The founder's guide to Continuous Delivery: what it is, how it came about, and why it matters

Tim Dorr
CTO and Founder

If you lead a SaaS business, you’ve likely heard a lot about Continuous Delivery as a modern way to release new software. But what exactly is Continuous Delivery? And what impact might adopting it have on your business?

More than just a passing fad, Continuous Delivery has fundamentally changed the way we deliver new software to market and can create an enormous competitive advantage for the teams that adopt it. With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about Continuous Delivery – from what it is and how it came about to why it matters and the downstream impact it has on organizations.

What is Continuous Delivery?

Continuous Delivery is the process of pushing software updates to your product as soon as they are developed and tested. This practice typically results in updating your product several times a day.

The goal of Continuous Delivery is to give your customers a regular stream of updates, resulting in a highly accelerated feedback cycle. For example, with a Continuous Delivery approach, you can talk to a customer about an issue, come up with a fix and then have that fix in front of them in the product all within a day. In fact, in my experience, Continuous Delivery has helped solve problems for customers within the software in as little as 15 minutes, including going from the point of customer contact to pushing the solution live.

That said, Continuous Delivery is not just about solving issues quickly; it’s also about releasing new features as soon as they’re ready rather than releasing everything in a single, large chunk on a set cadence (i.e. monthly).

How did Continuous Delivery come about?

Before the internet, companies would physically release software once a year in the form of a CD-ROM or floppy disk. The rise of the internet simplified this process by allowing companies to push software updates digitally on a server, versus having to distribute them physically. Overall, that shift sped up the release process significantly and ultimately brought us to the point where companies would typically issue new releases quarterly or even monthly rather than annually.

This timeline continued to accelerate over time as companies began to build software to automate the release process so that it would require less manual work. As that automation covered more and more of the complete software release cycle, it became very simple to make updates available at any moment in time.

Simultaneously, companies also began automating testing. This automation led to continuous integration, the concept of testing fully integrated software running on real systems with real components in place. Continuous integration allows for everything to be tested together, rather than having to test each particular unit individually. For example, rather than simply checking that a button is green and clickable, continuous testing ensures the button works within the entire context of the page to confirm that nothing else within the software prevents it from being clickable.

Ultimately, the introduction of continuous integration increased the confidence that software was ready to go live. And once teams achieved that confidence, the next logical step was to run the automated release process. Together, the ability to automate testing and automate the release cycle led to the rise of Continuous Delivery – and companies saw the benefits of this approach almost immediately.

Why should you introduce Continuous Delivery?

Introducing Continuous Delivery offers an engine to accelerate product-market fit. Specifically, companies that are obsessed with finding a product-market fit (as all companies should be!) benefit from Continuous Delivery because this approach drastically shortens the cycle of identifying a need, developing a product to meet that need, releasing that product to market and validating that product as a solution based on real customer feedback.

For early stage companies, Continuous Delivery offers a competitive advantage by making it easier to get products to market faster and by offering more opportunities to get the product-market fit right. For example, if you have an early stage company with 12 months of runway and you do monthly releases, you only have 12 times to get it right. But if you do multiple deliveries a day, then you have thousands of times to get it right. As a result, Continuous Delivery significantly increases the chance of success and can even speed the timeframe in which you achieve that success.

For more established companies (including those in growth mode or even enterprises), Continuous Delivery can also prove a competitive advantage. In this case, Continuous Delivery allows you to get new products to market much faster than your competitors. There is so much innovation and movement in today’s technology that being able to adapt quickly to customer needs and requests is a must. On the other hand, companies that wait around for months or even weeks to release new features will get left in the dust.

What do you need to consider when getting started with Continuous Delivery?

Because Continuous Delivery enables you to release new product features as soon as they’re ready, it represents a true fundamental shift in how you produce software. Importantly, this shift will have ripple effects throughout the company.

That’s because once you change how you release software, it will also change how you market, sell and support that software. For instance, once a new feature gets released, marketing and sales can immediately begin promoting it and support must be well-versed to help train users and troubleshoot any issues.

In the long run, this type of transformation can positively impact the business by improving cross-functional communication and speeding up nearly everything (consider the case of your sales team talking to customers and selling them an add-on feature that was just released an hour ago). However, getting to that point does require changes in processes for already established businesses. These changes involve everything from creating better streams of communications across key functions like engineering, marketing, sales and support to creating good content quickly to help all of these functions get up to speed on the new releases.

While these changes are certainly possible for companies of any stage, the earlier in the life of your business that you begin Continuous Delivery, the easier these processes will be to implement since doing so will require less behavioral change.

How can you get started with Continuous Delivery?

Every company, no matter how early or late stage, can benefit tremendously from the competitive advantage that introducing Continuous Delivery provides. And the time to get started is now.

Introducing Continuous Delivery will come with some changes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. The easiest way to get started is with a solution like Spaceship that is built to help fully automate the software testing and delivery process and make Continuous Delivery the default mode for engineering teams.

Interested in learning more? Contact us today to find out how Spaceship can help.

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