Why Feature Flags Are a Critical Part of Every Developer's Workflow
Why every developer needs feature flags
Feature flags are a critical part of every developer's workflow that help teams increase deployment frequency and reduce the risk of releases. Their central purpose is to allow developers to quickly and easily toggle features on and off without having to redeploy code. This means that developers can test and deploy features without impacting the stability of the system or their end users. This also helps dev teams validate their features and catch bugs before a feature is released to end users. However, in the event that a bug or issue arises, feature flags provide the ability to quickly and easily roll back changes while your team addresses the issue. Additionally, feature flags can be used to segment user groups and enable A/B testing, which helps developers optimize their product and ensure a better user experience.
The bottom line: feature flags allow developers to increase deployment frequency and ship with confidence, knowing that they’re releasing more reliable code. But in order to understand the importance of feature flags and the critical role they play in a developer’s workflow, we must first understand what it looks like to release code without feature flags.
What does coding without feature flags look like?
As we like to say on the DevCycle team, coding without feature flags is like coding without a safety net.
Big or small, every code change is risky.
First and foremost, without feature flags, developers are unable to quickly and easily toggle features on and off, which makes it difficult to test and deploy features without impacting the stability of the system. Feature flags also allow teams to decouple their releases from their deployments. Without doing this, every change your developers make can impact your end users or system in some way. This inevitably increases the risk of every code change your team makes – no matter the size.
Manual deployments are time consuming, and not scalable.
Secondly, coding without feature flags involves manually deploying code for each change, which can be time consuming and difficult to keep track of. Since it’s difficult to track and monitor changes when manually deploying code, there’s always a higher risk of error involved in the release (not to mention, trying to go back and find the error to fix it is more difficult, too.) Of course, there are different degrees of automating a deployment that you can achieve without feature flags, but they’re more cumbersome and time consuming than the true “continuous deployment” approach that feature flags help dev teams to achieve.
Overall, manual deployment is not a scalable approach to software development – especially in this day and age. According to Google Cloud’s 2022 Accelerate State of DevOps Report, the highest performing dev teams release code multiple times per day. Keeping up with this release cadence would be near impossible for a team who has not yet automated their release process with feature flags and CI/CD.
Lengthy and risky end of month releases aren’t productive.
Without feature flags and a proper CD pipeline in place, your code is probably sitting in a branch waiting to be released for a lot longer than it needs to be. Here’s why:
Without feature flags, when a developer completes their part of a feature, it might sit in a feature branch for weeks (sometimes even months) before everyone else finishes their part of the code and it can actually be merged and deployed. With feature flags, you’re able to test and deploy smaller, incremental code changes multiple times per day rather than having to wait for large, risky, end of month feature releases.
The benefits of feature flags
1. Decouple releases from deployments
With feature flags, devs can decouple releases from deployments, which allows for a much more organized and efficient software delivery process. Releases are what the end user sees, while deployments are the actual process of getting the software to production. By decoupling releases from deployments, developers can ensure that releases are tested, approved, and ready to go before they are deployed in production. This helps to reduce the risk of introducing bugs or other issues into the production environment.
2. Rollback capability in case of unexpected issues or bugs
Rolling back code changes with feature flags means that developers can quickly and easily turn off a feature or revert to a previous version of the code without having to push out a new code release. This is done by setting a feature flag to turn off the feature or revert to the previous version of the code. This makes it possible to quickly address bugs or other issues without having to deploy a new code release. Additionally, rolling back code changes with feature flags allows developers to easily test and implement new features or changes without disrupting the current state of the code.
3. Ability to segment user groups and enable A/B testing
Audience targeting with feature flags can be done by setting a feature flag to turn on or off a feature based on certain conditions, such as user type or geographic location. This makes it possible to easily target certain user groups with specific features, and ensure a more personalized user experience for them. DevCycle’s multi-audience targeting capability takes this one step further, as a single feature can contain multiple rules that define which users receive the feature, and which variation of a feature each user should receive.
4. Automated releases made possible by scheduled & gradual rollouts
DevCycle’s Scheduled Rollouts feature ensures that your team no longer has to be online to release a feature. You can schedule a feature flag to be turned “On” at a specific date and time. And for an added sense of security and confidence, you can gradually roll this feature out to your users in increments.
For example, you can schedule a feature release for 1pm on a Wednesday, but since that’s likely a high traffic time, you can start by rolling the feature out to only 5% of your user base. Gradually releasing a feature helps ensure that it’s stable & behaving as expected before releasing it to your entire user base.
It's clear that feature flags are a critical tool for any dev team looking to release impactful features on a regular basis. Implementing a proper feature management solution like DevCycle helps teams take full advantage of feature flagging and CI/CD for a faster release process, more precise feature targeting, and feature experimentation. You can get started with DevCycle's feature flags today by creating an account at app.devcycle.com, or chatting with one of our feature flagging specialists here.
For more information on getting started, visit our docs at docs.devcycle.com.