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CEO Guide to Technology

NetApp Staffers Build Their Own Apps

Dongyan Wang, an executive at data-storage provider NetApp (NTAP), did what peers at some other businesses deem unthinkable: He let the company’s 10,000 employees start making their own mobile applications for work.

Do-it-yourself mobile software can be unreliable or leave a company vulnerable to malware. Wang bet that employee-generated applications would result in a productivity boost and cost reductions that outweighed those risks.

One year later, the effort has resulted in 20 apps, including an employee directory and another that helps provide customer service. The apps cost an average of $35,000 to $50,000 to build, compared with hundreds of thousands of dollars or more for programs made with help from conventional business-software makers such as SAP (SAP) and Oracle (ORCL), Wang says.

“We call it, ‘you cook and we host for you,’” says Wang, senior director of enterprise solutions and the person responsible for mobile apps at Sunnyvale (Calif.)-based NetApp. “Both our own team and our users are amazed at how we can get value so quickly.”

A growing number of workers, even those without technical expertise, are building mobile apps for use on the job, a democratization of technology creation spurred by the boom in portable devices, such as Apple (AAPL) iPads and smartphones featuring Android from Google (GOOG). That can create tension with information technology managers who are concerned about network security.

“Not the Boss of Me”

Even so, rank-and-file employees will build at least a quarter of all new business applications by 2014, up from less than 5 percent in 2007, predicts Stamford (Conn.)-based Gartner.

“The business units are telling IT: ‘You’re not the boss of me anymore,’” says Jeffrey Hammond, principal analyst at Cambridge (Mass.)-based Forrester Research.

The DIY app trend is fueling demand for services provided by such companies as Taptera, Mobile Roadie, and Socialize, whose AppMakr can make it easier and cheaper to build mobile apps. They’re part of a market for mobile-application development that generated $20.5 billion in revenue in 2011, a figure that may rise to $100 billion in 2015, according to a report from research firm Research2guidance.

“Within a large organization, it’s typically a small department that wants an app but doesn’t want to go to IT,” said Raju Vegesna, whose title is evangelist at software maker Zoho.

There’s a reason IT departments are reluctant to cede control of app creation. Employees who build their own apps might create bugs or security holes in a corporate network. That’s why NetApp insists on vetting each app, much as Apple reviews each program made available on its App Store.

“We can’t allow everyone to publish their own app and put it into the app store,” Wang says. About 90 percent of the apps that have been built by employees require some revision, he says.

Faster, Cheaper, and Under Control

Still, the app-review process at NetApp is fairly nimble and provides a way for the company to get new software into circulation relatively quickly and cheaply when compared to the old way of creating enterprise software.

“We’re almost the other extreme of traditional IT, where you had to go through a steering committee,” Wang says. “If the business groups say ‘we have money and this idea,’ we can build it within six to eight weeks.”

The company’s employees make apps for internal use, as well as use by clients—including one for customer support and another that compares NetApp products with a competitor’s. There’s also a business-intelligence app that helps executives analyze corporate data and make decisions.

Employees at Accenture (ACN), the world’s second-largest technology-consulting company, used AppMakr to build an app to communicate with clients in its consumer goods and services division. The app gives customers access to case studies, podcasts, and news; it’s available free to other businesses through Apple’s App Store.

Other app-building services such as Zoho Creator and QuickBase from Intuit (INTU) can help employees create their own Web apps—applications that are accessed through a mobile Web browser. Hiring a Web developer to make a custom mobile app can easily run from $50,000 to $75,000. In contrast, some of these services are free or can cost less than $10,000.

Zoho’s Web app-building service has been used by employees at Honeywell International (HON), Ikea, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Sony (SNE), and Walt Disney’s (DIS) Pixar.

Software Giants Taking Note

Even traditional software makers, including SAP, see mobile-app development as a less expensive way to connect customers with their larger-scale software systems.

Chris O’Connor and Dan McCall realized how expensive and time-consuming it was to develop mobile apps when they were working at Genentech, the cancer-drug maker acquired in 2009 by Roche Holding (ROG:VX).

O’Connor and McCall built about 60 custom apps to do such things as create a company directory or reserve conference rooms for employees. The pair co-founded startup Taptera after they realized other companies would also want to buy these types of apps.

Intuit has given its employees permission to create QuickBase apps, which are online database apps designed to collect and distribute information. So far, 3,500 of the company’s 8,000 employees have built their own QuickBase apps.

“We still see business teams at the work group or division level having some need that isn’t getting served and choosing to self-solve,” says Allison Mnookin, vice-president and general manager at Intuit.

One Intuit lawyer built a Web app to manage the process for submitting patents. The app made it easier for employees to submit ideas, distribute them internally for review, and get alerts about a reward for those whose ideas get patented.

“He did all of that without needing to know a line of code,” says Mnookin. “The pace of business is moving faster, and folks are looking for a way to solve their problems.”

King is a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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