Release Train Engineer (RTE): What you need to know

Oct 26, 2022

According to SAFe®, 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).

But what does that mean – how does the RTE spend their time daily? As we go over below, a recent survey across our clients shows where they found value with the RTE role and how their daily responsibilities are distributed.

Release Train Engineer (RTE) Role and Responsibilities

What we expect of RTEs

Being the RTE takes a strong foundation of leadership, engineering, and business experience which is why so many organizations are finding it is only their most skilled leaders that can be trained to succeed in the role. Let’s take a deeper look into how they spend their time in the role.

Continue the adoption of agile practices and lean thinking

A large part of the RTE’s role is actually to be an agile coach. This covers a lot of territory and could entail anything from guidance on splitting stories to estimation to guiding agile values and mindset.

PI Planning Readiness

One of the most critical times this is demonstrated is when a new ART is being launched. During the new ART launch the RTE is extremely active ensuring readiness for PI Planning to include helping product managers and business stakeholders prepare the vision/context/feature backlogs, understanding required architecture runway and enablers, identifying required shared services, leveraging facilitation/collaboration techniques and tools.

Stakeholder Management

PI Planning events and solution demos attract all levels of leaders in the organization by design – don’t be surprised to see the highest level leaders from marketing, product, business, architecture, and engineering present. This also means a lot of passionate opinions on priorities, what constitutes value, and quality. The RTE understands the domains, expertise and decision authority to listen to all, but also coalesce the important feedback into plans the organization is aligned against.

Facilitate and Negotiate

When you are working on large scale solutions for some of the fastest paced companies, the RTE can’t have enough of these skills. It’s all about getting to a plan that delivers the most value at the earliest time – of course, a lot of people will have different opinions about what that plan should be!

Remove Impediments

Some impediments can’t be resolved at the team level because they exist at a higher level and are too complex. It could be anything from resource bottlenecks, tech debt, poor technology selection or legacy architecture, command and control leadership tendencies seeping their way back in, or lack of access to appropriate test data just to name a few. The RTE helps to facilitate Inspect and Adapt sessions to understand the challenges and helps the organization identify and execute on solutions. Small and continuous incremental improvements is what helps an organization continue to optimize – without this an agile transformation will stagnate.

Manage complex SW development

It’s certainly not a requirement for the RTE to come from a technical background, but the role does require someone who can deeply and quickly analyze situations, know how to pull information from technical experts and ultimately guide the teams towards delivering value. Understanding SDLC, technology, and agile technical practices goes a long way to building the abilities required.

Advocate for DevOps capabilities

DevOps involves integrating development, testing, deployment and release cycles into a collaborative process. The RTE definitely doesn’t need to be a technical expert, but they do need to advocate for these capabilities.

Awareness of product management discipline

The RTE is certainly not expected to perform in the role of product manager, but he/she must be able to comprehend the product discipline. The RTE must understand that the role of assessing the market, customer needs, user feedback is constantly evolving and the learnings may impact the agile release train. The ability to understand changing priorities, required pivots, updated acceptance criteria and how to incorporate them into current or future PIs in partnership with the product organization is a must.

Optimize ART flow

The ART is a set of teams working in tandem with each other and following a common sprint cadence and release calendar. Continuous pulling of work from the backlog, execution and releases enable incremental business value delivery. One way the RTE assesses flow is to understand which meaningful metrics to track, how to interpret them, and ways to course correct when the numbers suggest things are headed out of bounds.

Part program manager

Yes, this one is controversial! Agile organizations will say they no longer have program managers in many cases. Yet in other cases, the RTE is looked to as the person with the big picture – the person who understands the priorities, release schedule, progress, predictability and risks at any given time. Call it what you want, but the RTE is frequently viewed as a source of truth for executives that want a clear understanding of investment, progress and release plans.

Overcome and Exceed with RTE

The past 18 months has shown that success demands agility. In this new global reality of national labor shortages, agile organizations are enabled by roles like Release Train Engineers. Across multiple business models, talent placement has been shown to overcome unexpected challenges brought by hiring shortages that threaten overall business growth.

For a helping hand to sourcing the highest performing SAFe coaches and professionals, look no further than ICON Agility Services. As the first leading Scaled Agile Network partner, we are a premiere agile consulting firm with over 30 years of expertise in providing SAFe transformation services and expert talent solutions. Get in touch with us today to ensure your transformation with an RTE from ICON!

If you are interested in becoming an RTE yourself or joining our team of consultants, register for training and apply here!