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Continuous Delivery isn’t a process — it’s a culture

Hillary Nussbaum

By: Hillary Nussbaum
October 22, 2020

Team members problem solving

Continuous Delivery is the ability to ship code quickly, safely, and consistently, and it’s a necessity for teams that wish to remain innovative and competitive. It’s focused on delivering value to the user and starting that feedback loop early — the ideal state of Continuous Delivery is one in which your code is always ready to be deployed.

Many engineering leaders think of CD as a workflow and focus on the tooling and processes necessary to keep code moving from commit to deploy.

But CD is more than just a process — it’s a culture. To effectively practice CD, you need to:

  • Convey the importance of CD to your team
  • Create a blameless culture, one in which developers feel safe dissecting and learning from mistakes
  • Facilitate alignment between business goals and CD.

With the right culture in place, your team will be better positioned to get their code into production quickly and safely, over and over again.

Explain why CD is important

Processes fail when developers don’t understand their rationale. They may follow them in a nominal way, but they’ll have a hard time making judgment calls when they don’t know the underlying principles, and they may simply bend the processes to fit their preferred way of working.

Code Climate’s VP of Engineering, Ale Paredes, recommends starting with context over process. Explain why you want to implement CD, reminding your team members that new processes are designed to remove bottlenecks, facilitate collaboration, and help your team grow. As they get code into production faster, they’ll also get feedback faster, allowing them to keep improving their skills and their code.

Then, you can set concrete, data-based goals that will allow you to track the impact of new processes. Not only will your team members understand the theoretical value of CD, meeting these new goals will help prove that it works.

Connect with individual team members

Ale warns that when an individual developer isn’t bought into the idea of CD, they’ll “try to hack the system,” doing things the way they want to, while working to superficially meet your requirements. This may seem like it accomplishes the same goal, but it’s not sustainable — it’s always counterproductive for a team member to be working against your processes, whether those processes are designed to promote CD or not.

She recommends using 1-on-1s to get a sense of what motivates someone. Then, you’ll be able to demonstrate how CD can help support their goals. Let’s say a developer is most excited about solving technical challenges. You might want to highlight that practicing CD will allow them to take end-to-end ownership of a project: they can build something, deploy it, and see if it works when they’re shipping small units of work more frequently. If another team member is motivated by customer feedback, you can remind them that they’ll be getting their work into customers’ hands even more quickly with CD.

Creating a blameless culture

Once your team is bought into the idea of Continuous Delivery, you’ll need to take things a step further. To create the conditions in which CD can thrive, you’ll need to create a blameless culture.

In a blameless culture, broken processes are identified so that they can be improved, rather than to levy consequences. It’s essential that team members feel safe flagging broken processes without worrying that they’ll be penalized for doing so or that they’re singling out a peer for punishment.

A leader can help establish that blamelessness in the way they communicate with their team members. Ale’s rules for incident postmortems clearly state that there is no blame. Names aren’t used when discussing incidents or writing incident reports because the understanding is that anyone could have made the same mistake.

Convince the C-Suite

Fostering the right culture on your team is essential to effectively implementing Continuous Delivery, but it’s not enough. CD also requires support from the top. If your company is looking for big, splashy releases every quarter, Continuous Delivery will be a tough sell. Frequent, incremental changes are almost fundamentally at odds with the roadmap that the organization will set out for engineering, and how it will measure success.

To bring Continuous Delivery to an organization like this one, you’ll benefit from applying one of the core principles of CD: incremental change. You won’t be able to drive a seismic shift in one push. Instead, you might try Ale’s strategy and look for ways to introduce small changes so you can start proving the value of CD. For example, you might try automating deployments, which should cut back on incidences of human error and free up developer bandwidth for writing new code.

The Virtuous Circle

Process may start you on your way to Continuous Delivery, but you won’t get far. Pair those processes with a culture of CD, and you just might reach the Virtuous Circle of Software Delivery — the point at which each improvement yields benefits that motivate developers to keep improving.

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