was just about to say, but they renamed it.
Phil Simon: Right. Well, and I’ll bet you a Coke, that the same tools they have will change names. I mean, what do they have under the Microsoft now 365 banner, I think they’ve got four or five different tools like projects and lists and a bunch of others. The Loop is their Notion knockoff that all can kind of do project management, although in different ways. That’s a lot to keep straight and that’s just one vendor.
Phil Simon: So it is a lot to keep track of. was it SAP bought? I think it was an App Guyver, which is probably my all time favorite name for an app. It’s just a cool name. Because they looked at their offerings and said, wow, we don’t have this, we need this. People will go other places.
Phil Simon: So, odds are that if you’re working with a large software vendor, if they don’t have it, they’re building it. And if they’re not building it, they’re just going to buy it. Particularly if you look at the potential of a recession and some of these companies getting a down round. I just saw something on LinkedIn.
Phil Simon: One company used to be valued at 9.5 billion down, and now with a down round it’s half that. Well, to me, that’s a huge signal for a large software vendor to come in and basically buy it on the cheap.
Bill Raymond: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I’m sure we’re going to see some consolidation in this market for sure.
Phil Simon: There has to be, right? I mean, does it make sense for there to be so many different tools? Probably not. I mean, some are going to win, most are going to morph or merge or get acquired for the IP or just die.
Phil Simon: That’s just the nature of the beast. I mean, you and I both know that you could start a company these days for what’s Chris Jumbo’s book on the a hundred dollars startup?
Phil Simon: That might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but you know, look at the late 90s. I mean, there were companies like salon.com that needed, I think it was $10 million to serve their first customer. Well, now if you start up a website and a Shopify account take some payments through PayPal or Zelle or something, I mean, you and I could get going for couple hundred bucks. It’s crazy.
Bill Raymond: Yeah, it’s very cool that these technologies are finding its way out into the masses. But how should an IT executive be looking at these types of tools?
Phil Simon: Embrace them.
Phil Simon: Salesforce released a study in 2008, so this is pre pandemic, something like 76% of senior IT folks said they could not meet their own strategic priorities. And then the pandemic and the great recession happened and people have these new needs for tools.
Phil Simon: Yeah, there’s a downside with shadow IT, but do you really think that that’s not happening in an era of bring your own device and cloud computing and people working from home, do you really think they’re only using all of your stuff all the time? Yes. Remove some of your responsibility and that might make you uncomfortable and then maybe certain things, I mean, and I don’t say in the book, I’ll get rid of your CRM, get rid of your ERP and get rid of your healthcare management system.
Phil Simon: I’m not saying that, but do you really need to build everything? Do you know the comedian Gary Goldman?
Bill Raymond: No. I don’t.
Phil Simon: He is one of my favorites actually. I had a chance to interview him and meet him. Funny guy, he’s got this great bid from his 2000, I think it was 9 or 10 special called in this economy.
Phil Simon: And back then we were suffering from the financial crisis and the Great Recession. And he talks about how he saves money and he goes, so I’m at the mall. And he sees the things remembered or just the things, and he goes, all right, which things do I need to get engraved today? It’s the same type of principle.
Phil Simon: Do you really need to build absolutely everything or does it make sense to seek control over certain types of apps that aren’t necessarily containing sensitive information? You can give people the ability to build their own apps. You don’t have to support it. They don’t have to train the people on it.
Phil Simon: You don’t have to handle the tickets and the upgrades. There are real advantages to this, so hopefully people will check out the book and realize that, and it’s not going anywhere. I mean, you really don’t have a choice. When you talk about shadow IT, what do you expect to say to folks? We don’t have the bandwidth to support it.
Phil Simon: You’ll have to wait a year. We’ll look at it then. Is that reasonable today? I don’t think so.
Bill Raymond: Yeah, I think that’s great advice. I actually was working with an organization recently that supports the use of these low-code no-code solutions and they actually use Microsoft 365 power apps. All the stuff that comes with that, the ability to create your own forms, the ability to automate those forms, have automatic emails sent out, things like that, creating databases, creating reports using Power BI…
Bill Raymond: Well, you know, this organization embraced it and what they said was we will have forums and open hours. And what they did was they allowed people that were using these tools to ask questions to trained IT staff that work with these tools every day doing, if you will, the more "corporate apps" right.
Bill Raymond: And they provided answers to those team members that were confused, using your term, the citizens developers, they were able to just call into these open hours and ask their questions. And, you know, the other thing that they did was they did some forms where they could share some typical best practices that IT follows.
Bill Raymond: So, for example, you mentioned this earlier, they can tell people before you go and release this, test it out with people, have people try it, get their feedback. Don’t worry if they don’t like it, at least now you know and you can work on it. Make sure that if before you put it into production you do some training, and here’s some examples of training.
