The Definitive Guide to Release Management

Software development has changed radically in recent years, so why are our processes still the same? Enter release management. Release management is a modern solution to the unique challenges software engineers and project managers face today. Between near-constant demands for updates, increasingly complex platforms, and the external pressures of lightning-fast innovation, it’s no wonder why this new form of productivity has evolved. 

In this guide, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about release management and the benefits it provides. Keep reading to discover checklists and useful tools to help you master this essential software development strategy. 

What is release management?

Release management is a new discipline in software engineering used to develop new software and improve existing ones. This software project management method covers everything from ideation to release. Tasks such as creating project schedules, building out teams, and scheduling various phases all fall under this umbrella. 

Its purpose? To create a repeatable system for software development oversight that can handle all four major cycles (development, testing, release, and updates) during a product’s lifetime. 

Release management is quickly gaining popularity thanks to its many advantages. Even if teams already have systems in place to carry out similar assignments, release management tackles the problem more effectively and efficiently. That is because using release management to tackle complex and continuous development cycles is generally more effective than traditional software update models. 

And with software releases becoming more widely distributed, they’re now getting instant feedback. This requires new patches and upgrades at a faster pace and on a wider variety of platforms than ever before. So it’s no wonder why seasoned engineers are giving release management a try. It may, in fact, be the only real solution to modern software development needs. 

So how does release management work, exactly? First, it begins with the following phases: 

Phase 1: Create an IT release schedule

This includes everything from dark periods to release dependencies. Anything related to strategically moving the release schedule forward falls under this category. This includes: schedule creation, schedule approval, blackout dates, planned PTO, release streams, windows, and trains. 

Phase 2: Create a solution release schedule

Any release schedule not otherwise covered by the IT release schedule is planned in this category. That includes continuous, intermittent, and as-needed releases. Pro tip: watch out for conflicts between projects and within individual employee schedules. Employees working on more than one release may need to know how to prioritize their tasks. Streamline decision-making by adding priority levels to their assignments from the start to make better decisions in the moment. 

Phase 3: Plan and assign infrastructure-related tasks 

Hardware, licensing, and anything else related to keeping the structural integrity of your products and processes intact are key ideas in this phase. Your release and operations should work together in this step. Keep an eye out for conflicts between active and upcoming projects. Also, use this phase to sort out the relationships between software and hardware to speed up the ordering and pairing processes in the future. 

Phase 4: Test for product readiness

Product readiness in this phase means the product itself as well as whether or not consumers and stakeholders are ready for it. It’s important to templatize this particular phase. Otherwise, if software releases aren’t happening frequently, it could feel like reinventing the wheel each time you do it, leading to quality and workflow issues. 

Phase 5: Support delivery teams

This phase is twofold. First, engineers must prep delivery teams with the appropriate deployment strategy. Then, they are responsible for providing advanced support between this phase and the next. In practice, this can look like answering questions about the deployment process or even mentoring team members one-on-one. 

Phase 6: Manage and learn from releases

Like any great software development campaign, there is always room for improvement, which is why this critical phase is last but not least in the release management process. Engineers, team leads, and stakeholders must evaluate a variety of factors— the key ones are process, policy, and metrics. Release management is an evolving process, so taking the time to learn from each project makes it easier to perform better next time. 

What are release management best practices?

The top release management best practices are surprisingly straightforward despite how complex the processes themselves are. Here are the topmost important ones: 

  • Listen to others. Everyone on the release management team should be open to feedback from other departments along the way if they want to stay true to the philosophy of continuous improvement. 
  • Stay flexible. Rather than creating strict, uniform processes and requiring all individuals to follow them, release managers should instead take established workflows into consideration. This is especially true if developing all-new habits or strategies isn’t the most effective option for this particular team. 
  • Reconsider ownership. One of the fundamental differences between standard development practices and release management is responsibility. For example, enterprise architects don’t just provide suggestions for models; they now create entire roadmaps. 
  • Rely on data. Release management relies more on strategy than oversight. Teams should get their hands dirty with operations intelligence, historical analysis, and release data to make better decisions. 
  • Focus on “what.” While traditional models focus on the structures that surround activity, release management leans into the activities themselves. Although there is still plenty of planning involved, release management is more action-focused. 
  • ...and “who.” Release management is also smart about who owns each stage of development. For example, release management stops to ask who would be more productive at product release, the development team, or someone else? 

What are the benefits of release management processes?

There are many benefits to release management processes, ranging from team support to higher quality products to better operations. Here are some ways that solid release management processes can help your team: 

  • Release management processes reduce the likelihood of preventable issues coming up whenever software gets updated. 
  • They work well within complex operations, which software development often requires. 
  • Release management supports patch and upgrade releases, making sure that all changes work in harmony even if you’re producing other software projects simultaneously. 
  • If one task is dependent on another task or a key team member, it can easily be monitored and approved, so nothing slips between the cracks. 
  • If any changes will negatively impact other aspects of the software, a proper release management process can help prevent or diminish the effects of the issue. 
  • Release management processes provide a single, streamlined resource for multiple information sources so everyone can stay on the same page at all times. 
  • Release management helps delivery teams work in tandem, forecasting possible roadblocks and conflicts so they can be avoided entirely. 
  • These processes also help create peace of mind as the product transitions to production, thanks to oversight made possible by the very same system. 

