The Release Mission

Tommy McClung
April 30, 2020
The man in the moon symbolizing the Release mission
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Hey everyone, we’re Tommy, David and Erik, co-founders of Release. We wanted to take a minute and kick off our blog with a post about our mission at Release. We’re a mission driven organization working on one of the most important unsolved problems in all of technology.

Release exists so great ideas can freely and easily make their way into the world.

Getting great ideas into the world is still too hard

We’ve been building software and products for the greater part of 20 years. We’ve been involved in every type of company from the smallest startups (just the three of us) to being a part of the growth of a unicorn (David at Etsy) to becoming the technology leadership team at a public company (TC). There is one thing that has remained a constant throughout our entire careers in technology. Great ideas are trapped behind systems that are too difficult to manage and great ideas remain stuck in the minds of brilliant people with no way to unleash them on the world.

Every organization has some velocity in which they are delivering ideas. It’s a function of the number of people in the organization times how easy a change is to make and release. What tends to happen is these two numbers are inversely correlated. The larger the number of people, the harder it is to release ideas and changes. Why is this?

In the beginning, when you’re a startup, the number of people is small but the ability to change the system is incredibly high. Primarily because no one is paying attention and you have nothing to lose. You can release software, it can break and no one knows. So you just go about releasing as fast as possible. Things break. No one cares. You either have no users or very few early adopters and they expect things to break. You’re optimizing for velocity over all else and it is an amazing time of delivery. (and happiness for everyone).

As you start to add customers and employees you can feel product velocity slowing. You become more careful, you have more to lose. You start putting checks and balances in place to ensure changes have high quality and meet your users needs. You begin protecting what you’ve built and for good reason. You’ve got customers paying you, employees who’s lives depend on these customers and the products you’re delivering. You now have something to lose. The bigger you get, the more you have to lose.

Managing complexity as you grow gets harder

At the core of these product velocity/release issues is how difficult technology is to manage as things scale. As you add engineers, you add capacity to change and introduce new products but you’ve also added a ton of ways things can now break and your systems get more and more complex. Every change you introduce into your technology ecosystem introduces a risk or a reward.

Being careful becomes what you do. You start testing more diligently, you may start automating things. All in an effort to keep velocity high and minimize your risk. As you become more diligent, you add more people to either add new things or protect against things breaking. (Automation, QA, etc…). With more people, more risk, more testing, more automation… the cycle continues.

I’m sure if you could chart output per employee at every company. You’d find that in every organization, the output per employee is inversely correlated to the number of people in the organization. The more employees you have, the more complex everything gets and the less each individual employee produces.

As product velocity slows, other issues emerge. There becomes a time when the output per employee drops to a level that only so many things can get done as more change is introduced into the system. The systems can’t handle the change… so now ideas start to get trapped. You have to meet and make decisions on what ideas will you attempt. It’s easy for ideas to be ignored and not attempted on their merits any longer. They are attempted based on who has the most seniority to make a decision in an organization. Politics emerge, ideas are trapped.

At the core of this problem are the systems the organization uses to get their ideas into the world. The better the systems are to handle change, the more ideas they can try. The less ideas remain trapped and the more the organization can grow.

You’re at a disadvantage

You are at a disadvantage to the great technology companies. They understand this issue and have overcome it, otherwise they wouldn’t be where they are. They have solved slowing innovation by investing heavily in their internal systems and platforms.

I just did a quick search on Facebook’s job hiring site as of the date of this writing… There are currently 338 open Infrastructure positions at Facebook. 338. The same search for the number of software engineering roles open at Facebook turned up 237. Over 100 more infrastructure roles than software engineers. That was even more unexpected than I though.

Here’s the same data on Google. 778 Software Engineering Roles. 1072 Infrastructure roles, 200 DevOps roles.

If one company’s platform to allow change (with low risk) is higher than another’s, they have an inherent strategic advantage. They can adapt faster, they can attempt new business lines faster, they can outmaneuver competitors because they are fast. They’ve found a way to increase productivity per employee and scale at the same time.

But it comes at a massive cost which is prohibitively high for most organizations.

There are two things that are alarming for companies that are not Facebook or Google (or any other mega company). The first is you can’t compete with them for talent. They will always be able to pay DevOps and infrastructure engineers more than you. So the best in the world aren’t going to be working for you. The second is, if you aren’t investing in your infrastructure, you’re not moving as fast as you could… and ideas in your organization are trapped. A good measure to know if you’re in this situation is to think about the politics in your organization. If you feel like you have a lot of politics, you probably have trapped ideas.

Why we started Release and our Mission

In every company we’ve been involved in from the smallest startups to the public companies, we’ve had to combat slowing innovation. We’ve had to invest heavily in building platforms to enable rapid delivery. Nothing existed in the world that just got the job done. We had to stitch together solutions, hire teams, spend millions of dollars to try and make our engineering orgs move fast. And even then, we had to keep building on it, keep spending to maintain and evolve our platforms.

And guess what? It wasn’t our core competency as a business, but we knew if we didn’t invest heavily we wouldn’t be able to innovate We knew, for a fact, that great ideas were trapped and we were in an endless cat and mouse game. One could argue that building these internal systems enables customer happiness, but I would argue that largely these are solved problems and a distraction for most organizations.

Release exists so ideas can freely make their way to the world. When ideas can freely be released, the best ideas will emerge, politics will lessen and power structures in organizations will become less important. To achieve this mission we’re building the technological capability that supports rapid change that is accessible to everyone. We’re starting with environment management because we believe it’s one of the hardest unsolved problems, but our driving force is enabling companies to deliver ideas fast.

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