The Definitive Hiring Guide for Enterprise Release Managers

Mar 19, 2016

This is the third installment in a series on hiring considerations within a modern enterprise software environment. For the second installment, click here.

An Enterprise Release Manager (ERM) is a new role in the enterprise and it is a by-product of several factors. First, enterprises continue to report larger portfolios with an increased number of smaller, more independent projects. At the same time more companies are decentralizing deployment and release responsibility to individual development teams. With more projects releasing software to production more frequently organizations are establishing a new level of IT release management: the Enterprise Release Manager.

Multiply the number of releases by the number of projects in a department times the number of departments. Then, factor in the number of individuals responsible for supporting software delivery and you’ll quickly realize that releases often involve everyone coordinating on challenging schedules under impossible deadlines. The Enterprise Release Manager is there to ensure that an organization has the proper structures in place to allow the company to scale efficiently.

More Projects, More Releases: More Management

When an organization only delivered one or two major software initiatives per quarter the idea of having multiple levels of release management made little sense. There was a lot of ceremony around the launch of these large, waterfall-based projects, but the release frequency was lower. Today we have large companies with hundreds of projects competing for limited “runway” space in the form of testing environments and production support resources. To use an airport analogy application release managers are the gate agents while Enterprise Release Managers keep track of the entire terminal (and your organization’s release schedule may start to remind you of a flight status display at O’Hare during a thunderstorm.)

Today, some organizations deliver one or two major software initiatives every week (or every day.) Couple this with faster, more self-service releases and your organization needs someone focused on release coordination and alignment across multiple departments.

Enterprise Release Manager Job Description

Here’s what we would list if we were currently seeking the right candidate for an Enterprise Release Manager position:

Seeking a senior project management professional with a focus on coordinating release activities across an entire enterprise portfolio. This role would involve coordination across multiple departments and the oversight of several application release managers each focused on a subsystem or collection of applications. This Enterprise Release Manager position is responsible for tracking and sequencing releases across the entire organization. This role will also focus on risk mitigation of release-related risks and conflict resolution between projects requesting access to limited production support and release engineering resources.

Ideal candidates will have demonstrated an ability to communicate status of software delivery efforts to senior management along with a capacity to manage and track activities across multiple departments and development teams. Candidates with experience across both software development management and application release management are encouraged to apply for this executive-facing position.

This position requires experience modeling resource demands across departments and establishing company-wide KPIs to measure release related activities.

This management level position provides visibility to senior management for release-related activities across the entire portfolio, and this job description strikes the right balance between recruiting a senior project manager and someone seeking a director-level position. Your goal in recruiting an Enterprise Release Manager is to find an individual somewhere between a senior manager and a director. You’ll also want someone with established management experience as the Enterprise Release Manager will often be presenting to C-level executives who are focused on software delivery.

Roles and Responsibilities

  • Developing common strategies for release governance across multiple departments

  • Facilitating cross-department coordination of release management functions

  • Tracking an enterprise-wide release calendar

  • Informing senior management of enterprise-wide exposure to release risk

  • Mitigation of enterprise-wide release risk

  • Measuring release cadence and effectiveness using common metrics across entire software portfolio

  • Creating common standards and formats for release playbooks and working with production control to standardize release decision-making

  • Defining common mechanisms for rollback and standards for capturing release-related performance indicators.

  • Forecasting demand for release resources and identifying opportunities for greater efficiency across the enterprise

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

  • Management is a critical skill for an Enterprise Release Manager. Individuals operating in this role won’t be focused on the details of individual releases; instead they will be focused on the overall trends across multiple development teams.

  • Communication is another critical skill. An Enterprise Release Manager is setting the overall environment for release management and governance as such they need to be able to communicate with both management and individual application teams to create an environment where teams understand the shared vision for releases across the enterprise.

  • The ability to identify and eliminate redundancies at the portfolio level. An Enterprise Release Manager is there to recognize patterns and opportunities for improvement throughout the entire organization. As more organizations adopt self-service deployments and releases it is the Enterprise Release Manager who ensures that this movement toward self-service doesn’t result in confusion.

  • The capacity to understand multi-level failure scenarios that can result from release activities. Enterprise Release Managers are the high-level referees for release activities and an ERM will get pulled into discussions surrounding release-related downtime and risk.

Who is the Ideal Candidate?

An Enterprise Release Manager is a senior resource on the boundary between mid-level project management and IT management. Depending on your technology strategy the role may also involve high-level decisions related to enterprise-wide strategies for DevOps and deployment. Look for someone who can interact with managers at the Director level and above.

Seek out a candidate who can connect with the work effort involved in releases. This doesn’t mean that they could conduct a release by themselves, but in any technical organization it’s a good decision to make sure that managers understand the technologies they are managing. Today’s release engineers and developers will quickly lose confident in a manager who doesn’t understand the basics. Look for some awareness of technologies: what are the differences between a VM and a container? What are the defining characteristics of Java or .NET applications? Awareness is key, but detailed knowledge isn’t necessary.

The ideal candidate would be an experienced application release manager who has a track record of being a communicator and a coordinator. If an application release manager’s job is to facilitate communication and avoid conflict between a single project and it’s dependencies - an Enterprise Release Manager’s job is to identify the conditions that could lead to conflict and make strategic decisions to avoid conflict. An application release manager plays a constant game of chess to ensure that a single project is delivered on time, and an Enterprise Release Manager has the ability to change the rules of the game. Find someone who can think strategically.

Who Not to Hire

At the largest organization your Enterprise Release Manager is a manager of other application release managers. Don’t hire someone who believes that an entire organization can be “shoe-horned” into a single release process or a single software development lifecycle. In a decentralized organization there is a need for centralized governance, but there is also a mandate for teams to achieve some level of independence. Don’t hire a resource who sees enterprise release management as a “one-way” conversation focused on governance. Find a candidate who can bridge the gaps in an organization and who knows how to use portfolio-level policy to act as a change agent over time.

Since this role is still developing there are going to be variations on the requirements and approaches to enterprise release management. Take this post as a suggestion, but always think about the unique characteristics of your organization and hire accordingly. Over the next decade you’ll find that the Enterprise Release Manager or the managers that excel at enterprise release management are going to be the people that get promoted. The high-level governance of releases and the coordination between multiple groups in an increasingly self-service enterprise are the competitive advantages that are starting to differentiate top performers from everyone else.

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