Early stage companies have to be nimble and disciplined when creating and releasing product. One of the important decisions a startup can make is how it chooses to manage its product releases. In a software company a product release affects everyone. A mistimed release can severely impact sales, cash flow, and the company. We had a thorough discussion in a board meeting this week on this very topic. I have to admit I was quite pleased with our new VP Engineering as she put forth her methodology and process, shared below.
There are a couple of different ways to manage engineering releases. One engineering release is date driven, the other is content driven. In a date driven release, the team knows when the next release is out but does not know exactly what will be in it. The release runs like a train schedule, whoever makes it to the station on time is part of the release. The other release is content driven; the team knows what is in the next release, but does not know the exact ship date. The release runs more like an airplane shuttle, it takes off only when full.
While I may be oversimplifying the issue, the one that I like my companies to subscribe to is the date driven one. Of course, just because it is date driven does not mean that there isn't a highly focused theme. It just forces the team to clarify the absolute minimum requirements necessary to deliver the right product for the market. It also discourages feature creep and encourages highly disciplined prioritization. Most importantly, having a date driven release can get everyone at the company aligned. Everyone knows the ship date and sets their schedule accordingly to ensure that all pistons are running as GA hits. This means marketing has to have its collateral ready, upgrade program in place, and product launch schedule set. Sales knows when it can start telling prospects about the new product and time it appropriately so it can get customers lined up for the next quarter without delaying sales in the existing one. Engineering, of course, needs to deliver product and not get distracted. While all of this discussion on product releases sounds great, none of it really matters if you do not have the experienced team that can manage them and instill the discipline. So as you think about your next product release, think long and hard about whether you want the trains to run on schedule or the airplane shuttle to be full. You know where I stand on the issue.