What does a release manager do in 2020?

Release management has undergone profound changes in parallel with the evolution of the software industry. In the old times of waterfall, releases could be managed similarly to a project. But for companies that practice DevOps, releases are smaller, frequent, and highly automated.

However, the high level definition of what a release manager does hasn’t changed too much. Here’s Stephen Bigelow definition for TechTarget:

“Release management is a software engineering process intended to oversee the development, testing, deployment and support of software releases. The practice of release management combines the general business emphasis of traditional project management with a detailed technical knowledge of the systems development lifecycle (SDLC) and IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) practices.”

Example of release manager responsibilities
Example of release manager responsibilities

The release manager also has to make the go/no-go decision of whether to release new functionality to the product, or what in Scrum is called an increment.

Note that, while very closely related to the production of software, release managers are not part of the agile development team. Much rather, they coordinate all the activities needed in order to make the release happen once the dev team has finished its work.

It’s a tough and stressful job where it’s critical to keep everyone in line so releases are delivered always in time and with the expected quality. The guys at Plutora have made a good job at illustrating the basic value stream of what they call Continuous Delivery Management:

A simplified flow of the responsibilities of a Release Manager

How much does a release manager make?

Because it combines the technical knowledge in automation tools and continuous development with the personal skills and authority of a project manager, release managers are hard to find and are therefore well paid.

Here are the average salaries for release managers in the US, Germany and the UK in 2020, according to Glassdoor and other sources:

  • In the US: USD 95k
  • In Germany: EUR 73k
  • In the UK:  £71k

Typical career path of a Release Manager

How deep does the career of a release manager go? From which positions are professionals hired and onto which roles do they later transition?

Because interpersonal skills are at least as important as the technical background, release managers typically arrive to their position from a variety of responsibilities. Whether you’re working as a regular developer, as a release engineer or in QA, if you become a team lead or get promoted you will have many chances to start filling the shoes of a release manager without the job title: setting up automations, coordinating and generating alignment across teams, or deciding whether a build should be shipped to market are all typical tasks of a release manager.

Depending on the industry, country, and size of the company, the next job of a release manager can differ wildly. Here are some classic options:

  • Being promoted from a smaller company to an enterprise as an Enterprise Release Manager, with responsibility over a broader portfolio of applications.
  • Becoming a Release Train Engineer at an enterprise that practices SAFe
  • Release managers can be well positioned for openings running IT operations as a whole, becoming a VP of IT Operations or even VP of Engineering in companies that practice DevOps.
  • With the breadth of their technical vision, release managers can also embark in profitable careers in the service industry helping customers set up CI/CD pipelines, for example.

Release Manager Job Description

These are the main responsibilities and activities of a Release Manager, selected and slightly adapted from this blog article by Plutora:

  • Negotiate, plan and manage all release activities, coordinating work between different teams at different locations
  • Forward Plan the release windows and cycles across a portfolio
  • Manage risks and resolves issues that affect release scope, schedule and quality
  • Develop scripts and automation tools used to build, integrate, and deploy software releases to various platforms
  • Measure and monitor progress to ensure application releases are delivered on time and within budget, and that they meet or exceed expectations
  • Continually work towards making improvements in the release process

The release manager skillset

What does the release manager need to be able to do? The release manager skillset can easily be divided into hard technical skills vs soft skills

Hard skills

  • Deep understanding and knowledge of CD/CI
  • Application-release Automation (ARA) tools
  • Quality assurance processes
  • Risk management
  • Project management

Soft skills

  • Negotiation
  • Communication
  • Orientation to detail
  • Proactive reformist

Top 5 interview questions

If you want to interview for a position as release manager, add these five questions to your list, and prepare thoroughly for them. Even if you’re not asked straight away, the preparation will give you powerful arguments to present your business acumen, ability as a project manager, proactivity, and interpersonal skills.

  • What can we expect from you in your first 90 days?
  • Please take me through you processes in terms of project management
  • What kind of person do you find it hard to collaborate with, and what do you do to create alignment?
  • How do you use data to make business and product decisions?
  • Describe a time when you didn’t approve a release

Selected readings to keep learning

Jexo's Release Governance Framework

Release and Deployment Management, as defined in ITIL

The Release Train Engineer in SaFE: a servant leader

Release management in the times of DevOps