We take a look at the definition of technical debt, its causes and types and how to manage it through the use of 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 and that’s through feature flags.
Let’s talk more about feature flagging and how a feature management solution for tech teams can help 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 gives you full control over the release process allowing you to ship features to subsets of users and avoid the risky big bang release.
Therefore, there are many benefits to using feature flags, among them include the following 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 as feature flags can be used alongside a number of deployment strategies, 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.
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.
Other teams besides development teams can also reap their benefits as feature flags can be used across a number of use cases to suit each teams’ needs.
This is especially the case when you have an advanced feature management solution which gives all teams more control and flexibility over the release process.
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 rapidly changing consumer demands.
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 depending on your needs and resources:
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, including the points highlighted below when it comes to the build vs buy debate.
The next section will look into how opting for an advanced third-party solution can help streamline your teams’ delivery and release processes.
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!
Flagship is a feature flagging platform that eliminates the risks of future releases by separating code deployments from feature releases so you can safely deploy new features anytime to anyone you choose. The platform is packed full of features and was especially built to cater to the needs of both development and product teams.
Product managers often have great ideas but often, such ideas come with great risk. Feature flags are a great way for product managers and their teams to test out these ideas safely while collecting valuable feedback from real-world users.
In particular, feature flags provide value for product managers in two key ways:
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.
This is where feature flags can come to the rescue.
Once you notice the damage, you can disable the malfunctioning feature in seconds – without deploying any code – to avoid any major negative impact.
However, keep in mind that progressive rollouts can actually prevent this situation from happening in the first place.
With progressive rollouts, as the name implies, you can progressively release a feature to a specific audience directly from the Flagship dashboard by choosing each deployment step and the proportion of traffic allocated to your users.
This way, teams can identify any problems earlier when the feature is still being served to a limited 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. You’re also not quite sure which solutions will bring the best results. But, you are under pressure to act and have to deliver.
Experimentation helps you master this challenge.
With experimentation, product teams can compare different variations of features with users to reveal which one has the best positive impact. Afterwards, the better performing variation can be rolled out to the rest of your users.
Thus, experiments are a great way to help product teams to learn and prioritize resources allowing them to focus on what to optimize for the best outcomes.
Feature flags give you more control over the release process by running experiments on developed or modified features with a small subset of live users in order to see whether they’re performing as intended before going for a big bang release.
Flagship, in particular, offers server-side experimentation allowing you to run more sophisticated tests and advanced experiment capabilities. You can then conduct safe experiments for your features by setting up user-targeting and KPIs to track putting you on the road to quicker and safer releases.
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.
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.
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. Moreover, the risk of unnecessary errors creeping into the software increases when working with large teams. As a result, developers may be discouraged from using feature flags due to the time pressure and perhaps no longer use them at all.
Additionally, bottlenecks in development can affect release times. Poorly structured release processes can also hinder development by preventing engineers from developing new features.
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. As a result, Flagship aims to bring 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 including:
- 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.