The Chronological Countdown

Ideally, if you had a magic wand the entire release process would happen simultaneously. The developers would hand you over a finished product and simultaneously manuals would be printed, CDs duplicated, press contacted, files uploaded, and so on. However, in the real world there are inevitable delays and you must consider the sequencing. Here's the helicopter view of how to approach it.

A new product or release is about to come out. A date has been set. What do you do? First you work out how likely that date is to be met. Does the development team have a good track record? How much work and bug fixing has yet to be done? Do you need to build your schedule around factors that have fixed components, such as synchronizing with a major computer exhibition? If you have any worries, build in an appropriate contingency.

Then, long before QC sign-off on the product, you need to initiate a number of other tasks to ensure they happen in time for the launch.

♦ Write/update manuals and Help systems

♦ Commission printers

♦ Draft press releases

♦ Set training in place

♦ Contact the press

♦ Create the marketing materials

♦ Reserve advertising time and space

By specifying the program properly, the manual, Help system, and training writers will be able to compose the relevant parts of the manual even if those bits are as yet unfinished when they start writing.

Public relations, as you will see in Chapter 14, is wonderful not just because it can often be gained at zero cost, but because independent magazine and newspaper articles command an integrity of review over any self-penned and funded advertisement. Make the most of this opportunity. It only comes once in every product's life.

If appropriate, try to get journalists to cover your product in the general and trade press. The press typically require twice their media production cycle's notice, so a monthly magazine likes around two months' notice to slot your details in, and weekly publications need two weeks. The odd one out is newspapers. Although they come out daily, most have weekly computer sections, so again, they need two weeks' notice. Unlike magazines that have lots of space to fill, newspapers don't and are highly selective, so you have to have an interesting story and coincide with their topics.

Advertising has long production lead times, especially if artwork (TV, pictures, drawings, and so on) is required. Media space has to be purchased (page in magazines, television/radio slots) in advance. Whoever is in charge of marketing will take a view how far in advance, if at all, they want to start product awareness to build up interest before the actual launch.

If your release is backed up by advertising it is vital that you don't overshoot your deadlines. If you are undertaking this, I advise adding in a contingency period, at least a week, after the expected delivery date so that you have time if the software fractionally overruns.

If your product is a Web site, a lot of the logistics that are about to be described are irrelevant. You only have to copy the software onto the Web servers and away you go. However, if you were Microsoft bringing out a new version of Word, you'd have a lot of physical components to produce and distribute in time for the launch.

Print times depend on the complexity of the document, and availability and capacity of the printer (a 300-page manual can be printed, dried, and bound in under a week). Disk and CD duplication is relatively fast but book your slots in advance. Unless you are going to overwhelm the local haulers (Microsoft hired 300 refrigerated trucks for the launch of NT), shipment can be ordered as required. Allow a day or two's margin for shipments being delayed and so on.

In the midst all of this logistical and marketing work, the penultimate part of release is communicating. Distributors need to be informed of the new product and versions and your own sales and support staff must be informed. Sales need to know what the product does, the benefits, why (and why not) customers should purchase and upgrade, and have clear pricing policy to work off. Support need to know the new features, bugs that have been fixed, and an overview of the types of problems the developers feel the new versions will generate. It is effective for senior developers and marketing staff to explain this to both the sales and support staff. This underwrites the importance of release.

It is frightening how many companies let their customers tell their staff that a new release has been put out. Imagine how that makes your employees feel—are they part of the team or are they irrelevant?

Note It is smart to have a general programmer on hand for the support staff during the early days of release who can help go through calls and monitor if anything irregular is going on. This is a good way for the programmer to see what they are inflicting on the support teams and for support to feel part of the development process.

By now the software has been duplicated, manuals printed, and advertising and PR are created and in place. What's left now is the actual launch. This covers the uploading and publishing of software online, activating online versions (games, Web sites, Web services), and PR launch activities such as launch parties. Remember to include the development and support teams; they've been doing all the work. Nothing is more undermining for developers than being shown corporate videos of senior executives swigging champagne at a launch party and knowing they're just expected to get on with work as if nothing has happened. Release is the culmination and celebration of many months' work and is your opportunity to recognize and thank everyone who has helped to create the product.

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