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Continuous Deployment – a critical ingredient for innovation

Imagine you work as a developer for Etsy. In case you haven’t heard of Etsy, it is a marketplace where people around the world connect, both online and offline, to make, sell and buy unique goods. It has 1.5 million sellers, almost 22 million active buyers, and in 2014 it had gross merchandise sales of almost $2 billion. So you could say it’s doing quite well.

Now let’s just say you happen to notice a problem with the Etsy website, or perhaps you think of a way it could be improved. At most organisations you would probably tell your manager about the problem, who would probably tell his or her manager, and after waiting a few weeks you might then get approval to make your desired change. In short, you have very limited ability to make changes you believe are important.

At Etsy it’s a completely different story. When I met up with Chad Dickerson, Etsy’s CEO and chairman, in their Brooklyn offices in New York, he told me that anyone in the team can make a change to the Etsy website whenever they see a need. (Etsy.com had over 40 million unique views per month when we spoke; at the time of writing it has around 60 million.)

‘We do something on the engineering team called continuous deployment’, explains Dickerson. ‘That’s a fancy way of saying that we’ve given every software developer, every product manager the ability to change the site at any time. Back in 2009 when we started this approach, not many companies were doing this. Typically, websites do a release every two weeks. We release or do code deploys about 35 times a day [this has since increased to up to 50 times per day]. The really exciting thing is that there’s no central authority that manages the releases.’

In practice, the developers at Etsy manage the releases with each other. ‘If I’m a developer and I’m making a change to the site, I get into what’s called a push queue. I tell everyone else that I’m about to push code and it’s almost like the whole neighbourhood is watching you’, says Dickerson.

Every single person at Etsy has the ability to do this without explicit approval. It’s very, very decentralised and very, very fast. And if you ever go for a tour around Etsy’s head office in Brooklyn, you will see monitors with all kinds of charts and graphs showing how many code deploys they have done in a day.

Through continuous deployment, the team at Etsy is always experimenting and gathering data. ‘We are able to push things out and test, push things out, test, push things out, test, on a really rapid basis’, says Dickerson. ‘We’re able to learn about products and make changes for the better pretty much constantly. If you have a two-week release cycle, you can only learn new things every two weeks. In our case, you learn something new every 20 minutes, which is really exciting.’

One final key benefit of continuous deployment is that the approach has a bias towards action. In an organisation where releases are done only every couple of weeks, or every month or so, it becomes so easy for someone to suggest improvements and for that suggestion to get lost in the noise. ‘I think when you can deploy code at any time and make a change at any time, it makes it a lot harder to say “We should do this”, because the answer is: just do it’, says Dickerson.

By giving everyone in the organisation the power to make real change, innovation is dramatically enhanced. You might be thinking, ‘There is no way I would trust my team to make changes to a website that is getting 40 million unique views a month’. But think about it from an Etsy developer’s point of view. There is no way they are going to make a change without feeling very confident it will make the website better, because all eyes are on them.

Etsy certainly isn’t the only large web-based organisation that encourages continuous deployment. Vimeo, one of the world’s largest video-sharing websites, has exactly the same policy. Any given day will see over 30 changes deployed to Vimeo.com.

‘You can’t keep track of all the pushes that go on because they’re constantly fixing, they’re constantly upgrading. We just try not to do things on Friday afternoons!’ says
 Dae Mellencamp, Vimeo’s president.

The essence of continuous 
deployment is that it grants employees autonomy over their
work. People have the freedom to fix things that need fixing, and make
improvements where they see fit.
 Continuous deployment doesn’t require managerial approval, nor does it involve a manager simply telling an employee what to do.

About the Author

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium (www.inventium.com.au), Australia’s leading innovation consultancy. Her latest book, The Innovation Formula (Wiley $29.95), tackles the topic of how organisations can create a culture.

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Amantha Imber

Amantha Imber

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