Magazine Article | December 1, 2018

Best Practices For Rolling Out A Major Feature Update

Source: Software Executive magazine

By Michael Crouse

NorthStar Point of Sale 4.5 was released in a condensed timeline with an all-in effort from multiple teams, and other software companies can learn from this approach.

Custom Business Solutions (CBS) developed NorthStar seven years ago as its signature cloud-based software POS solution that offers five ways for hospitality businesses to manage and process orders. In August 2018, CBS released NorthStar Point of Sale 4.5 with feature, speed, and accuracy enhancements. Michael Crouse, director of channel development and sales, sat down with Software Executive to talk best practices other software companies can learn from when working on a major release.

SOFTEX: WHO WAS INVOLVED IN THE PROCESS OF RELEASING THIS UPDATE AND HOW DO YOU KEEP ALL OF THESE STAKEHOLDERS ON THE SAME PAGE?

Our process begins months in advance with first and foremost identifying the features we will place into a release. While we have a road map of the product we want to produce, we also actively engage our customers and their customers in what they would like to see. It is truly a team effort when it comes to everything we do — some folks don’t realize the number of people it takes to release software. You have the development team, documentation, training, marketing, implementation, field, and sales just to name a few.

As a general practice we have stakeholders from each of those groups at a bi-weekly stand-up to understand the progress. From there we have a very defined work back schedule that we manage every other week to ensure we are hitting milestones. On the project side we use tools like Project to manage the timeline, Teams rapidly communicate, and we have very specific tools on the development side so everyone has access to the release plan.

SOFTEX: WHAT WAS THE TIMELINE FOR ROLLING OUT NORTHSTAR 4.5?

Software is a living, breathing thing. It is an art form. With any art you have good days and bad days. Originally, we start the planning about six months in advance of the launch date. At any given time we could be looking at between three to five potential versions as we build out our developments plans. For our 4.5 version we actually had about 60 days because of how fast our development team was creating content. At the time we were a little condensed, but that truly is where the workback schedule, dates, and the team really stepped up. I really challenged them by adding some new ideas from a previous launch we did and asked them to look at enhancing our content. We had teams here staying late shooting videos, mocking up sample training documents, etc. While we hit our date, we ended up being about two weeks early, but this was more so because we still had some development pieces that were not complete.

"There are always roadblocks when you are developing software. No matter how many tests you run there are so many little layers of things – you just can’t re-create everything that will happen in a day."

SOFTEX: WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE ON DEALING WITH ROADBLOCKS DURING THE DESIGN PROCESS?

There are always roadblocks when you are developing software. No matter how many tests you run there are so many little layers of things — you just can’t re-create everything that will happen in a day. During the rollout we had to push the release a week or so just because we were not happy with a few minor details. This starts to create some challenges when you have told customers and partners about all the great features you added and then they can’t use them. In general, you have to remain dynamic in your approach. This is truly where communication and trust in the overall team comes into play. If we all understand that the decisions being made are in the best interest of the customer, then we can overcome those challenges and communicate them effectively.

SOFTEX: THE UPDATE INCLUDES FEATURES LIKE MANAGER SWIPE OVERRIDES, ALPHANUMERIC TABLE CODING, AND ITEM SEARCH. HOW DID YOU DETERMINE WHICH NEW FEATURES TO PRIORITIZE? HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT COLLECTING FEEDBACK FROM USERS TO KNOW WHAT TO INCLUDE?

Our road map is influenced by everything we see and hear from our user base. We are deeply connected with them and do our best to walk in their shoes to see how we can make their lives better. The item search feature, for example, came from challenges some customers were facing with a barcode scanner. In working with one of our reseller partners we began the development of our item search. Once we have a rough sketch, we then present it to some users to determine if what we’re building would help. We gather feedback from them and then design some more.

SOFTEX: HOW ARE YOU EMPOWERING THE CBS SALES AND MARKETING TEAMS TO PROPERLY CONVEY THE VALUE OF THESE NEW FEATURES?

Along with planning for our release, there is also a training and information campaign that is a cross-departmental effort with marketing and training. With this release we started providing more digital content, making it easy and quick to understand a feature we built. Along with a full training session for our internal sales team, we added company wide training and invited our reseller community and their customers to a training session. Our goal was to ensure customers understood the product. We strive to make this as simple as possible through marketing push campaigns, blogs, social media posts, and providing actual documentation when needed.

SOFTEX: COMPARED TO YOUR LAST NEW FEATURE ANNOUNCEMENT, DID YOU DO ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY?

We reworked our entire approach with this announcement. Not only was this a big release, but it was also a shift in how we communicated it out to our customers. What was really exciting was to see the fun we had doing the actual work. Watching the team shoot videos, do voice-overs, think about graphics, and talk through the training plan was really inspiring. Overcoming the challenge of creating something we have never done before really allowed who we are as a CBS family to shine through.

The condensed timeline really forced the entire team to pitch in. As a general process we sit down as a team and identify how the rollout went, what we did well, and what we need to improve. Many ideas flourished as a result of this team meeting, and we went back to the drawing board with great innovative ways to revamp what we had created. Not only did we put out some great features, but we also redefined our limits and exceeded our expectations of what we can execute and communicate.

SOFTEX: WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THE PROCESS OF THESE MAJOR FEATURE UPDATES THAT YOU WILL APPLY TO THE NEXT ROUND OF MAJOR FEATURE UPDATES?

We learned that is always room for improvement and we can always push ourselves to strive for better. All it takes for a good idea to become a great one is to listen to one another and not allow the past to dictate our present. Moreover, I think we learned about our features as much as we did about our employees and their passion for our customers. You know people are invested when developers are asking what a specific customer thinks, or when someone walks up at a trade show and comments on your podcast or your video content. What we learned is that by continuing to listen to our customers and our team our product only continues to get better.

MICHAEL CROUSE has 20+ years of experience in sales with various technology companies, including as the founder and VP of ZAutomate, a SaaS-based renewals and data analytics platform for the IT channel. He is responsible for the continued development, management, and expansion of the CBS Compass Dealer Network, which is expected to double in size over the next two years.