Bill Raymond: And it was really kind of interesting to see because there’s so many IT organizations that are concerned about these tools, because the natural thing is that you create something cool and then you start talking about it, maybe you share it with me and I’m in the organization, I’m like, oh, I’d like to use your tool as well. And then you say, well, sure you can use it. And then all of a sudden another organization says it, and then it turns into a nightmare for IT because they say, oh, now they want to take this whole thing into the enterprise, but we can’t support this for 10,000 people, it was only good for a few hundred people.
Bill Raymond: But I do think if you can embrace it and also stay on top of these little sub-projects, these little low-code no-code solutions and support them, that’ll give you some insight into what maybe the organization needs as a whole that you may not have known before.
Phil Simon: A hundred percent and you make a couple of good points, particularly around reducing the IT business divide. So this is how IT works. And this isn’t an adversarial situation. This is a learning environment. And yeah, if people have built, you know, if you’re paying, you know, great example, people sometimes complain about software as a service because it is very much by the unit, whatever that is, right? Whatever that unit may be. And if you’re spending a lot, say Zapier, and you’re using a lot of zaps, you know, maybe you do need to take a look at your business processes because they are so manual. So yes, I agree with you. The level of transparency you can get into who’s using what, could potentially result in some changes or even, wow, HR doesn’t use any of this stuff, but finance’s all over it. Why is that? Is it a lack of knowledge. Should we do a workshop with them? Should we have a couple of people from finance do a sharing type of session like you mentioned with the HR folks? Oh, we didn’t know you can do that. And that could really reduce the burnout that people are feeling. So, that’s a great example.
Bill Raymond: I guess it would be interesting to hear from you, if someone decides they want to do this automation, what are some of the challenges or issues they might look out for?
Phil Simon: Well, automation is a double-edged sword and my general feeling, I think as I mentioned earlier, is if something is always true automated and if something is never true, never automated. But those are extremes, right? What happens if it’s near one of the goalposts? Is the cost of automating one employee check or vendor invoice so high that you don’t want to automate it?
Phil Simon: You always want to set eyes on it. If that’s the case. Okay. Never automate it. But, you know as well as I, garbage in, garbage out, and if you’ve got different people maintaining different spreadsheets or databases or workbooks or whatever, and they’re feeding it in, versus it coming from a single source of truth, you’re just asking for trouble. That’s why in the book, I argue that you should not replace certain types of systems.
Phil Simon: In fact, you can’t. Right? Tim Cook can’t wake up one day and goes, you know, I love Phil Simon’s book. Airtable for our multinational supply chain. That’s just, it’s not going to happen, it’s not build for that. Right? And that’s okay.
Phil Simon: But I guarantee you at Apple and pretty much every other company, there’s something that someone’s doing manually that would very much benefit from automation. So it’s like anything else. Maybe at first you want to go a little slow as people get comfortable with it because they are used to doing it in a manual way and change management is a big deal.
Phil Simon: It isn’t just about the shiniest new thing. You have to train people and get people comfortable and document it. So if somebody leaves, how do they know?
Phil Simon: But yeah, I’m just a fan of it. In the new book I’m working on, there’s a chapter on robotic process automation. Because I do think if you look at even some of the software from companies like WalkMe, they’re trying to be all meta.
Phil Simon: See how you’re using the software so they could actually make recommendations on which things to show you. And not just one application or one system, like a Salesforce or a CRM like um, Microsoft Dynamics, but things almost in totality.
Phil Simon: So I do think that companies are going to have to embrace more automation if for no other reason than they’re running outta people to find, even though the economy may trip up a bit, but I’m a big believer that people are burned out because they’re not doing the good stuff. They’re doing the manual stuff. It’s the work about work. Asana did a work of Anatomy of Work study, I think it was about a year and a half ago, and it was like 37% of the time people were working on work.
Phil Simon: So it was finding a document, it was forwarding emails, it was trying to set up an appointment. I mean, you and I used Calendly. Took two seconds. Not hard. But we’ve all been on those email chains with six people. No, I can’t do Tuesday at six. How about Thursday? Four? No, that doesn’t work for me. That’s insane to me in 2023.
Phil Simon: So these tools can actually make our lives a lot easier. We just have to give them a shot.
Bill Raymond: I really appreciate your introducing us to this concept of low-code, no-code and the citizen developer. If anyone that’s listening to the podcast wants to reach out to you, how might they do that?
Phil Simon: Pretty easy philsimon.com.
Bill Raymond: Thank you for your time today.
Phil Simon: Thank you, Bill. I enjoyed it.
Speaker: Thank you for listening to the Agile and Action Podcast with Bill Raymond. Subscribe now to stay current on the latest trends in team, organization, and agile techniques. Please take a moment to rate and comment to help us grow our community. This podcast is produced in affiliation with Cambermast LLC, and our executive producer is Reama Dagasan.
Speaker: If there is a topic you would like Bill to cover, contact him directly at bill.Raymond@agileinaction.com.