Macmillan Says Good-Bye to All Night Releases Thanks to Feature Flags

3 min read

Developer job satisfaction, or lack thereof, can be a major concern in some companies. Historically, pulling an all-nighter or spending an entire weekend at work to deploy a new release was "part of the job” because there wasn’t another way to release it without impacting customers during normal business hours. And if you were a developer at a company that deploys more than 130 new releases a year? Well, that meant a lot of time at the office.

That was the situation at Macmillan Learning, a CloudBees customer that has been providing content and learning tools to the education industry for more than 70 years. When I chatted recently with Product Manager Brydin Eckert and Engineering Manager Huu Le, they gave me a snapshot of their team’s experience before they started using feature flags to innovate more quickly and the increase in developer morale they have seen since.

Case in point—iClicker Digital Learning Tool—Before Feature Flags

iClicker is one of Macmillan’s most popular digital learning tools to facilitate student engagement. It’s a really interactive product that’s used primarily at the college level. Professors and instructors can build polling and quizzing into their curriculum to access whether students understand the class material. Instructors can also create study tools to reinforce different concepts and to help students prepare for tests and exams. The product works on any device, in-person, online and in a hybrid learning environment.

As Le told me, they used to deploy new functionality directly into the iClicker production product. If something went wrong, there wasn’t an easy way to roll back the new feature. To mitigate that risk, the developers would spend a lot of time on the front-end planning and coordination of releases. Even with all of that effort, engineering teams still devoted an entire overnight or weekend to deploy the new feature due to regression testing that needed to be done.

This situation got to be such a challenge for the company that the developers became reluctant to release new features. At one point, the Macmillan developers even built a separate environment to isolate new releases from the production environment. But, they still didn’t have the control they needed to manage new releases.

After Feature Flags—Satisfaction & Innovation Soar

The Macmillan team adopted CloudBees Feature Management to gain the flexibility they desperately needed, and Eckert said implementing it "was seamless.” Now, they can deploy new code into production and turn on the feature once the code has been cleared by the product manager, the UX team and the QA group. 

The iClicker developers also have the flexibility to deploy new code, a first release or beta, and let the product manager and UX team play with it and provide feedback. This collaborative approach has given the developers the freedom to innovate at a much faster pace than before because they don’t have the fear and risk of a flawed deployment hanging over their heads. Eckert said she really likes this approach because they’re able to iterate much faster.

But, let’s get back to the all-nighters. Eckert said it best: "A good number of our hundred-plus releases would have required significant overnight hours for me personally. That’s not the case anymore. I can flip feature flags on my own time, and that’s tremendous.”

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