Release Train Engineer or RTE is a key role on a SAFe team. Like a Scrum Master’s role on team, RTE’s role on a Program aka Agile Release Train is something of a mystery when looked in isolation. Let us try to understand some of the critical responsibilities that an RTE carries out. (I have taken the responsibilities from Scaled Agile website and elaborating them with values, patterns and practices from my experiences as an RTE and coach).
1. Establish and communicate the calendars for Iterations and Program Increments (PIs)
One of the core values of SAFe is Alignment. To align to the Program Objectives and to deliver value on-demand, the teams follow a rhythm at team and program level and synchronize their efforts. This synchronization forces multiple events to happen at the same time and orchestrates the efforts of all the teams to be integrated. The synchronization makes the events predictable and hence we do have a visibility of the events in the program for a longer horizon. Communicating the calendar and making sure the appropriate audience AND resources (audio, video, rooms etc.) are available keeps the Agile Release Train running smooth.
2. Facilitate PI Planning readiness by fostering a Continuous Exploration process which drives the synthesis of a Vision, a Roadmap, and Backlogs, and through Pre- and Post-PI Planning meetings
The scrum masters facilitate to make sure the team (including PO) is ready for the planning meeting, which includes but not limited to having clarity on backlog. Similarly, to pull off a successful PI planning, it’s not just enough that the RTE (Chief Scrum Master of the ART?) books the rooms and hopes everything goes as per plan. They need to work with Product Management and System Architect/s to be ready for the big event. Alignment and Program Execution are the two values they exemplify through this collaboration.
3. Facilitate the PI planning event
The success of Program Increment is in facilitating a near flawless PI planning, which helps the teams to self-organize and plan. PI planning requires the RTE to have multiple large group facilitation techniques and tools in their kitty. To make sure the 2-day planning go smooth, RTE must be ready with and should be clear of the goals the program wants to achieve in near term and long term.
4. Facilitate periodic synchronization meetings, including the ART sync at the Program Level and the value stream sync for Solution Trains
The PI planning sets the Train in motion, and the importance of RTE’s skills come to the fore when the program is running, and features are getting delivered. RTE facilitates the ART sync meetings to help the teams progress in the right direction and dependencies are resolved as planned OR teams have the right forum to address changes. These Scrum Master and Product Owner sync’s (once a week or more often) help the ARTs run smoothly. The facilitation would require the RTE to involve the right stakeholders as necessary in each of the events. In the case of a large solution, RTEs works with Solution Train Engineers (STE).
5. Coach leaders, teams, and Scrum Masters in Lean-Agile practices and mindsets
RTEs coach on the Agile Release Train for their span of influence. They coach the leaders, teams on Lean/Agile values, principles and practices. The RTE’s focus of coaching is on mindset of working in scale collaboratively. RTE's use the team (Planning, Review, Retrospective..) and program events (PI planning, ART Sync, I&A...) effectively to teach/mentor and coach the teams.
6. Escalate and track impediments
Note: Escalation here has a positive connotation.
Impediment removers on the Train! RTE’s bring the risks and impediments at the program level to the right stakeholders with a sense of urgency so that the Train runs smoothly. They might use organizations impediment management systems to make it transparent and visible to everyone on the Train as well.
7. Encourage collaboration between teams and System and Solution Architects/Engineering
Collaboration is a key aspect when working in scale and it might mean many things in an organization’s context. One portion of a large system is architectural integrity so as for the teams to make sure the solution is maintainable. The RTE’s are gate keepers of the process, who also look at the aspects of quality and sustainable speed and accomplish this by making sure, the teams have enough guidance from Architects.
8. Work with Product and Solution Management, Product Owners, and other stakeholders to help ensure strategy and execution alignment
All the above points mean, RTE’s need to collaborate across the spectrum to align execution and deployment/delivery to the overall organization and program strategy. This leadership aspect drives the overall alignment from the program perspective.
9. Improve the flow of value through value streams by improving and assessing the DevOps and Release on Demand competency
Value Streams are the main constructs in SAFe, which allows teams to think about the big picture and deliver value. RTE’s help accomplish this aspect by making sure Continuous Exploration/Integration, Deployment and Release processes are streamlined per the need of ART.
10. Help drive the Lean User Experience (UX) innovation cycle
The RTE is always looking for improvements and innovations. DevOps , Lean UX are some of the “must do” in the current competitive environment they will be looking at. These are not just the patterns utilized widely in the industry but they are the starting point.
11. Drive relentless improvement via Inspect and Adapt workshops; assess the agility level of the ART and Solution Train and help them improve
We execute, and we learn. Failing and experimenting is good as long as we can quantify the learning we get from these. RTE’s are always looking for ways to improve the process by learning. The formal cadences help them in making these events a way of life for the ART.
12. Foster Communities of Practice and the use of engineering and Built-In Quality practices
We learn not just formally, but informally as well. Communities of Practices are groups of like-minded people (role/domain/technology etc) who meet and share learnings, thoughts with their colleagues to improve themselves and the organization, over short and long term goals and objectives. They would also look at engineering and built-in quality aspects to improve the performance of ART .