Enrich Tech Teams’ Software Delivery Processes With Feature Flags

Anthony Brebion
November 25, 2019
10 min read
Flagship.ioFeature FlagsEnrich Tech Teams’ Software Delivery Processes With Feature Flags

Let’s face it, continuous delivery can put a lot of pressure on technical teams. Release cycles are short, workloads are heavy, yet the results must perform optimally. A small but powerful technique can help tech teams avoid delivery bottlenecks and safely release new features – the feature flag.

Let’s talk more about feature flagging and how a feature management solution for tech teams can streamline release processes. 

What are feature flags, and why use them?

Feature flags are part of feature management and enable tech teams to manage a feature throughout its entire lifecycle. You can use feature flags to separate feature release from code deployment and to turn features on and off at any time. This might not sound very impressive, and you might be wondering why you should use feature flags in the first place. Well, here are three key benefits:

  • They are emergency switches. Have you ever seen the red buttons on big machinery labeled “Emergency Stop”? Feature flags are like these buttons for your software. Let’s say a new feature causes damage to your server. The solution: Deactivate the function using its feature flag without having to deploy any code.
  • They help reduce risks. Do you have a new idea for a feature but don’t know whether your users will like it? Use a feature flag to enable the feature only for a defined set of users. But there’s more you can do, such as canary deployments, beta programs, and A/B testing. They all help ensure a feature’s quality and performance before releasing it to your user base.
  • They support continuous delivery. Suppose your next release is imminent. Yet, one of the features is still under development. Sure, you could use complex feature branching and make sure they don’t go into production. But it would be a lot easier to only have the main branch, wrap the unfinished feature in a feature flag, disable it and still deliver your new release.
Feature flagging diagram

The role of feature flags in the bigger picture of product development

Some tech teams aren’t sure if the time invested in creating and maintaining feature flags is worth it. Yet, feature flags reveal their true potential only when you combine them with other techniques. Thanks to progressive rollouts and server-side experimentation, you can ensure that your product meets users’ needs in the right way. In the end, they allow tech teams to do their jobs more efficiently. Developers don’t need to worry about unpleasant surprises and the final ramifications of a release. Let’s explore more! 

Feature flags & progressive rollouts

You may be familiar with the following situation: Before you release a new feature, you want to test it with QA and a small group of users. Since the tests produce good results, you push the new component into production. Unfortunately, the feature and your server configuration don’t play well together. Your server crashes. As a result, you may break SLA agreements with customers, lose money, and damage your reputation.

Feature flagging is here to the rescue! Once you notice the damage, you can disable the malfunctioning feature in seconds – without deploying any code – to avert the worst. Progressive rollouts prevent this situation from happening in the first place. DevOps can identify the problem earlier when the feature is still being served to a limited but larger number of users. Then they have the chance to react to this malfunction and avoid application downtime.

Feature flags & experimentation

Let’s imagine another situation. Your customers and stakeholders have a lot of feature requests and feedback on your product. But even after you’ve categorized these inputs and boiled them down to a minimum, there are still plenty of different ways to turn them into reality. Also, you don’t know which solutions will bring the best results. But, you are under pressure to act and have to deliver.

Experimentation helps you master this challenge. Test different approaches, measure their performance and find the best variant. Let’s say you’ve outlined two different ways to onboard users and want to see which one works best. You might want to switch to a different payment provider but first want to test if it works with a subset of users. Experimentation lets you see what provides the best experience and KPIs. Finally, setting feature flags is a basic experimentation technique that gives you more control over what to test with whom and when.

Why is the need for dedicated feature management solutions rising?

More and more people around the world rely on software for their personal and professional lives. The increasing demand also means that more software companies jump into existence, and the market is becoming denser. You aim to continuously deliver products, updates, and new features to stay relevant and keep up with your niche competition. However, tech teams need reliable workflows and tools to get the desired results in this fast-paced environment.

While many companies did not have organized release processes in place a few years ago, the situation has changed since then. Today, many use continuous development and delivery to respond to users’ needs while keeping up with the markets.

By integrating feature management techniques, you can further optimize these processes. But how can you use feature flags for your purposes? And how can you combine them with experimentation and progressive rollouts?

Yes, you guessed it: invest in a dedicated feature management solution. You have three options: 

1) build a tool yourself from scratch

2) create a platform based on adequate open-source projects

3) use an existing third-party solution

In theory, you could build the platform yourself. But do you want to burden your tech teams with this complicated task? You also need to consider whether you have the right expertise and resources available, and you will have to worry about ongoing maintenance. There’s a lot you have to think about. But let’s put your thoughts on this aside for a moment and see how a feature management expert who provides the right tool for the job can help.

A build vs buy chart when it comes to feature management software

Tackle the challenges of continuous delivery with a feature management platform

The challenges that tech teams have to face on a daily basis are manifold. But what difficulties do these teams meet in their day-to-day work with feature management? And how can a dedicated solution like Flagship help them? Let’s find out!

