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release train engineer (RTE)

Contributor(s): Kate Brush

A release train engineer (RTE) is a servant leader who facilitates program level processes and execution, drives continuous development, manages risks and escalates impediments while also acting as a full time chief scrum master for a Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). SAFe is a collection of organization and workflow patterns that was created with the intention of scaling Lean and Agile software development practices. A servant leader is a person within the organization who focuses on providing whatever support is needed to the project teams and Agile release trains (ARTs).

An ART is a group of teams in an Agile software development environment that is responsible for incrementally developing, delivering and operating one or more solutions in a value stream. The ART works with other stakeholders to perform these continuous improvements.

Release train engineers are important to an organization's Agile framework because they drive ART events as well as help teams deliver value. Furthermore, RTEs facilitate the constant improvement which the ART is responsible for, help manage risk, deteriorate obstacles and interact with stakeholders.  

Release train engineers should have a comprehensive understanding of how to scale Lean and Agile practices as well as an awareness of the unique opportunities and challenges involved in the facilitation and continuous alignment of a large development environment. The role of the RTE is to manage risks, escalate impediments, confirm value delivery and assist in driving consistent improvement.

Five key responsibilities of the release train engineer

Release train engineers interact with multiple levels within their organization. It is necessary that they possess an advanced and broader understanding of how to deliver value to the organization with Agile and SAFe environments.

The five key responsibilities of an RTE are:

  1. People - One of the most important responsibilities of the release train engineer is to maintain positive employee and team experiences. They must create an environment that facilitates positive team health as well as provide guidance and management to all workers to ensure goals are met.
  2. Coaching and education - The RTE must teach their teams, leaders and scrum masters about the combination of Lean and Agile management practices and ideologies.
  3. Program Increments - The Program Increment (PI) is a timeframe during which an Agile release train delivers incremental value in the form of working software and systems that have been properly tested. This is the equivalent of an iteration in Agile software development. RTEs must create and communicate the annual calendars for iterations and PIs; facilitate PI planning and readiness; and summarize the PI objectives and publish them to provide visibility and transparency.
  4. Agile release train success indicators - The RTE is responsible for monitoring and reporting on the success of the ART.
  5. Improvement roadmap - The release train engineer must also create retrospective improvement roadmaps by analyzing all activities and actions that have previously been performed and finding ways to improve each process.

Other responsibilities include:

  • Assisting with periodic synchronization meetings.
  • Helping track features and capabilities throughout development.
  • Providing feedback on resourcing to address critical bottlenecks.
  • Facilitating relationships between their teams and other departments.
  • Easing system and solution demos.
  • Understanding the budget and operating within its constraints.
  • Facilitating the Lean user experience (UX) innovation cycle
  • Collaborating with the Agile Program Management Office (APMO) to maintain solid program execution and operational excellence.
  • Scrutinizing the agility levels of the ART and solution train and helping find improvements.
  • Nurturing communities of practice as well as the use of engineering and built-in quality practices.
  • Controlling and optimizing the flow of value through the Agile release train and solution train using a variety of tools, including program and solution kanbans.
  • Communicating and collaborating with product and solution management, product owners and other stakeholders to guarantee the alignment of strategy and execution.
  • Enhancing the flow of value through value streams by assessing and improving DevOps and release on demand proficiency.

Skills needed to become a release train engineer

Every prospective RTE should possess three specific technical skills. They are:

  1. An understanding of Lean and Agile frameworks, especially the scaled Agile framework.
  2. An understanding of the company's budget and how budgeting works within a SAFe environment.
  3. An understanding of which metrics are beneficial and should be tracked, how these metrics should be interpreted and how the project course can be corrected even if the findings are showing dramatic risks.

In addition, successful release train engineers possess strong communication, negotiation and critical thinking skills, the desire to be a lifelong learner and a solid acceptance of the servant leadership philosophy. As a servant leader, RTEs are expected to:

  • Support all teams' commitments.
  • Listen to and support all teams in the identification of problems and decision-making processes.
  • Empathize with and understand others.
  • Present an open personality and be receptive to the openness of others.
  • Construct an environment that fosters mutual influence.
  • Encourage and facilitate the development of each person as well as the development of the team as a whole.
  • Use powerful questions to coach workers instead of authority.
  • Think of the big picture, beyond the day-to-day activities; practice systems thinking.

Furthermore, release train engineers should be people of integrity; they should treat everyone fairly and hold themselves accountable for their words, actions and mistakes. Finally, RTEs should be strong presenters and facilitators of conversation as well as supportive and influential teachers and mentors.

Certifications

RTE applicants should possess a bachelor's degree or equivalent work experience. Certifications are almost always required, but the SAFe Release Train Engineer credential is the only certification designed specifically for the RTE job position. The certification program ensures all certificate holders possess the knowledge necessary to manage Agile release trains in organizations of all sizes. After passing the exam and achieving RTE certification, an individual will become a more effective scrum master and coach for the entire organization.

Scaled Agile, the provider of SAFe, also offers other certifications that could be beneficial to release train engineers, such as the Advanced ScrumMaster (ASM), Scaled Agilist (SA) and SAFe Program Consultant certifications.

Furthermore, the Project Management Institute offers the Agile Certified Professional certification and the Scrum Alliance provides Certified Scrum Master (CSM), Certified Scrum Professional (CSP), Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) and Agile Engineering with Certified Scrum Developer (CSD) certifications.

The current average salary for release train engineers is around $136,500 per year. Entry level RTEs receive an average of $39,000 per year and experienced RTEs receive an average of $175,000 per year.

Release train engineer vs. project manager

While release train engineers and project managers possess similar capabilities -- such as issue, risk and dependency management, quality assurance and time management, people and communication management and cost management -- they also perform different responsibilities.

For example, while project managers handle scheduling and scope or change management, RTEs do not possess these capabilities. On the other hand, RTEs are responsible for program increment planning, release train organization, program scrums, program increment showcases and any inspection and adaptation needs, while project managers never deal with these issues.

Overall, while the project manager's role seems more focused on planning and organizing activities and teams, the release train engineer's job in more concerned with mentoring, nurturing and improving all workers, teams and the work environment.

This was last updated in September 2019

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