What is the role of a release manager?

A release manager is an IT practitioner who helps define and oversee the release management process at a company. They contribute to a well-planned and well-delivered release — a solution that works as intended and is delivered on schedule.

Sounds straightforward enough. But in order to fully grasp what a release manager does, it helps to first understand two related concepts — release and release management. A release refers to the features or code that deliver a new customer experience, whether that is a new product or feature, enhancement, or bug fix. Release management describes how you establish a clear process for planning, building, testing, preparing, and deploying a release.

Streamline your release process

Release management is a broad term — the scope can range from delivering a novel customer experience or major new functionality to minor revisions of an existing product. Likewise, the cadence of releases can vary from on-demand to daily, monthly, or quarterly.

Given this variability, no two release manager roles are exactly the same. Your day-to-day responsibilities will depend on the specifics of your organization, offering, and team. This is why it is important to understand both the fundamentals and nuances of the position — so you can succeed no matter what type of company you are at.

A brief history of release management

Before diving into what a release manager does today, let's take a moment to explore how release management worked in the past. Traditionally, IT teams deployed software on-prem. Releases and updates were infrequent — occurring every year or even several years. And because teams usually followed a waterfall approach to software development, the process of planning and building new customer experiences progressed sequentially (and often slowly).

Today, however, more and more companies are deploying software in the cloud. Teams are able to release faster and at a lower cost — ultimately delivering greater value for users. And as companies are embracing agile and DevOps best practices, releases become more of a collective effort between development and operations. Instead of the development team focusing on building solutions while the operations team manages releases, many development teams are automating and running their own releases.

This gives release managers the space to tackle new challenges — such as improving release processes for greater reliability and efficiency, as well as scaling delivery as the organization grows.

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What are the components of release management?

The release management process varies considerably depending on your company's product development maturity, DevOps experience, and team structure. For example, some release managers still work at more traditional or slower-moving organizations that have not yet fully adopted DevOps best practices. A release manager in this type of situation focuses on code accuracy and ensures that the code builds correctly in the target environment.

Other organizations practice formal release management frameworks like ITIL or the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe), which requires release managers to follow a defined release governance protocol. A release manager at this type of company may focus on higher-level issues such as compliance requirements, uptime, and overall system integrity.

No matter what type of organization you belong to, a typical release management process includes the following stages:

  1. Plan — Plan the scope, requirements, and timeline for the release

  2. Build — Software engineers design and develop a solution, then deploy the build to a testing environment

  3. Test — Validate the code to confirm it is ready to deploy

  4. Prepare — The QA team does final checks

  5. Deploy — The development team releases changes to the code into production

Different types of releases often require different people to help manage them. Consider a software company that is gearing up to deliver major new functionality to customers. Many roles are involved in such a release management process — starting with the product manager, who is responsible for defining features and planning the scope of the release. The product manager also works closely with project managers, engineering leads, and scrum masters to align on scope and priorities.

But you still need someone overseeing the technical side of the process to make sure it all goes smoothly — this is especially important at large organizations that deploy code hundreds or even thousands of times per day.

What are the responsibilities of a release manager?

Whereas release managers in the past focused more on the planning, building, and testing stages, many today focus more on operations and compliance. The role is also vital for ensuring a positive culture and experience for IT team members — so everyone can count on a predictable release schedule and celebrate successful deployments.

At a high level, here are some of the core areas you are responsible for as a release manager:

  • Building an automated deployment pipeline and associated processes

  • Defining quality gates and thresholds

  • Monitoring customer feedback

  • Tracking results of test automation suites

  • Collaborating cross-functionally

This last point is worth reiterating. As a release manager, you should be communicating frequently not only with developers and QA, but also members of operations, product management, customer support, marketing, and sales. Collaborating closely with these teams helps you ensure that what you are delivering meets the expectations of customers and the business.

What skills does a release manager need?

Ultimately, a release manager must decide whether or not a release is ready to be delivered. Some of the hard and soft skills a release manager needs to succeed in the role include:

  • Technical knowledge of software development and IT deployment

  • Knowledge of DevOps and continuous integration and development (CI/CD) tools

  • Experience with agile methodologies

  • Clear communication skills

  • Collaborative spirit

Release managers also need to know how to choose tools that will help you deliver releases more efficiently and reliably. Choosing the right release management tool can lead to less waste, greater incremental improvement to the product, and more happiness for users.

This is why many development and IT teams use Aha! Develop. You can link company goals to department goals, collaborate in real time with colleagues, and offer the entire team visibility into the release cycle. When everyone has a clear understanding of what you are working on and why it matters, you can be confident that you are delivering exactly what users need.

See how you can customize agile workflows for your team and build your way — try Aha! Develop for free for 30 days.

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