CTOs & IT teams

CTOs want high-performing development teams to continuously deliver high-quality software. They likely have several teams under their wings that they expect to act independently and ensure release quality. Modern software contains many feature flags that must be maintained over a long time. But how can CTOs keep track of things? A tool to collaborate with tech teams on release management would help CTOs save time and diminish costly misunderstandings.

Yet, the successful implementation and integration of such a complex tool into the IT landscape can represent a significant hurdle. IT teams must have enough resources and expertise. In the long term, they have to spend a lot of time monitoring and maintaining the platform. Apart from that, IT teams already have their hands full with tasks for their company’s digital transformation. 

A dedicated feature management tool like Flagship brings all teams together on a common platform. In this way, you can optimize the release times and minimize risks thanks to more efficient and effective collaboration and feature management. Since Flagship is a managed SaaS, IT professionals don’t need to spend resources on maintenance. We take care of things for you and develop Flagship further so that you can always work with a secure and state-of-the-art solution.

Data Teams

For data-driven product development, teams need to access relevant analytics data to check a feature’s performance. For example, they need to analyze and assess user behavior in detail after a new feature has been integrated into a product. When testing new features, they need to activate and deactivate them and control what to test when and with whom. Unfortunately, it is often impossible to simulate an identical copy of the production environment. This leads to inaccurate results, and lets teams make imprecise data-driven decisions.

With Flagship, data teams can comfortably analyze feature performance in a visual dashboard, set goals, and track them with real-time reports. This way, they can ensure that the results align with business goals and find new ways to improve the product. Finally, feature flags and progressive rollouts eliminate the need for staging servers and prevent inaccurate data. As a result, data teams can fruitfully improve the software by making appropriate data-driven decisions.

Development Teams

Software developers should focus on building functionality, not fixing bugs from previous versions, and doing rollbacks.

Working with feature flags can also be very time-consuming, as software engineers shouldn’t lose track of the flags’ status. Especially with large teams, the risk of unnecessary errors creeping into the software increases. Developers neglect feature flags due to the time pressure and perhaps no longer use them at all. 

Finally, if there’s no suitable solution, these issues can affect the duration and regularity of release cycles.

Hence, development teams need a framework that allows them to enforce feature flag best practices, stay in control, and collaborate effectively with team members. 

We understand that feature development and feature releases are two sides of the same coin. Bottlenecks in development can affect release times. Poorly structured release processes can hinder development by preventing engineers from developing new features. Flagship aims to bring these teams closer together by collaborating on common matters in a shared tool. 

To do this, they have access to all essential feature management tools by default. So there’s no need to invest manpower in building a solution themselves. We also make things easier for them by providing a visual dashboard for creating and managing feature flags with simple clicks – no code deployments required.

And since we have developed Flagship for developers, we offer them everything they need to work with the tool:

  • easy-to-use SDKs 
  • comprehensive documentation 
  • API references 
  • other useful developer resources like this blog

QA & release teams

Without proper workflows, tech teams struggle to conduct controlled releases and experiments. DevOps spend a lot of time managing staging servers and keeping their configurations similar to production. Nevertheless, there’s a higher risk that tests run on staging servers will yield inaccurate results that lead to incorrect conclusions.

Yet, QA specialists and DevOps teams rely on A/B tests, canary releases, and beta programs to ensure that they deploy high-quality features securely. Often they don’t know about the current status or the use of a feature flag in the code either. Especially if they don’t have access to an overview of existing feature flags. As a result, it gets trickier to keep track of ongoing tests and deployments, and who can see which features at what times.

We designed Flagship to meet today’s demands for fast and continuous delivery. Our solution enables tech teams to collaborate in one place, monitor issues, and control each deployment in a visual dashboard. Release teams can thus keep full control over deployments and take full advantage of progressive rollouts.

Additionally, DevOps teams can focus on more important things than managing staging servers. That’s because Flagship eliminates the need to use these environments in the first place. Using feature flags in production, QA can always see how a feature works in its real-world environment and get accurate test results to work with.

The power of feature flags is at your fingertips.

Feature flags are an integral part of modern product development, including experimentation and progressive rollouts. This simple technique is vital if you want to provide stable, high-quality functionality to your users. Using a feature management solution like Flagship, your tech teams can use a single tool to streamline workflows and communication. Regardless of a team’s tasks or focus, our feature management service has everything it takes to deliver the right features in the right way.

Flagship by AB Tasty recognized as a leader in The Forrester New Wave: Feature Management And Experimentation, Q2 2021
About the author
Anthony is Growth and Marketing Operations Manager at AB Tasty. He's focused on sales and marketing automation but also loves to learn web development, cloud computing and web design on his spare time.

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