(Updated on October 16, 2017)
As our industry continues to evolve, new roles are emerging. One of the more popular Agile scaling frameworks is the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). The SAFe framework defines a layered approach to scaling Agile to address common organizational challenges. One of the key roles in SAFe is that of the Release Train Engineer (RTE). Since this is a relatively new role, HR departments and leadership teams have struggled with what to screen for when searching for the perfect RTE.
Let’s start the discussion with a description of the RTE role as defined by the Scaled Agile:
“The Release Train Engineer (RTE) facilitates Agile Release Train processes and execution. The RTE escalates impediments, helps manage risk, helps ensure value delivery, and drives continuous improvement.”
The RTE acts as an Uber ScrumMaster, thus will share many of the traits of a ScrumMaster. Unlike the typical SM whose primary focus is on the team, the RTE will interact with various levels of the organization. To be effective, the RTE must have developed a more refined and broader understanding of how Agile and SAFe deliver value to the organization. The graphic below illustrates the principles of Lean-Agile leadership (or download this updated PDF).
Principles of Lean-Agile Leadership
Keeping these principles in mind, let’s look at the 12 traits that make a great RTE.
12 Traits of a Great Release Train Engineer (RTE)
- Agile Mindset – A great RTE not only understands the foundations of Agile and SAFe, but embraces an Agile mindset. The RTE not only teaches Agile, but embodies an Agile mindset. It is in the state of being Agile that one exudes the confidence in knowing the value that Agility provides. A great RTE will be value focused and guided by the Lean-Agile principles as outlined above in SAFe, with a concentration on Systems thinking.
- Courageous – Like a ScrumMaster, a great RTE has the courage to say what needs to be said in a respectful and tactful way. They respect the authority and direction of management, but have the courage to deliver the truth, even if it’s not what people want to hear.
- The RTE must have the courage to say “no” sometimes in order to avoid over-committing the train to too much work.
- Servant Leadership – A great RTE is above all a Servant Leader, leading the team by example, by actions as well as by words. They earn the respect of the ART, from both the leadership as well as the teams.
- The RTE will serve the SM community as the primary escalation contact and be ready to do whatever is necessary to keep the train rolling.
- The RTE steps up when called upon to work with the SAFe Release Management Team, Product Management Team and other representatives of Shared Services.
- Integrity – A great RTE is a person of integrity. They hold themselves accountable to keep their word and deal fairly with everyone.
- Facilitator – A great RTE is comfortable presenting in front of the team and management. They have an arsenal of tools and techniques to keep the participants interested and engaged.
- Negotiator – A great RTE understands that most things are not black and white. There are many shades of grey, where matters must be negotiated to achieve an agreement that is palatable to all parties involved.
- Communicator – A great RTE can deliver a message with tact, being sensitive to how the message is received by the team or by management.
- Teacher – A great RTE nurtures the team’s understanding of Agile principles and practices through the use of workshops, Agile games, and presentations.
- Mentor – A great RTE serves to guide individuals in the Train to a clearer understanding of the processes and approaches implemented by the ART.
- Honest and Transparent – A great RTE understands the value of transparency. Bad news is not like wine – it does not get better with time. Agile does not fix problems, but it does expose them. A great RTE knows this and approaches the matter with the intention of informing the broader group and working together on a resolution.
- Critical Thinking – A great RTE has the ability to think on their feet. They can quickly analyze a situation and organize the team around a solution. They does not have to define the solution but has the savvy to guide the conversation.
- Lifelong learner – A great RTE understands that their learning journey is never over. They strives to build their skills through continuous learning. Learning comes from many places: formal classroom training, books, blog posts, podcasts, seminars, and other colleagues – everyone around you can teach you valuable lessons you can apply every day in a team setting.
3 Must-Have Technical Skills
Great RTEs will have “T-shaped” skills. Meaning, they will have a broad understanding of not only Agile, but also product development, as well as subject matter expertise associated with the organization’s industry. The RTE’s background will typically include project management experience where organizational, time, budgeting, and scheduling management skills would have been honed. In particular, a great RTE will have deep knowledge and experience in the following technical (non-software) areas:
- The SAFe Framework – A great RTE will have a deep understanding of Lean-Agile frameworks in general, but an especially deep grasp of the Scaled Agile Framework.
- Agile Budgeting – Your RTE must have a solid understanding of how budgeting works in a Scaled Agile environment. They will grasp the concept of taking work to the team versus project-based funding models.
- Agile Metrics – A great RTE understands which meaningful metrics to track, how to interpret them, and how to course correct when the numbers are telling you things are headed out of bounds. Figure 2 below is a sample of meaningful metrics you may want to use in your SAFe transformation and the benefit to the business:
Sample SAFe Metrics
Release Train Engineer Training Journey
Great RTEs will have not only the requisite experience, but will have also had the specialized training needed to understand the various Agile constructs and techniques. Training combined with mentoring, coaching and applied experience are the recipe for growing great RTEs.
While certifications look great on a resume and may indicate professional training, they don’t always represent full understanding of the subject matter or an ability to apply it. When considering candidates, seek to determine their understanding, as opposed to relying only on the credentials they have accumulated.
There are currently no accreditation bodies for RTE certification. However, there are a number of relevant certifications that it makes sense for an RTE to hold.
- Certified ScrumMaster (CSM)
- Certified Scrum Professional (CSP)
- Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO)
- Agile Engineering with optional Certified Scrum Developer (CSD) certification
Project Management Institute
- Project Management Institute – Agile Certified Professional – The PMI-ACP spans many approaches to Agile such as Scrum, Kanban, Lean, Extreme Programming (XP) and test-driven development (TDD.)
- Advanced ScrumMaster (ASM) – The Advanced ScrumMaster Curriculum is designed to build on the skills of a CSM. It broadens the scope of interaction from one team to a team of teams. Additional frameworks such as Kanban and SAFe augment the fundamentals in CSM training.
- Scaled Agilist (SA) – The Scaled Agilist (SA) certification demonstrates that the candidate has completed the fundamental training in SAFe and successfully passed the exam. The associated course is “Leading SAFe”.
- SAFe Program Consultant (SPC4) – The SAFe Program Consultant (SPC4) is the next certification up from SA certification and demonstrates the candidate has successfully completed the four-day training course and passed the associated exam. SPC4 training provides the RTE with the skills and tools required to launch a new Agile Release Train.
- SAFe Release Train Engineer (RTE4) – The SAFe Release Train Engineer credential is the only certification designed to highlight and develop the skills needed for success as an RTE. The three-day program, followed by a certification exam, assures that credential holders have the knowledge the launch and guide Agile Release Trains in organizations of all sizes and complexity.
Looking to get SAFe-certified? Sign up for a class today!
There are also a number of extremely valuable training classes offered that do not result in an industry recognized certification. Value a candidates understanding over their ability to pass a test. In addition, find out what self-study a candidate has done.
Very little of what makes a great RTE great can be gleaned from a resume. Accreditations doesn’t always reveal a true understanding of the principles, values and capabilities that will make a person successful as an RTE. As you search for RTEs, remember to engage them in conversations that demonstrates the candidate’s stance, experience and motivations. And finally don’t forget to consider culture fit: how will each candidate’s values and skills, aspirations and goals align with those in your organization?