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How we’re growing our community of ‘low coders’

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Defra digital, Defra technology

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Di Washbrook explains how reading a Defra blog inspired her to take her own interest in low-code developing even further by joining the Defra Power Platform team.

Around this time last year my colleague Emma-Claire Shaw wrote about how Defra was unlocking the power of low-code. At that time I had been working with MS Power Platform at the Office for National Statistics, and this had given me an early insight into the potentially transformative role of low-code in software development.

Emma’s blog demonstrated to me how Defra was pioneering in this space, within government, by actively promoting and managing citizen development, and I was thrilled to subsequently join Defra’s Power Platform team a few months later.

It’s been almost a year since Emma shared her vision, so it feels to me like a good time to reflect on how things have been going here.

Since joining the team, I have learned that adopting low code successfully is about so much more than just implementing the tech. So I plan to walk you through my personal take on the key components of a mature, sustainable low-code service model, and explain how Defra is working towards this.

Governance is at the heart of the model

Risk management is central to our decision-making and is embedded within the adaptive governance framework at Defra.  And we’ve held firm on Emma’s mantra of the ‘the right tools for the job’ - just because something can be built using Power Platform, doesn’t mean it should be!

Business critical solutions undergo all the traditional controls for enterprise IT solutions, while small non-critical applications can be created swiftly by citizen developers using our self-service model.

The governance is supported by our Solution Registration Tool – it lets people self-assess what category their solution fits into and gives us visibility of what they plan to build.   Our Power Platform Hub SharePoint site is the one-stop-shop for all our guidance and signposts learning and other useful resources.

The governance needs to constantly evolve to meet changing user needs and encompass the rollout of new features – what is our take on Copilot, for example?  And it only works if people know about it, so continually reaffirming the key governance messages is important.

Which brings us on to the awareness and adoption function………

We aim to educate people at all levels of our organisation about low-code and its benefits.  Our Community of Practice is now 700+ strong, and we have monthly meetings, away days, and a Viva Engage channel (aka Yammer) for our members to ask questions and share tips.

This community is at the heart of low-code adoption, and our tech-savvy and enthusiastic members continue to push the boundaries. Going forwards, we’d like to introduce champions or hub teams within business areas to spread the gospel about low code.

Our aim is to make low code accessible to absolutely everyone in Defra, so we run lots of introductory sessions to demystify and encourage people to ‘have a go’.  We’ve found that a good analogy can help – a favourite is to compare low code to Lego: it provides the building blocks for development, so you don’t have to start from scratch.

We’ve also established a Small Works team – which crucially fills a gap between our enterprise projects and the citizen developer space.  Our small team of pro-developers has built up a proven track record for delivery of business apps, managed with a light-touch Agile framework.

Our pro-dev team provides valuable learning for us – we need to know how to do things ourselves before we can guide the wider community.

A fantastic advantage of low code is how it can organically grow the next generation of pro-developers.  We’re already seeing some great examples at Defra of talented people from within the community finding a route into a career in IT this way.  Our delivery lead began her career as a ‘Citizen Developer’ at Natural England just a few years ago.  We’ll be sharing more success stories from our community in future blogs.

Why automation is so important

Automation has been crucial from the outset – we have implemented an extended version of the Power Platform Centre of Excellence Starter Kit, which allows us to actively monitor and manage the platform at scale.

Our ambition is to build on this foundation to enshrine a culture of automation in the team, so that manual processes and checks don’t become a blocker to further adoption at scale.

So adaptable governance, a proven track record of delivery, effective communication channels and automation all provide the foundations for the service – allowing us to effectively support the over 1789 people who form our citizen developer community today.

But what about future aspirations?

We need to make sure that what we are building adds value. Benefit tracking is essential, and we are going to carry out Proof of Concept work in this space soon; this is one area that has been far more complex than first anticipated.

We also need to address the risk of proliferation and duplication in what’s being built by moving towards a culture of re-use - Component and Template libraries might be a possible solution here.

In the meantime, we aim to encourage greater knowledge sharing, not just within Defra but across government.  Ultimately the end goal for low-code, in my opinion, is establishing a culture of enablement – where the main role of the IT department is not to be the ‘builder of things’ but the ‘enabler of people’ – providing the frameworks, assurance, components, guidance and support to empower others to build safely and quickly.

This will involve new team structures, roles, service offerings and importantly new ways of thinking about problems, and it will be fascinating to see what new opportunities this next phase of the low-code revolution can create both for Defra and wider government.

Di Washbrook is the Interim Service Owner for Power Platform in Defra.

For other organisations embarking on this journey, come and join our XGovernment Power Platform community on Slack to hear everyone’s stories, share your own and get advice.

Check out our LinkedIn page to find out more about the work of Defra Digital Data Technology and Security. While you’re there, why not give us a follow.

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