Promoted: The power of the perpetual beta

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The development work that underpins PrivateDoc is never done, keeping the perpetual beta system evolving - Credit: MR - stock.adobe.com

The best business IT system is never finished – it's always a work in progress, if you run an effective perpetual beta like PrivateDoc.

PrivateDoc is an online clinic using the internet to connect patients with doctors, who can prescribe medication not available over the counter that’s sent out by the pharmacy partner. It operates in the area of lifestyle medication, specialising in treatments for weight loss, smoking cessation, erectile dysfunction, family planning and hair loss.
Though the head office and IT base is in Suffolk, the doctors and the pharmacy partners who dispense the medication are all over the UK – it is a genuinely online business. From the start, the public-facing website and the systems that underpin it were set up as a perpetual beta. 
“It’s about accepting that the product has to evolve, so we're always working on getting something out that is the minimum viable product,” explains co-founder and Technology Director Paul Hayman. “We’re asking: what can we release that’s safe, works and delivers for the customer... but with the next big thing in mind.” 
This concept is something used quite a lot in Silicon Valley, he explains - to launch a perpetual beta and then constantly review  and constantly improve it. It means the systems PrivateDoc has now are unrecognisable compared with the ones it had when it started in 2012. 

Paul Hayman of PrivateDoc standing in a bright office

PrivateDoc technology director Paul Hayman says running a perpetual beta is as much about culture as technology - Credit: PrivateDoc


“There’s a whole pile of principles that go into this kind of business, all built around the software-development methodology,” says Mr Hayman. "We call it DevOps. It’s all about a culture of delivery and that means creating a team of different actors. For us that would be a clinician, a developer, a pharmacist, someone to deploy the software, a configuration expert...”
The team as a whole are responsible for delivering the product. It's a culture that IT and eCommerce companies adopt that can be starkly different to the way many traditional businesses work, where there are operations and then there is the website, but those are two distinctly different things. 
“Building the business in the DevOps way, it becomes a constantly moving thing,” says Mr Hayman. “It’s all about constantly engaging the user. The DevOps mentality is if someone makes a suggestion and it will add value, we do it.  We do a quick assessment of value verses cost to implement verses other changes we have planned so we can prioritise”
An important factor is that PrivateDoc doesn’t need to release its whole system at once, but instead is set up to release small updates regularly – sometimes two or three a day.  Developers can work on distinct units of functionality concurrently using branch per task version control, separating their work from other work that is ongoing.
Individual developers will work on their own subordinate branches. While each is a unit of functionality that encapsulates their work, they can still call in all the other changes being developed elsewhere in the business and regression test it all to make sure everything performs together.  
“That means we have all these little units of work getting promoted to live,” says Mr Hayman. "But if you’re doing a big piece of work you can also pull all the changes that are happening across the business down so you’re keeping up-to-date with other changes all while benefiting from the automated testing that has to happen as part of our continuous build process.”
The testing function is critical, but PrivateDoc has built up scripts to automate the process and make it fast and accurate. “When you see companies working on a big release for months and then taking months to test it, that says to me that the process isn’t agile and that the testing is very manual,” says Mr Hayman. “We’re doing things little and often, so the testing can be done by pressing a button and you can rely on it – that’s why we automate things.”
With scripts handling the testing, the developers can be used more effectively on other areas of the development process, keeping PrivateDoc moving forward. "It’s a methodology that’s evolved over the past 15 years and it underpins the perpetual-beta concept,” concludes Mr Hayman, “Because you know that the version of the function you’re releasing today isn’t going to be the version that’s live tomorrow so you need to be agile.”
PrivateDoc has been fortunate to leverage the experience of kwiboo Ltd, a bespoke software company in Stowmarket, that has supported a lot of IT development work at PrivateDoc.
For more information, visit www.privatedoc.com www.kwiboo.com


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