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david wyatt
david wyatt

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From Shadow IT to Power Platform Developer, The Low Code Diary

My journey into IT development is anything but 'normal', so I felt like it would be an interesting story to share.

My original ambition was to be civil engineer, I went to university but then realised I really didn't want to be. It was 1998 and the internet was just blowing up, and I wanted to be sat at a computer not on a building site. I took the brave/stupid decision to quit and go back to college to do a Multimedia and web design course. I loved every bit of it, designing websites in notepad and creating interactive sites in Flash (yep it was that long ago lol). Sadly, just as completed my course the internet bubble burst and job opportunities dried up. My part time shop floor job became full time and I ended up a career in retail management. And for the next 12 years that was my work, it was a great experience and I grew as a person. But I still had passion for tech and computers, evening trying to quash that desire by working for Best Buy the consumer electronics store for a while, but deep down I want to be a developer of some sort.

My first opportunity came with the original shadow IT program, Excel. Best Buy was new to the UK and lacking in software. They were missing any sort of scheduling system, this meant everything was done with pen and paper, and as you would expect there was lots of errors and missed shifts. A bit of Googling and support from a friend and I was able to create a very successful workbook.

After leaving Best Buy and after a year back on the sales floor another opportunity arose. With no qualifications in Shadow IT you live by reputation, fortunately for me someone had seen some of the reports and scheduling I had setup in my store and asked if I could help him. They wanted to record information and images of each store, and an external company was quoting some high numbers to do it. I was invited to their sales pitch and asked after "can you make that", and of course

I said Yes, but in truth I had no idea how I would

but I knew it was probably my only opportunity.

They offered me a secondment to support the Store Operations team and deliver what I later found out the IT solutions team had refused multiple times for being too complex. It was split with my store management duties, and there were never enough hours in the day, as I was learning as I went. It led to many late nights working at my kitchen table, I was fortunate enough to have an amazing partner (now my wife 😊) supporting me.

working on computer

Although sometimes looked down upon, and for good reason, Excel is still incredibly powerful, especially for people with no technical background. The breadth of documentation and support found on the internet is great for a novice, with nearly every question or problem having an answer already.

I was able to spin up an Excel file that:

  • Collated 1000 stores across 4 countries
  • Over 100 questions/data points
  • Upload photos
  • Export store profiles to pdf
  • Generate any combination of data reports

After it launched it was clunky, but it worked, and I now had contacts and a bit of a reputation as the 'Excel Guy'. As with everything timing and luck was on my side, for all of the stores there was just one person running all the reports, and as you can imagine he needed support. The extra bit of luck was he was based in my store and we got on great. He asked for me to support him with reporting half the week, the other half I could continue to support and develop the profiling tool.

I said Yes, but in truth I had no idea how I would

Finally having the time to do what I loved, and feeling very precarious I dived in head long. I learned a quick lesson, one I recommend everyone take, if you want to get ahead invest in yourself. Every job I did each week that took time, I would learn how to improve the process, streamlining and automating it. That freed up more time, which I split between increased productivity for my boss, and investing in streamlining the next task.

I realised soon that the clunky profile tool was taking up half my time and needed to be improved, it was time for version 2. Although I loved what I was able to create was at the limit of what it could do.

I asked myself could I make a mobile app, and

I said Yes, but in truth I had no idea how

Fortunately, I found a great LowCode platform that had a fully featured free tier, Appery.io. It is a WYSIWYG designer with JavaScript to add functionality. Under the hood it was just PhoneGap/Cordova but it was easy to learn and had the bonus of great support community, who would answer even the most stupid of questions.

I was able to spin up a couple of apps to learn, including games, a news app and a shopping app. I wanted lots of practice before I started on the profile tool, learning as you go is fun, but not on an end product.

The shopping app was cool, it was just a frameset of the company I worked for shopping website, but layered on a barcode scanner that could then search the site and find the item. It even could scan gift cards and show them like a virtual wallet. It managed to organically get thousands of users and was top search for the retailer and "app" in Google.

Then it all came crashing down, see the thing about Shadow IT is you are in the shadows, so you can get away with a lot. The attitude is if I can't see it I can't get in trouble. By being somewhat successful I was now out of the shadow. The legal team were not happy, and tracked me down through LinkedIn. When they discovered I was working for them I was pulled into a disciplinary. Walking into the office one day in a great mood, a previous colleague arrived and asked to use the spare office. While she prepared, I was oblivious, making her a coffee and chatting away. Then she asked me to pop in and that's when I knew I was in trouble. I was interviewed, it was brutal and I was totally unprepared (I had never been in trouble in anyway before). Luckily I wasn't suspended (I had the good fortune of sending an email explaining what I was doing, it later turned out this mailbox had been forgotten and never checked), but I felt destroyed, I had worked so hard and done all this work in my personal time.

worried

This is when the good side of Shadow IT stepped it, the colleagues I worked with were amazing, they whipped up support from all those people I had helped. See this is the thing, people have problems and reach out to their IT department who are too busy (you just get "it's not on our road map so will be 2–3 years"), so when someone comes along and does it, quickly without hassle, they appreciate it.

After 3 long weeks and a follow up interview they decided to take no further action, though I had to take down the app.

The users of the Excel file where beginning to talk more negatively then positively, its clunkiness becoming more and more apparent. The depts manager asked me if I could make an improved version 2,

I said Yes, but in truth I had no idea how

Now I was more confident with JavaScript I knew that I had to do a 'proper' website, but finding somewhere to host it was impossible, until I realized that just because something in built to do 'A' doesn't mean I can't make it do 'B'.

