A Release Engineer’s view on rapid releases of books

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As a release engineer, I’ve designed and built infrastructure for companies that used the waterfall-model and for companies that used a rapid release model. I’m now writing a book, so recently I have been looking at a very different industry through this same RelEng lens.

In days of old, here’s a simplistic description of what typically happened. Book authors would write their great masterpiece on their computer, in MSWord/Scrivener/emacs/typewriter/etc. Months (or years!) later, when the entire book was written, the author would deliver the “complete” draft masterpiece to the book company. Editors at the book company would then start reading from page1 and wade through the entire draft, making changes, fixing typos, looking for plot holes, etc. Sometimes they could make these corrections themselves, sometimes the changes required sending the manuscript back to the author to rewrite portions. Later, external reviewers would also provide feedback, causing even more changes. If all this took a long time, sometimes the author had to update the book with new developments to make sure the book would be up-to-date when it finally shipped. Tracking all these changes was detailed, time-pressured and chaotic work. Eventually, a book would finally go to press. You could reduce risk as well as simplify some printing and shipping logistics by having bookshops commit to pre-buy bulk quantities – but this required hiring a staff of sales reps selling the unwritten books in advance to bookstores before the books were fully written. Even so, you could still over/under estimate the future demand. And lets not forget that once people start reading the book, and deciding if they like it, you’ll get word-of-mouth, book reviews and bestseller-lists changing the demand unpredictably.

If people don’t like the book, you might have lots of copies of an unsellable book on your hands, which represents wasted paper and sunk costs. The book company is out-of-pocket for all the salaries and expenses from the outset, as well as the unwanted printed books and would hope to recover those expenses later from other more successful books. Similar to the Venture Capital business model, the profits from the successful books help recoup the losses from the other unprofitable books.

If people do like the book, and you have a runaway success, you can recoup the losses of the other books so long as you avoid being out-of-stock, which could cause people to lose interest in the book because of back order delays. Also, any errors missed in copy-editing and proofreading could potentially lead to legal exposure and/or forced destruction of all copies of printed books, causing further back order delays and unexpected costs. Two great examples are The Sinner’s Bible and the Penguin cook book.

This feels like the classic software development “waterfall” model.

By contrast, one advantage with the rapid release model is that you get quick feedback on the portions you have shipped so far, allowing you to revisit and quickly adjust/fix as needed… even while you are still working on completing and shipping the remaining portions. By the time you ship the last portion of the project, you’ve already adjusted and fixed a bunch of surprise gotchas found in the earlier chunks. By the time you ship your last portion, your overall project is much healthier and more usable. After all, for the already shipped portions, any problems discovered in real-world-use have already been fixed up. By comparison, a project where you write the same code for 18-24 months and then publish it all at the same time will have you dealing with all those adjustments/fixes for all the different chunks *at the same time*. Delivering smaller chunks helps keep you honest about whether you are still on schedule, or let you quickly see whether you are starting to slip the schedule.

The catch is that this rapid release requires sophisticated automation to make the act of shipping each chunk as quick, speedy and reliable as possible. It also requires dividing a project into chunks that can be shipped separately – which is not as easy to do as you might hope. Doing this well requires planning out the project carefully in small shippable chunks, so you can ship when each chunk is written, tested and ready for public consumption. APIs and contractual interfaces need to be understood and formalized. Dependencies between each chunk needs to figured out. Work estimates for writing and testing each module need to be guessed. A calendar schedule is put together. The list goes on and on… Aside: You probably should do this same level of planning also for waterfall model releases, but its easy to miss hidden dependencies or impact of schedule slips until the release date when everything was supposed to come together on the day.

So far, nothing new here to any release engineer reading this.

One of the (many) reasons I went with O’Reilly as the publisher for this book was their decision to invest in their infrastructure and process. O’Reilly borrowed a page from Release Engineers and invested in automation to switch their business from a waterfall model to a rapid release model. This change helps keep schedules realistic, as schedule slips can be spotted early. It helps get early feedback which helps ship a better final product, so the ratio of successful book vs unprofitable books should improve. It helps judge demand, which helps the final printing production planning to reduce cost wasting with less successful books, and to improve profits and timeliness for successful books. This capability is a real competitive advantage in a very competitive business market. This is an industry game changer.

When you know you want “rapid release for books”, you discover a lot of tools were already there, with a different name and slightly-different-use-cases. Recent technologies advances help make the rest possible. The overall project (“table of contents”). The breaking up of the overall project into chunks (“book chapters”). Delivering usable portions as they are ready (print on demand, electronic books + readers, online updates). Users (“readers”) who get the electronic versions will get update notices when newer versions become available. At O’Reilly, the process now looks like this:

Book authors and editors agree on a table of contents and an approximate ship date (write a project plan with scope) before signing contracts.

Book authors “write their text” (commit their changes) into a shared hosted repository, as they are writing throughout the writing creative process, not just at the end. This means that O’Reilly editors can see the state of the project as changes happen, not just when the author has finished the entire draft manuscript. It also means that O’Reilly reduces risk of catastrophic failure if an author’s laptop crashes, or is stolen without a backup.

A hosted automation system reads from the repository, validates the contents and then converts that source material into every electronic version of the book that will be shipped, including what is sent to the print-on-demand systems for generating the ink-on-paper versions. This is similar to how one source code revision is used to generate binaries for different deliverables – OSX, Windows, linux, iOS, Android,…

O’Reilly has all the automation and infrastructure you would expect from a professional-grade Release Engineering team. Access controls, hosted repos, hosted automation, status dashboards, tools to help you debug error messages, teams to help answer any support questions as well as maintain and improve the tools. Even a button that says “Build!”!!
The only difference is that the product shipped from the automation is a binary that you view in an e-reader (or send to a print-on-demand printing press), instead of a binary that you invoke to run as an application on your phone/desktop/server. With this mindset, and all this automation, it is no surprise that O’Reilly also does rapid releases of books, for the same reasons software companies do rapid releases. Very cool to see.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because I’m now putting together my first “early release” of my book-in-progress. More info on the early release in the coming days when it is available. As a release engineer and first time author, I’ve found the entire process both totally natural and self-evident and at the same time a little odd and scary. I’d be very curious to hear what people think… both of the content of the actual book-in-progress, and also of this “rapid release of books” approach.

Meanwhile, it’s time to refill my coffee mug and get back to typing.

John.

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