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Plutora Blog - Release Management

The Definitive Hiring Guide for An Application Release Manager

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Of all the jobs we’ve described in our series of posts focused on hiring, the application release manager role is the role that has been the most constant over the past several years.

Deployment managers and test environment managers are relatively new job roles emerging only as the number of applications and environments grew as teams became smaller and more agile. Application release managers have been around for a few decades, but even though the role is well established there are some remarkable differences in how an application release manager operates today versus several years ago.

More Projects, More Releases

In today’s quickly moving environment, an application release manager is likely responsible for end-to-end releases for either a single large application or a collection of smaller applications forming a distinct subsystem. It’s the scope that defines the difference between an application release manager and an enterprise release manager. An application release manager is responsible for a specific application.

For example, if you were working at a large, multi-national banking institution with hundreds of application development groups and thousands of developers, an application release manager may be responsible for the system that provides account login and management services across the organization’s web site. In another example, an application release manager may be responsible for the front-end web application portion of a larger architecture. The point here is that an application release manager deals with a finite application or set of applications and he or she is responsible for tracking development progress in the later half of the software development lifecycle. In this way, an application release management role often overlaps with a project manager.

Focused on Individual Release Events

Application release managers are closer to the release process than an enterprise release manager. Where an enterprise release manager is responsible for several large constellations of applications, an application release manager is responsible for a smaller set of projects. It is the application release managers responsibility to ensure that a release process has the appropriate staff and it is the application release manager’s responsibility to ensure that related application development teams have figured out detailed process issues.

When hiring an application release manager, you’ll want to find someone who is familiar with project management. As projects near a release event, much of the coordination work is in driving teams to think about task lists and contingencies. An application release manager also has to be good at understanding how to predict the unpredictable – when application development teams are going to deliver production-ready software. To assist in this responsibility it helps if an application release manager has at least some experience managing or developing software.

Application Release Trends

You’d be wise to bear the shifting software release landscape in mind as you approach any hiring process. These three considerations may well guide your path to greater enterprise success:

Automation and Self-service

Application release managers used to be primarily responsible for managing the approach and landing phase of a project. As a team neared delivery application developers would “hand-off” code to system administrators who were responsible for release playbooks and deployments. More recently, with the industry-wide adoption of DevOps, developers take a much more proactive role in deploying software. An application release manager has become the individual responsible for coordinating multiple teams practicing self-service delivery.

New Governance Gates for Self-service Release Activities

Application release managers are also now increasingly responsible for standing up governance gates during a release process. As releases are happening more frequently, an application release manager may also be responsible for various approaches to verification during and after a release. Testing in production and A/B testing are just two complications that make it more likely that an application release manager’s job doesn’t stop once he or she has told the project manager to execute a release.

Legacy – it’s still there…

As much as application deployments and team structures have changed over the last decade, there are still large portions of any enterprise that continue to operate using processes from the 1990s. There are still legacy systems and massive databases that defy automation initiatives and teams are still toiling away on often ancient servers. For this reason an application release manager at a large corporate will almost always have one foot in the DevOps future and one foot in the process-oriented releases of yesterday.

Application Release Manager Job Description

Here’s what we would list if we were currently seeking the right candidate for an application release manager position:

Seeking a motivated project manager to assume responsibility for application release management for consumer-facing web products. Responsibilities will include managing a regular cadence of software releases from a group of related projects spanning both front-end, web-based application systems as well as systems supporting backend processing for various subsystems. This role will focus on end-to-end release management across four related application development teams organized across functional focus areas. Coordinated release management across this group will consist of the development of release playbooks, collaboration with quality assurance to create governance gates guaranteeing release quality, and the tracking of work effort involved in conducting regular software releases.

Ideal candidates will have a demonstrated track record of managing and motivating teams with a diverse set of technology skills and abilities. Primary responsibility for deployment activities will be managed by deployment specialists and release engineers, but familiarity with configuration management, deployment automation, database administration, and system administration topics will aid in project planning and communicating with technical experts. As a release manager candidates will be expected to assess release-related risks and participate in after-action reviews that contribute to ongoing continuous process improvement initiatives.

This application release manager position isn’t primarily focused on engineering management and project status, but candidates should expect to participate in project planning throughout the entire software development lifecycle. Candidates who understand development methodology and who have experience communicating with both management and engineering will find this position both challenging and rewarding.

 

This job description isn’t very specific: it doesn’t specify technologies or platforms involved, but it does outline the responsibility as being primarily focused on project management and logistics while also suggesting some involvement managing and directing more technical experts.

Roles and Responsibilities

  • Development and ongoing management of release timelines for a single, large application or a collection of related projects.
  • Creation of staffing models to support ongoing release activities starting with support for final QA approval to post-release verification activities.
  • Communicate release timeline constraints to engineering and management and manage risks associated with release timelines impacting other projects in the organization.
  • Forecast demand for release-related support activities given a rapidly shifting set of project times.
  • Develop contingencies for handling release-failure and release-rollback scenarios.
  • Creation of governance gates and tools to measure the effectiveness of teams practicing self-service software releases.

What Skills to Look for When Hiring an Application Release Manager?

  • Ability to manage software development projects transitioning from development to production. While an application release manager will often be supported by direct engineering managers and other project management resources an application release manager often “takes over” responsibility for project management during the time that a project is preparing for a high-risk release. You will want to find an individual who can assume a leadership position and earn the respect of both project management and engineering.
  • As this role continues to develop it is increasingly exposed to technology management, but the job isn’t dominated by technical activities. It is a job managing logistics and planning. An application release manager is 50% project management, 25% communicating with technical specialists, and 25% managing scheduling and resources. Find a candidate who can model release activities and build contingency plans for releases involving teams across multiple time zones.
  • Application release managers occupy one of the most visible positions in the organization, as they are often responsible for making split-second decisions about risks. For this reason look for someone who can command a conference call under high-stress environments and who can inspire confidence when senior management has dialed into a release conference call gone awry.
  • As most downtime is related to release activity your application release manager will get pulled into after-action reviews and will be expected to propose steps to mitigate release risk. Find a candidate who is able to identify problems in a release process and who is committed to participating in reviews with an eye on process improvement. The candidate should be willing to admit faults in a process.

Who is the Ideal Candidate?

Find a project manager with experience supporting production. Your application release manager sits between development environments and production and you should expect them to be a specialized project manager who has the ability to guide teams during the release process. As with most management positions the ideal candidate is an internal hire – preferably a project manager who has a keen interest in the activities surrounding the release process.

Who Not to Hire?

An application release manager is not a deployment manager or a test environment manager. Both of these roles have a smaller, more focused mandate and less exposure to IT management.

Don’t hire someone with too narrow a perspective on software development, but also don’t hire someone who will be distracted by larger, portfolio-wide activities. You are looking for the right balance for what is essentially a mid-level project management position.

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