The Release Engineer's Job

May 24, 2013

From the start of product development until the user finally puts their hands on the application, the software development process needs to be streamlined as much as possible. In the last decades, many techniques, processes and even job titles were created to help in this quest. One such job title is the release engineer.

You'll often find release engineers working closely with software engineers—and other professionals such as QA Engineers, SREs, and more. 

They might collaborate in improving the whole SDLC, from product development until the choice and configuration of a deployment tool, passing through details of how automated testing will be conducted, how versioning and packaging will work, and more.

In this post, you’ll learn more about the work of a release engineer and how it can improve the release process, making the whole software lifecycle more efficient as a consequence.

What does The Release Engineers job typically look like?

Release Engineers are the unsung heroes of the IT world. They are the people who literally work behind the scenes building, innovating and making people’s lives easier when it comes to improving the release process. These professionals keep the continuous integration and continuous delivery conveyor belts moving, creating a framework for development of a stable software pipeline. They also make sure version control is applied to the correct code sets in different environments and develop automated configuration tests. The list goes on and on.

Who Becomes a Release Engineer?

Typically before release engineers move into this role, they would have been a software developer, system administrator or an automation scripter in a previous life. Naturally, release engineering is heavily focused on scripting and integration so it's rare to find release engineers who don’t have a programming background.

Release Engineer vs. Software Engineer vs. Site Reliability Engineer

If you sometimes feel confused about the plethora of terms, initialisms, job titles and buzzwords in the software industry, nobody will really blame you. It is confusing. In this section, let’s briefly compare the role of a release engineer with similarly sounding jobs. That way, you’ll be able to understand how this role fits into the overall puzzle of a software development organization.

Software Engineer

Software engineers are also known as software developers or programmers. These are the professionals who actually write the code to create new features and fix defects in existing programs. They are knowledgeable not only in logic and coding, but also in the business domain they're included in. They use that knowledge to design, plan and implement software components that solve the client's business needs in efficient ways.

Site Reliability Engineer

A SRE (site reliability engineer) is a new kind of professional that emerged in recent years. You can consider this role as a fusion between a software engineer and an IT/operations professional. These are professionals that employ a software engineering approach to maintaining applications in production, managing infrastructure and services, and ensuring the reliability and efficiency of systems.

Release Engineer

Finally, the release engineer. How does this professional differ from the previous two we’ve seen?

First of all, a release engineer isn’t the same as a software engineer because typically a software engineer is mostly concerned with writing code that solves customer-facing problems. The customers of a release engineer are his coworkers. A release engineer concerns themselves with the configuration, packaging and delivery of software, but they don’t typically code new features or solve bugs.

And an SRE, as you’ve seen, is a professional much more concerned with infrastructure and system reliability, and ensuring things are running smoothly in production.

The Day-To-Day of a Release Engineer

On a daily basis a release engineer's job involves collaborating with developers, testers and system administrators across various stages of the development lifecycle. They are also involved in service transition plays when handing over scripts and packages to IT Operations for execution in production.

Release engineers look after software configuration processes (this applies to infrastructure and applications), continuous integration (which is ensuring that developers’ code can be automatically built using a 1-click build server process), continuous delivery (packaging up of code and configuration bundles and deploying them with automated tools to different test environments and production) and version control tools.

What are the common tool sets used by Release Engineers in their job?

(There are literally hundreds of tools but naming some of the most common)

SCM (software configuration management)

  • AccuRev

  • Clearcase

Version control & Source Repository

Release Automation -also known in the new world of DevOps as Continuous Delivery

Automated Test

Continuous integration

Scripting languages

  • Python

  • Perl

  • Ruby

  • Javascript

How does one become a release engineer?

As you’ve seen, a release engineer is typically a former software engineer, system administrator or an automation scripter. So, if you want to become a release engineer, it makes sense to pursue an education similar to that of software engineers, sys admins, etc. That might include, for instance, obtaining a degree in Computer Science or similar.

Also, reading can’t do you any harm, right? It’s valuable to read the “classics” of this topic. The example that comes to mind is Continuous Delivery: Reliable Software Releases Through Build, Test, and Deployment Automation by Jez Humble & David Farley. Despite being a somewhat old book, it has resisted the test of time, and most of what it has to say is priceless advice for those starting their CI/CD/DevOps journey. For a list of other classics, check out this selection of 21 Must-Read DevOps Books.

The Release Engineer’s Job: Past, Present and Future

This post was an introduction to the job role of a release engineer. As you’ve seen, this role differs from those of a software engineer of a site reliability engineer. Sure, there are overlaps, and collaboration between these different roles is valuable and expected. At the end of the day, though, they’re still different from one another.

So, you’ve just read about the present of the release engineer’s job. But what does the future hold for this role?

Well, this is the tech industry we’re talking about: if you bet on more automation and intelligence over time, you’ll seldom be wrong. In a DevOps world, roles that rely mainly on manual procedures and a reactive approach to release management are bound to disappear. 

On the other hand, organizations that leverage Value Stream Management (VSM) will evolve their approaches to progressive release management, where insights from their analytics dashboards will inform their decision-making. They’ll be able to focus only on real problems, thus freeing time, driving costs down, and being more effective at removing obstacles on their way to deliver value to the customer. Check out our handy eGuide to learn more.

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