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An idea known as continuous delivery is bubbling up from software development organizations, giving business executives good reasons to pay attention.
Continuous delivery is a development approach where software is be released in constant, small increments. Popularized by Amazon and other others that manage massive codebases, the practice emerged as a way to reduce the risks associated with software releases. But it turns out that continuous delivery also has significant implications for professionals who work beyond IT walls.
"Fundamentally, continuous delivery is a business decision," said Mary Poppendieck, software development expert and co-author of The Lean Mindset: Ask the Right Questions. "If your competitors are doing it and you aren't, you are toast."
Continuous delivery benefits business professionals by letting them experiment with marketing strategies and products under development, getting fast feedback long before products are fully baked. Business professionals are essentially conducting mini focus groups whenever they want, figuring out what works and what doesn't. "None of this is possible without continuous delivery," said Stephen Forte, chief strategy officer for mobile toolmaker Telerik.
Testing marketing messages
Mary Poppendieckco-author, 'The Lean Mindset: Ask the Right Questions'
On the most obvious level, continuous delivery benefits businesses because it boosts code quality and reduces the risk of software failures that can harm a company's reputation. Continuous delivery also allows an organization to respond rapidly when unforeseen events occur. Recent security breaches are a good example, Forte said. You can find the bug -- say, a flaw in the code that lets hackers steal credit card numbers -- and fix it fast. "In the past, that would have [required] a Herculean effort," he said.
But the real appeal of continuous delivery is deeper than that. It allows business executives to roll out two different marketing messages, for example, and see which one results in a higher conversion rate, according to Forte. "Which marketing message resonated better? It's classic A/B testing," Forte said.
This approach applies not only to marketing strategies and software but also to physical products. "You can render a prototype of a widget, set up a landing page and ask people to sign up," Forte said. "Should the widget have one button or two?" Continuous delivery lets you test that sort of thing, he said.
Continuous delivery: A godsend to product managers
The ability to do that kind of testing has significant implications for the way a business develops new products, Poppendieck said. "It enables the rapid flow of product ideas into production. That means you can experiment. You can test a feature and pull it back," she said. "Continuous delivery is a godsend to product managers."
Knowing early what works and what doesn't can prevent disasters, Poppendieck said, referring to the failed launch of HealthCare.gov. If they had tested features during product development, they would have found out early that users of the application "didn't want to fill out a million forms" before being presented with information on policies and prices, she said. "Continuous delivery lets you implement quickly and get feedback in a short time. And that is a product manager's objective."
Constant releases -- not necessarily to customers
As businesses move toward continuous delivery, it's important to understand that just because they have the technical capability to constantly deliver software updates to customers doesn't mean they should, said Johanna Rothman, a software development expert who heads Rothman Consulting Group. "When you release software to the customer is a business decision. You might decide to do that four times a year, depending on what type of business you're in." But behind the scenes, the practice of continuous delivery takes place. Instead of directing software updates to customers, updates are deployed to a staging server. "We have tested [the code]. We know it works. But we don't turn it on," Rothman said.