Is it a Train, is it a plane?


It’s not a train

We’re in the habit of talking about release trains. It is an easy metaphor and is well understood by pretty much everyone in IT. But it’s time to stop.

When we think about catching a train we know we can arrive a few minutes before it is due to depart and we can still get on board and seat ourselves pretty much where we want. The ticket barrier is often non-existent and, once we’re on, rarely is our ticket inspected. We can bring any amount of luggage with us, containing who knows what, and no one really screens it. And, in the days before automatic doors, I’ve sprinted down the platform, flung open the door and jumped into a many a moving carriage on the Waterloo-Reading line.

So what message does this send to the project teams who want to join our release train? Come onboard, one and all, we don’t mind if you’re cramped and have to stand. The entry criteria is low and often waived. We don’t really have time to check that you have all the credentials you need to be on here, we trust you not to be disruptive and play Stockhausen on your Jambox, and we assume you know where you’re going and why. Of course if you are on the wrong train you can always get off and get the next one.

Today we have many release management processes that are well designed and implemented but they are too often not enforced. Let’s change the metaphor to the release plane.

Now, to get on the release plane, you have to go through TSA, the QA/QC of IT, first. Not only are you not bringing your handgun and Bowie knife, you’re not bringing lethal amounts of mouthwash and hair gel. Don’t even think of bringing your great aunts steamer trunk, that she brought from the “old country”, as hand baggage because the ever vigilant gate agent will wrestle it from your grip, admonish you, and tag it for delivery at your destination … maybe. And this all happens before you even see the plane. If you are not standing patiently with the throng in the 20 minutes allocated for boarding you are not getting on. When that door closes no amount of pleading, no serious family matter, no life and death mission and certainly no critical career making meeting is going to make any difference.

And do you know what? We all know this. The airlines have conditioned us to accept that their terms of carriage and timetable are intractable. The railroads have conditioned us that their open platforms and open seating and open tickets means they are there for our convenience.

Imagine if the railroads ran the airlines. There’d be no security lines, you could get on any plane you want carrying whatever you want and sit anywhere you want. The co-pilot would collect your ticket and the air marshall would check the odd piece of luggage and frisk the odd passenger but only if they happen to be on board.
Entry on to the release plane requires you to not just meet but exceed the entrance criteria. You have to meet the weight limits for your project luggage or pay a lot more. Your identity needs to be verified, you’re not getting on unless the government has issued you credentials, there are no favors because you dated, once, the spouse of the VP of marketing for your airline when you were in grade school. You need a real, verified, budgeted and approved reason to be there.

Seats are rigidly assigned on your release plane on a first come first served basis. There is no standing in the aisles. There’s also no slouching, today’s optimized plane schedules mean every flight is full, every seat occupied and if you want to bring your cello you’d better buy it a seat. But book early because this Airbus A340 has exactly 284 seats and it’s been 90% sold for the last 6 months.

Lately I’ve been working with a leading component manufacturer with a massive release management problem. Their release trains come just four times a year and when they arrive they are brimming over with all sorts of fantastic cargo and interesting passengers many of whom have been on their journey for months and, some, years. In fact their train has so many wagons and carriages it takes 70 hours to unload.

Trains are not the most agile method of getting from A to B by today’s transportation standards but they are certainly very reliable. Planes get there fast and they turn around quickly, in part because they are expensive to keep on the ground doing nothing, but also because they limit craziness.

It’s time to drop the release train metaphor and start talking about the release plane. It’s time the project teams took responsibility and arrived at the gate ready to go and fully committed to the destination. Let’s not put lack of planning and preparation on behalf of the release passengers as a burden on the crew of the release plane. Once we are in the air there is no chance to add extra baggage, finesse our packing or get off because we decide we’re not ready to meet the prospective in-laws. If you get on the plane you’re committed.

Release managers are pilots. They are highly skilled, well trained and very experienced. They get you safely from your development departure airport to your production arrival airport. Their job is not to make sure you packed your toothbrush or your passport. Their job is not to make sure you really want to spend the winter in Boca Raton. They charge a lot of money for what they do because their job is fraught with danger and they carefully navigate around the storms so you don’t have to. They get you to where you are going on time, and often early, because they care.

Come, fly the friendly skies.

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