SharePoint is meant to be standardised and built on limited widgets, but under the hood it's a website, and you can get around your companies' controls. Aspx files can just be filled with html, css and javascript and loads like any other website. So I built out my own websites from scratch, using SharePoint as my host and the added benefit of being secure and authenticated to use the SharePoint api.
The site moved all the data to SharePoint lists, the photos were already there and I was able to add a Gallery page and maps with Google maps. InfoPath (already in legacy when I used it) allowed me to add controls on the data collection and build relationships with all my lists (who said SharePoint lists aren't a relationship database 😉).

The profile blew up, having one version of the truth, accurate (and being able to validate with photos) was wanted by everyone. Multiple departments picked it up, and after a financial review it was recognised as saving the business £750,000 per year (with each year additional stores opening and increasing the saving). Someone with no development training was able to create a software solution that the IT department couldn't.

It gave me confidence that I never knew I had, but once finished I was back to my day job of reports in Excel. I was back looking for time savings and learning opportunities. VBA is great for automation, it can interact not just with Excel, but with Outlook, Word, Power Point, IE and even the file explorer.

I started creating my own suite of automation tools in an Excel add-in, just for me. But it somehow got shared beyond my team and was being used across the multiple teams, in the end I built a second extension to update it, so I could push out updates. 5 years on its still being used and I keep updating it.

Another project came which IT were too busy to create, a store order system,

I said Yes, but in truth I had no idea how

It was an interesting challenge as I had no way of getting orders back. My only access to the stores was Lotus Domino (another already legacy software). Creating the catalogue in Excel was easy, the challenge was getting the orders back. Fortunately the power of VBA came through, as it can interact with IE. I was able to automate logging into the site and sending an email.

rpa

After a while another project came a long that wasn't Excel, a tool to gather every manager's annual review and roll up to senior leadership.

I said Yes, but in truth I had no idea how

It was probably the most stressful experience of my life, and I learnt an important lesson, even though I could do it, doesn't mean I should. This should have been a proper delivery team project, not just one man. I had to gather requirements, design, pitch, build, test, debug, launch and support. It nearly broke me, the pressure led to many, many late nights, desperately searching for solutions, feeling very alone.

Somehow when the key date came, we were ready and we launched successfully. The data flowed in and the users were happy. But still every day I was worried for lost data or senior leadership complaints. Fortunately for me, Covid then struck, all business processes were stopped as the stores were closed and the pressure suddenly off. The first wave was completed and the data was still used, but by time Covid had finished and things back to normal the IT team had sprung into action and delivered a proper solution.

After being a little burned I found going back to reports suddenly less boring. I was splitting my time manging the catalogue ordering system and reports but was struggling to find time to learn about Power BI (The business was finally looking to move beyond emailed Excel reports). This drove me to automate the catalogue orders, first with Excel but that required me to interact, and I wanted full automation. And that's when I found Power Automate (or Flow as it was known). It wasn't launched in our company, but by some fluke/bug I was able to access and continually renew my free trial. Power Automate was a kind of light bulb moment for me, and I finally what I enjoyed. I never realised before but I enjoyed analysing and understanding process, and then improving them, with my creative spark quenched with developing a solution. RPA was pretty much my ideal role, and as it was a relatively new sector, I think I was again lucky with timing.

I continued automating my life and then the team picking the catalogue orders reached out and asked if I could make a picking app

I said Yes, but in truth I had no idea how

Luckily there were Power Apps, but that was when my next brush with coming out of the shadows happened.

An email out of the blue came, explaining that he was managing the Power Platform (Power Automate and Power Apps) and had seen I had my own environment and wanted to know what I was doing, as no one should have access. I explained that I had found it and started using it, I also said I understand I never had official permission so would delete everything if needed. And here is where everything changed, instead of the disciplinary approach like last time, he was incredibly supportive, activity excited to see what I had built and wanted to demo it to the senior leadership. To this day he said something incredibly empowering that I never forget;

You are like the young kid who breaks my window with a home run, I'm not angry you broke it, I want your autograph because it will be worth something in the future

After that I was out of the shadows, he introduced me more and more to the Intelligent Automation Team (who owned the platform). Eventually I joined the team as an RPA developer, my desire to learn never leaving me, and I was able to start taking a leading role in the Power Platform (the year head start definitely helped too 😉).

My path into development has given me some unique skills, but also challenges. I have more knowledge gaps and poorer understanding of IT ways of working. Imposter syndrome is ever present, and I think all citizen developer turned pro developer feels that same.

LowCode, especially the Power Platform, has created Citizen developers, the new Shadow IT, but out of the shadows. And now it's out I suspect there will be more and more people going on a similar journey to me, hopefully without the disciplinary.

Top comments (4)

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jaloplo profile image
Jaime López

Great story, great example, great career too. You must be very proud of it. Not all IT paths are the same and there is no valid one. I believe technology is not a matter of have a certificate but being curious and keep learning.

I will use your story as an example when talking to mates if you allow me.

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charden profile image
Denis Charpentier

Very nice story !
As an architect (in construction) I was fond of AutoLisp as a way to automate AutoCAD back in the 2000's...now I found out about the Power Platform earlier this year and I can see so much potential to make the business more efficient !

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balagmadhu profile image
Bala Madhusoodhanan

Love the trip of your memory lane... I always love the content you post.. keep rocking !!!!