“An incalculable number of upgrade releases occur every year—and yet most are still frantic affairs, full of missteps and hurried decision-making,” says Jim Manias, vice president of sales and marketing at Advanced Systems Concepts, a job scheduling and workload automation product and services provider in Morristown, N.J. “With all the releases happening in the software world, one would think the process would have evolved into a science by now. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.”
For anyone who is familiar with how upgrade releases typically happen, it’s difficult to argue the point. I discussed the issue in a recent email interview with Manias, the fruit of which was a list of 10 ways software product teams can do a better job of releasing upgrade versions that are reliable and that foster goodwill with customers. Here’s the list Manias came up with:
1. Time well.
Timing is critical to a successful release. Stick to a schedule and keep your industry’s priorities in mind. If you announce too early, and the product isn’t available on time, customers will not be happy and your releases will appear to be unreliable. You also have to factor in timing when it comes to holidays and other industry events. For example, releasing a B2B product or service at the end of December wouldn’t make much sense, because people are generally out of the office around that time. Make sure all your milestones are well-planned and achievable, with margins for error factored in.
2. Kill the bugs.
No one wants to release a product with major errors. So why does it happen so often? Inadequate planning, poor testing, and premature announcements are just some of the reasons. Releasing a buggy version or product can be very, very difficult to recover from. It frustrates the customer, jeopardizes hard-earned trust, and creates problems post-release. No matter how good your marketing campaign is, if your product has major bugs, you’ll feel the backlash.
3. Test for performance.
Enterprise customers have different implementations, environments and systems. So don’t limit yourself to one testing environment; test under a wide range of conditions. If your app relies on internal servers, be sure to load-test them—and then test them under an even bigger load to ensure your servers can withstand the peak demand associated with the update.
4. Test for compatibility.
Many teams never account for their enterprise customers’ past use of the product. It’s important to ensure that any customization or data stores customers have associated with your product will operate as expected under the new release. Wherever possible, test against the tailored conditions your biggest customers have established in order to assure seamless compatibility.
5. Review pricing impact.
If you are adopting a new pricing model, you’ll need to reevaluate its impact on the company’s sales strategy, as well as on your sales organization. Will pricing affect sales commissions? How might that situation change your sales projections? Don’t forget to review your support fees and levels of support, in case adjustments are warranted.
Build a landing page that generates excitement for your upgrade well ahead of time. Make sure industry analysts have a chance to learn about what’s coming, and work with your public relations firm to get the word out to key influencers in the media. Blogs and well-timed articles can be a great help in a successful launch.
A successful launch plan synchronizes all departments, including Engineering, QA, Marketing, Sales, Tech Support and Training. Everyone needs to be moving in the same direction; you can’t have Engineering and Marketing ready to launch, while Training hasn’t yet built the next version’s capabilities into its courseware. Wise coordination extends to your external audiences, as well. Communicate with your customers what requirements are necessary, and give them time to prepare.
Support teams need to be educated and comfortable with the new features and capabilities so that when issues arise, solutions are in hand. Supply your knowledge base with articles and how-to videos that address the new version, and respond quickly to questions over social media with tips and how-to’s.
9. Get behind the wheel.
Adequate testing includes your own test drive. Download the upgrade kit, and then install and try the new features for yourself, just as a customer would. By testing all the links and steps yourself, you’ll avoid a lot of customer frustration.
Inevitably, some users will have trouble with your new upgrade. Don’t brush them off or minimize their concerns; take part in forums and blogs as an opportunity to learn and respond to requests. In the end, wise preparation and effective implementation make a software release successful. Take the time to plan, organize, execute, and learn—and in your customer’s eyes you’ll be upgrading your reputation, along with your software.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.