Citizen Developers Trump the Utility Skunk Works

Posted to Esri in the Digital Utility Group
image credit: Photo 15109597 © Flynt |
Pat  Hohl's picture
Director - Electric Industry Solutions Esri

Pat Hohl, PE is Esri’s Director of Electric Industry Solutions. He oversees the planning and execution of Esri’s go-to-market strategies in the Electric Industry, primarily in the U.S.A. Hohl was...

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  • Mar 24, 2021 5:00 am GMT

The Lockheed Martin Skunk Works produced some of the world’s most magnificent innovative aircraft. The astonishing SR-71 Blackbird, the stealthy F-117 Nighthawk, and the distinctive P-38 Lightning are superb examples of what an autonomous group can produce outside the guardrails of overly burdensome bureaucracy. The name was derived from a moonshine factory in Li'l Abner, an old comic strip. It immediately congers up visions of mysterious covert operations.

When I talk to utility professionals, most have a story about Skunk Works at their company. It goes something like this. Danny worked as an analyst in a division that had a true need. He talked to the IT department about an application to solve the business problem. Danny and his supervisor quickly became frustrated at the onerous technology process, cost, and timeframe - quoted in months or years!

Danny had skills. He made a copy of the data and built his own solution with a simple database program. It worked. His group used it for years. Danny had beaten the system – or so it seemed.

Years later when that data was needed for another important function, Danny had unintentionally painted everyone into a corner. Data governance, availability, security, unique keys that relate to other systems? Well, no.

Enter the citizen developer, a relatively new term. Gartner defines a citizen developer as “a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT.”

Modern tools allow citizen developers, or power users right in the division to roll out very powerful solutions to business needs – without excessive process or timelines tracked on a calendar. Sometimes you need a rapid response to a pressing need.

These include live dashboards, mobile apps, web apps, and clear-cut analytics. These can be long-term solutions or very short-lived for a specific purpose – like using office staff for damage assessment or managing foreign crews after a freak storm.

Keys to success for the citizen developer:

  • Curate data on a firm and flexible foundation.
  • Provide tools that are readily configured to deploy solutions based on the foundation.

A firm foundation inherently addresses concerns in the IT domain. Endorsed by IT, it provides security and governance enforcing data quality and business rules. Furthermore, it is flexible enough to allow applications to be readily formed and deployed without additional constraints. Flexible tools are easily learned by those with business knowledge and aptitude rather than formal software developer training.

Utilities around the globe are actively leveraging such solutions.

Cloud services are advancing swiftly. As a result, they are catapulting these solutions forward like a jet fighter from the deck of an aircraft carrier. In a post-COVID-19 world, there is much less room for boutique point solutions. Don’t resist the creative Skunk Works staff. Free them to tackle needs for operations, grid modernization, and emergency management straight away. Empower them with easily configurable ArcGIS tools.

ArcGIS devours most types of utility data from poles to pictures. It comes with additional practical data including imagery, weather feeds, live traffic, and demographics. To learn more about solving real utility problems quickly and securely visit our electric website.

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Esri, the global leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, builds the most powerful mapping and spatial analytics technology available.
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Dudley McFadden's picture
Dudley McFadden on Mar 31, 2021

As someone who has developed skunk works solutions on a number of occasions since the early 1990s, I enjoyed reading this post!  One continually frustrating aspect, is getting IT on board after implementing the successful solution.  We can ask for IT's help in closing security loopholes, or tweaking a database to conform to corporate needs, but actually obtaining such help is elusive.  It's almost like they passively-aggressively wouldn't mind if the system failed at some point.  As far as spatial data go, ESRI's latest offerings, readily accessed by everyone in a company, are an incredible improvement.  Still, the word "GIS" still conjures up images of map nerds conjuring up complex analyses with slow, esoteric software only experts can fathom.

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