Release early, release often to minimize risk

Release Cycles have been debated for the last 30 years and will certainly be for the next 30. Arguments for longer release cycles with larger releases usually focus on how risky these rapid releases are and the stability and polish these larger releases with their longer cycles bring. These arguments are absolute rubbish. To add to the discussion I’ll put a different emphasis than I’ve heard before. Release early and release often to minimize risk.

1. Minimize risk to market

Paul Graham says it quite well, so no need to restate.

The thing I probably repeat most is this recipe for a startup: get a version 1 out fast, then improve it based on users’ reactions.

By “release early” I don’t mean you should release something full of bugs, but that you should release something minimal. Users hate bugs, but they don’t seem to mind a minimal version 1, if there’s more coming soon.

There are several reasons it pays to get version 1 done fast. One is that this is simply the right way to write software, whether for a startup or not. I’ve been repeating that since 1993, and I haven’t seen much since to contradict it. I’ve seen a lot of startups die because they were too slow to release stuff, and none because they were too quick.

One of the things that will surprise you if you build something popular is that you won’t know your users. Reddit now has almost half a million unique visitors a month. Who are all those people? They have no idea. No web startup does. And since you don’t know your users, it’s dangerous to guess what they’ll like. Better to release something and let them tell you.

Wufoo took this to heart and released their form-builder before the underlying database. You can’t even drive the thing yet, but 83,000 people came to sit in the driver’s seat and hold the steering wheel. And Wufoo got valuable feedback from it: Linux users complained they used too much Flash, so they rewrote their software not to. If they’d waited to release everything at once, they wouldn’t have discovered this problem till it was more deeply wired in.

Even if you had no users, it would still be important to release quickly, because for a startup the initial release acts as a shakedown cruise. If anything major is broken– if the idea’s no good, for example, or the founders hate one another– the stress of getting that first version out will expose it. And if you have such problems you want to find them early.

Perhaps the most important reason to release early, though, is that it makes you work harder. When you’re working on something that isn’t released, problems are intriguing. In something that’s out there, problems are alarming. There is a lot more urgency once you release. And I think that’s precisely why people put it off. They know they’ll have to work a lot harder once they do. Paul Graham

2. The smaller the release the smaller chance something goes wrong.

This point is so logical it would be hard to challenge (but I’m sure someone will). The smaller the change set, the less that is affected by the change set. Isolated features can safely be deployed without examining the entire system for issues. By isolating development into specific features you are able to shrink the amount of QA necessary and can be able to automate nearly all of it. Furthermore frequent releases with isolated changes make tracking down issues easy as you have a much smaller set of changes to review.

3. Quicker releases = faster fixes

No team is perfect, from time to time, regardless of the process, a release goes out with a bug. The shorter the release cycle the faster those fixes are in the hands of consumers and the less the development team needs to live with a known bug in the product. Nothing drives developers productivity down further than having to handle bug reports of issues that have already been fixed but keep being reported. Simply stated there is a great cost to an organization for every day a bug is fixed and not released. The worst part is that this is a cost that can be completely avoided with continuous deployment.

4. The more often the releases the better the quality of released code

With longer releases there is an enormous amount of pressure to “Make the release” We’ve all been there 2 days before the release and 4 days of work to go. We can’t delay the release, and we are so close so we pull a couple all nighter getting the code completed before the release. Triumphant we celebrate that we overcame the timeline and conquered the schedule.. or did we. What typically happens is that buggy code is committed and released, developers experience burnout and are frustrated, productivity and quality and stability are all compromised. The team behind chromium found this. As the Chromium blog, Release Early, Release Often states:

Under the old model, when we faced a deadline with an incomplete feature, we had three options, all undesirable: (1) Engineers had to rush or work overtime to complete the feature by the deadline, (2) We delayed the release to complete that feature (which affected other un-related features), or (3) The feature was disabled and had to wait approximately 3 months for the next release. With the new schedule, if a given feature is not complete, it will simply ride on the next release train when it’s ready. Since those trains come quickly and regularly (every six weeks), there is less stress.

Chromium moved to a much shorter 6 week build cycle, very rapid for desktop software, but that same 6 weeks would be considered long on the web due the instant acceptability of the web. There’s only ever one version out there, everyone adopts it immediately.

5. Frequent releases allow true prioritization of business needs

The longer the time between releases the more managers try to “fill the release”. When the release is treated as a bucket that need to be filled with perfect efficiency than managers compromise the more important for the “fits now”. Rather than attacking the most critical work and releasing when ready, managers pride themselves on their ability to wield a Gantt chart like Tetris filling up ever single block. What they gain in efficiency they lose in business.

6. The more often the release the better the team will be at releasing

This out of necessity, and there are plenty of stories of teams that implemented continuous deployment and had disastrous results, but as a general rule smart teams will get better at something the more frequent they do them. Additionally, the more often they have to eat the cost of deployment the more likely they are to build processes around it to minimize that cost. A manager may decided that the process needs to be refined to a given point before incurring the cost frequently. This is excellent and serves all as the team will have a more polished and improved deploy process while providing the above benefits. As Drew Miller states

The more often you release, the better you are at releasing; release overhead decreases over time. With long release cycles, the pain of release inefficiency is easy to ignore and justify and the urgency and incentive to trim that waste is very low. The sense of urgency for frequent releases drives velocity, more than off-setting the cost of release overhead. Drew Miller

The longer the release cycle is the larger and more complex the changeset is, the longer the delay to market is and the greater the risk of misdirection. The safest release cycle is the shortest sane one for any given situation. Whether that’s 6 minutes, 6 hours, 6 days or 6 weeks, keep it short and you’ll avoid risk.