Mike Fitzmaurice: “Today, Citizen Development is all over the place”
Mike Fitzmaurice

Fitz, what are you to SharePoint – mother, father, aunt or midwife? Or something else?

Wow, you want to go *way* back, don’t you? I guess you can say I was one of the nurses in the delivery room (I definitely had to clean that baby up post-birth) and one of the nannies. I *am*, however, the father of SharePoint *evangelism*. It was my job to get developers and IT pros alike to care about deploying the tech and thinking of it as a platform.

How was it back in the days of SharePoint 2003 and MOSS 2007, back in the time when SharePoint was conquering the world?

“Conquering the world” was *not* a foregone conclusion back then. It was a struggle, both internally and externally. There was a site platform, a portal product with search, and a content management server, and until the tech was merged in 2007, there was internal friction between them. Externally, there were plenty of competitors for web portals, search, collaboration spaces, content management, etc. I played my part during the “struggling” phase; SharePoint reached the “conquering” phase around 2010.

Strategically, I was working to convince .NET developers to treat SharePoint as a platform, and to convince SharePoint’s engineers that the real developer story was around customization and extensibility — not just Web Parts.

You have no idea how important is was fostering the community. We’d eventually call them MVPs, but long before we got *that* organized there were still clever, connected people doing good things, and we helped them as much as we could.

Many IT departments and CIOs are scared to death of the prospect of Citizen Development and users building solutions for themselves. They see it as a formula for chaos.

If you think it through, SharePoint was always about enabling users to create their own information structures and processes on top of it. We would call those people “Citizen developers” today. You’ve delivered keynote addresses at conferences on the importance of citizen development. What is the state of citizen development in Anno Domini 2018?

Custom lists and building pages out of app-connected Web Parts were in SharePoint 2001’s DNA, but the early days were focused on professional development. By 2007,  though, things like SharePoint Designer, InfoPath Form Services, and Excel Services had emerged. The idea of letting users assemble solutions from parts is not a new one.

Today, though, citizen development is all over the place. It’s big, and it’s important, but I have to confess that the situation is messy…

  • Some companies have users who’ve learned how to be helpless; they want everything to be done for them by IT or by outside contractors. Some of that is culture, but even more of it is that many of the tools available still require them to think like developers, even if they don’t have to code like them.
  • You can see tool and platform vendors who think that all they have to do is be “low-code/no-code”. They still require users to do everything a developer does other than code – and users don’t think like that. The only people helped by low-code/no-code are professional developers; they can build more things is less time. There are incremental benefits, but there’s no great leap forward.
  • Many IT departments and CIOs are scared to death of the prospect of users building solutions for themselves. They see it as a formula for chaos, and if the tools the users are using don’t allow for auditing, monitoring, updating, securing, and overall curation, then they’re right.
  • Finally, you see some pundits thinking that citizen development actually means teaching users to write code (JavaScript is code, and so is PowerShell); in other words, full development by non-developers.

It doesn’t have to be messy though. Keep the following things in mind and citizen development benefits everyone:

  • Citizen development is something done outside of, and usually to help with, one’s real An admin assembling a dashboard counts. A financial analyst creating Excel macros counts. A developer scripting an otherwise-tedious task counts. It’s not so much about citizen developers as it is about citizen development.
  • Citizen development is big on domain expertise and isn’t as obsessed with technique. It’s the job of citizen development tools and platforms to optimize for that.
  • A citizen development project is likely to be created by one person and later enhanced by someone else. Even if it’s maintained by the person who created it, time passes between updates, and it can be hard to look at one’s own work and remember what one did. As such, clarity matters more than efficiency.
  • Governance and curation need to be built into the tools/platforms you use. That prevents IT’s chaos scenario.
  • Citizen development can be assisted by professional development; pro developers can – and should – create libraries of reusable components that are meant to be easily discovered and used in citizen development projects.

There are tools/platforms that do this right. There are companies that know how to curate citizen development well. It’s happening, but it’s got a long way to go.

We know you as one of the largest authorities on Workflows on this planet. We’ve seen SharePoint Workflows going long way – from integrated workflows with IIS as workflow host in SharePoint 2007 and 2010, over separate Workflow Manager as a host in 2013, to Workflow as a Service nowadays with Microsoft Flow. What does your experience tell you, what will be next for workflows?

It’s interesting to hear you say that workflows have gone a long way; I think there’s been a lot of movement both forward and backward on that front. It’s come a long way in terms of connectivity to different services and data and applications, but it’s taken a bit of a step backward in overall logic support, in the handling of human tasks, and especially in the area of management and governance and on-premises/online consistency. There are countless details that still need to be worked out. There’s also a bit of disruption involved in that the preferred platform changed every five years. Mind you, I’m extremely hopeful this time.

Moreover, virtually everything you wish Flow did and doesn’t has been addressed by several good offerings from Microsoft Partners. They’ve always offered extended value over what’s in the box, and not a single one of those companies is standing still.

And whether it’s Flow or a third-party offering, one thing has become extremely obvious: that a workflow tool tightly coupled to a single product won’t be enough. Pre-Flow, SharePoint’s options were very SharePoint-centric. Salesforce has something called Process Builder, and it’s basically there to automate Salesforce. Box released something called Box Relay – same problem. I haven’t seen a customer that works in a single place. Processes span boundaries. The challenge will be offering connectivity, power, and manageability – while keeping it accessible to citizen developers. Very few offerings get that right.

One last question: Tell us the story about wearing kilts on your conference talks?

That one goes way back to the earliest days of SharePoint, and it’s only fitting that it happened as an act of “rebellion.” SharePoint began as a de facto startup that was beneath the purview of the overall Office organization. As such, marketing was free to do a variety of creative things to draw attention. Once we achieved a certain level of success, Office noticed to us – and immediately demanded that we fall in line and do everything Office style. No SharePoint booth at events; we were to staff a SharePoint stand in the Office pavilion. No loud, flashy SharePoint shirts – we had to wear the standard orange Office shirts.

Well, the official dress code stated that, at events, we were to wear those orange Office shirts with black trousers or skirts. So I took that literally and wore it with a skirt – my jet black kilt (yes, I already had one). I figured that, if anyone objected, I could complain to Human Resources on the grounds that it’s a heritage garment (my ancestry is Celtic). To the Office division’s credit, they didn’t mind at all. More importantly, our stand got a lot of traffic; question #1 might have been “what’s the deal with the kilt”, but question #2 was “what’s SharePoint?” Mission accomplished. After that, people complained when I didn’t wear it. So a brand was born, I suppose.

Collaboration means two-way communication!

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