How we’ve made release management quicker and simpler

Release management is about how we plan and schedule when we’re building software. Every digital team has its own release management process but sometimes it’s worth reassessing it to make sure it’s as slick and quick as it could be. That’s exactly what we did.

How things were

Our process on the Digital Operations team was complex and repetitive. It was very specific to the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) framework which is used to align IT service management with business needs. Our process was also dependent on a single gatekeeper. It didn’t work for us.  

The process worked like this:

  1. A developer would email me a release note.
  2. I’d forward it to the environment owner.
  3. They’d give me permission over email to put the release into their environment.
  4. I’d email the developer to say this was approved and to advise when complete.

This process would then go on for each of the 3 environments (system integration testing or ‘SIT’, pre-production and production) so testing could be started. A typical release would result in around 30 to 40 emails. It meant we wasted a lot of time and the release cycle was slow.

The recording process wasn’t much slicker either. I had to update 3 spreadsheets, make a new folder for each release note and save each one to a central location. Then I sent an email every evening to document what releases we’d made that day.

Something had to change

Frustrations were running high because it was such a tedious, long-winded process. Developers were frustrated because of the amount of emails they had to send and environment owners were frustrated because of the amount of emails they were receiving. It wasn’t practical or sustainable.

Making things simpler and quicker

We agreed what the ideal release management process should look like. We wanted something less email-intensive, more intuitive, easier to manage, something that’s always up to date.

Photograph of the Trello board on a big screen in the office.

I thought a kanban-style approach using Trello and Google Forms might work well. We still had a requirement to keep the release note part of the process so I created a Google Form that asked similar (but more simply-worded) questions. We could then convert the answers from the Google Form into a PDF using Google plug-ins, email it to the Trello board so it would be automatically converted into a card and appear on the board. At this point we’d reduced the amount of emails by between 5 and 10.

Adding in audits

We ran this new process past environment owners who thought a series of checklists on the Trello cards would be useful. This way we could include evidence that testing had been done and that we’d released in the correct order through the environments. When the Change Advice Board (CAB) reviewed releases they had the evidence there already and this would save time.

Trello also lets you assign tasks to people and they’ll get a notification when something’s been completed. So developers could release without having to wait for an email because the testing team had given approval which triggered a notification for the developer. This saved another 5 to 10 emails.

Testing things out

At this point we held demo sessions before putting the Google Form live. After a week we evaluated where we were at. The feedback was positive: releases didn’t get stuck at any approval points, there were far fewer emails and there was a live version of the status and position of releases at all times. The whole thing was much easier and it was self-managing.

Going from good to great

We kept improving the process and after 6 months we’d changed the way we labelled releases as well as the automation of release checklists when a new release is added. I was now only spending around an hour a day making sure things were flowing correctly.

We’re now coming up to a year since we started doing things differently and the process is down to minutes per day. It’s now totally self-managed by the developer, testers and product managers which gives us more time to work on what we’re actually here for: solving bigger problems.

Steven Allcock
Digital service manager