What are the challenges of release management?

Lack of visibility, consistency, and data are the biggest challenges facing release management. Visibility includes knowing who is working on what and when it will be delivered at all times. It also means giving insight to collaborators and stakeholders, so there’s no hold-up if they need to give feedback. 

Consistency refers to how the work is done and its quality. Release management is a fluid process that can and should be personalized over time, but it needs a solid foundation first, so it has something to improve on. 

And finally, we have data. Data such as past release performance and challenges help teams get a better understanding of where they are where they realistically can be. 

Why release management helps in the software release process

Release management was developed for and by software developers specifically to solve the challenges of the software release process. In addition to the benefits we’ve covered, release management laser focuses on the tasks needed to progress in the development, operations, and deployment phases. This means there is a throughline from beginning to end that keeps everything in line with business goals. Plus, it makes it easier to avoid common roadblocks such as updating redundancies and competing resources. 

What to put in a release management checklist

A release management checklist is a straightforward list of all software development phases and their corresponding tasks. The phases include: 

  • Product management
  • Development
  • Quality assurance
  • DevOps, reverse engineering, and configuration
  • User experience
  • Technical support
  • Release management 

Tasks cover ideation, creation, and approval of various components in the software lifecycle. The tasks you include will be fairly intuitive but should always be compared to successful cycles of the past and potential conflicts of the future before finalization. 

Different types of release checklists

While each of the following checklists serve a unique purpose, they are all aimed towards a common goal. They can easily be organized by following an identical structure for each one. Yasmin Nozari, an expert product manager, uses task name, owner, and status as her base. Not only does it help her productivity (another expertise of hers), but it also streamlines the process. 

Speaking of productivity, we’ve compiled some base checklists you can use to get started with your release management plan, including one that can be used for Agile in IT operations. Add your own unique tasks to these other common project requirements to get the ball rolling: 

Release readiness checklist 

  1. Confirm delivery aligns with work order
  2. Get approval from senior management
  3. Secure validation and approval of requirements document from the client 
  4. Conduct build verification
  5. Update all test cases
  6. Document any defects in the release notes
  7. Document traceability 
  8. Conduct audits per the software quality assurance plan 
  9. Bring code modification files and naming up to date 
  10. Sign off on the consistency of product, code, and deliverable

Agile software release checklist

  1. Choose goals 
  2. Outline strategy 
  3. Seek strategy approval from stakeholders and clients
  4. Draft roadmap
  5. Get key project dates
  6. Approve draft of project backlog
  7. Create estimates for user stories
  8. Estimate velocity 
  9. Discuss potential roadblocks
  10. Finalize delivery objectives

Software product launch checklist 

  1. Gather tools and documents necessary for engineering teams to succeed
  2. Give designers all related resources for the job
  3. Outline sprints for engineers
  4. Structure and conduct functional testing

Product release checklist

  1. Strategically pick launch time and date
  2. Get approval for launch time and date from stakeholders
  3. Finalize pricing for launch 
  4. Choose and implement a marketing strategy
  5. Come up with a promotion plan 
  6. Develop messaging materials for online and offline 
  7. Send out press releases

QA release checklist

  1. Define release scope
  2. Create release requirements
  3. Set release schedule
  4. Gather testing resources
  5. Approve current condition of product to assure there are no bugs or issues
  6. Get approval from stakeholders if there are known issues
  7. Conduct functional testing
  8. Conduct regression testing
  9. Conduct backward and/or forward compatibility testing
  10. Create and test a rollback plan 

How to choose release management software for your project

The key to successful release management is planning poker, visibility into real-time progress, detailed task and workflow customization, and visual tools that keep everyone on track. A great release management software will have all of that plus teamwide Agile and automation support. When searching for a software, consider how easy it is to adopt so you can get entire teams onboarded that much faster. Also, be on the lookout for solutions that strike a balance between supporting complex development cycles and providing simple yet effective action items for teams.

Why use Wrike as your release management tool?

Wrike is a project management platform that can be used as a highly effective release management tool for new and experienced engineers. It’s a visual platform from start to finish. That includes tools like a personalized dashboard that gives managers an overview of all active project statuses at a single glance. It also means Gantt charts, which turn due dates and tasks from the entire project into one in-depth yet simple color-coded schedule. 

Release management relies on this kind of high-level transparency. But it also requires visibility into the nitty-gritty details of tasks to keep everyone on the same page and reduce error. After all, release management is all about taking action. That’s why Wrike has created tasks that managers can easily assign to team members. Users can do things like designate priority levels and hold entire discussions right within each relevant task, looping in stakeholders and other team members with the intuitive @mention feature.  

Ready to turbocharge productivity with release management? Check out our two-week free trial of Wrike to start using our detailed and helpful task creation, organization, and collaboration features.

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