Nine Best Practices for Managing Software Releases and Upgrades

May 21, 2020
Jon Price

As organizations integrate more systems into their operations, it’s important to create a standardized release management process for handling the overall health of its software.

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When it comes to an expensive investment like software, it needs regular attention and support to really get the most value from it. Especially as organizations integrate more systems into their overall operations, it’s important to create a standardized process, known as release management, for managing the upkeep of them. This process handles all the stages involved in a software release from planning and scheduling, developing and testing, then deployment and support.

Software release management isn’t always considered, but it can enable or be a detriment to an organization depending on their (or lack thereof) approach to it. Let’s look at the value behind it, risks associated with mismanaging it, and several best practices to get a better handle for managing your software releases and updates.

The value of release management

Software updates aren’t just put out as recommendations, they always provide value or mitigate risk in some form. In addition to the normal security and bug fixes, updates can include new or enhanced functionality and features, or better compatibility with different devices or applications. They can also remove outdated feature and improve the overall stability and performance of it.

Essentially, software updates create a better user experience for everyone – from the actual software’s business user to the consumers of software – like a website visitor or application user.

The risks of waiting to release new software updates

Waiting to update can make your overall digital ecosystem unstable, insecure, and eventually require you to make costly, extensive updates. Not updating software can lead to accrued technical debt from being out of date, exposing the business and its customers to security risks and other vulnerabilities, and disrupting operations by needing to make larger updates when you decide to do so. Proactive release management can mitigate a larger scope down the road.

Best practices for software release management

Here are several best practices for improving or getting started with your software release management:

#1: Create an inventory of your systems and processes

Audit and document all of your production systems, including any processes that must be in place to deploy software and to enable users to use it. Not only will having a referenceable list help you create a better release management schedule, it can help you identify and understand what types of software you have, opportunities to condense or replace systems, and what teams use them.

#2: Find alignment between software and business priorities

Understand the impacts of technology on different areas in the organization and how it aligns with and supports business priorities. Take a look at company goals and plan along with its digital strategy, find opportunities where software can create market differentiation for the company, and prioritize what can deliver the most value.

#3: Get to know your software update schedule and versioning breakdown

Review your software’s roadmap and cadence for releasing updates, including the involvement required of each one. Some may release new features weekly for you to manually update to receive while others may automatically apply updates as they become available. While most systems follow the industry standard of semantic versioning (Major, Minor, Patch, Build), review how each system categorizes and handles its upgrades. By recognizing how often systems release new updates and features and the difficulty of what each change entails, the better you can plan around implementing and adopting them.

#4: Keep up with regular maintenance tasks

As different departments become more dependent on IT to stand up new technology, it’s critical IT supports the systems they helped put into place. If you don’t have capacity in-house to manage the development or testing of releases, or you prefer to use that time for internal R&D efforts, ask your software vendor for credible tech partners that you can outsource managing releases for you. The more you can keep up with your software’s releases, the less time-intensive and more predictable upgrading to the latest version becomes.

#5: Back up everything you can

Ensure that any critical data is backed up and keep track of any customizations to code you may have implemented. While custom code shouldn’t be affected by an upgrade, occasionally, if any code is out of bounds of normal customizations, the software may overwrite that file. Keep track of any customizations or data that may need to re-implement post-upgrade.

#6: Test, test, and test again

Insufficiently tested software may break under a production environment. We always recommend having three environments of your site for development, stage/pre-production, and production. Additionally, have a “test audience” within your staging environment that you can perform a regression test on as part of the upgrade process to ensure software performs the way it’s expected to.

#7: Automate and standardize what you can

While it may take some time to initially set it up, automate and streamline any task that is repetitive or redundant. This allows for teams to increase efficiency without typing up valuable human resources for R&D initiatives and providing value to the organization elsewhere. In fact, many software solutions have options to make it a more automatic, or on the flip side – manual, process.

#8: Have a robust change management plan and process

One of the most critical components to release management is the change management plan within it, or the processes that guide how you prepare, support, and help individuals and teams make and adopt those changes. As software evolves with each deployment, you must have a plan for recognizing what those changes are and informing the different teams involved of them.

#9: Find a schedule that works for you

The cadence at which software updates are released aren’t always the most practical for teams to keep up with. For example, Episerver puts out releases every two weeks but because not every team can afford the time to update that frequently, we recommend clients schedule quarterly upgrades to mitigate costly, heavier-lifting, time-consuming upgrades. Review internal calendars and software releases to create a schedule that your team can manage and aligns with its workload.

As technology and systems continue to play a more integral role in overall business strategy, it’s important to prioritize your ability to maintain and sustain the health of them. When you have a plan that you can reproduce and understands what it takes from each system to upgrade, you will see greater organizational alignment, predictability, and quality software delivery. Consider these nine best practices as you look at your organization's release management process, and don’t hesitate to reach out to our team if you could use some help.