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Release Train Engineer in SAFe: The Role and ResponsibilitiesReading time 8 minutes
Driving product development isn’t an easy task. But when you use proper frameworks and approaches, the task could become much easier for you. Some of the most common frameworks in use today are DevOps and agile. And as development gets more complex, these frameworks are also being upgraded to become better. For instance, DevOps evolved to DevSecOps, and agile evolved to SAFe. For today, I’m going to focus specifically on SAFe.
Every person in the development process plays an important role to get the best product as an outcome. Release train engineers (RTEs) are a crucial part of SAFe, and without whom SAFe is incomplete. But what makes them so important? You’ll find the answer to that in the following paragraphs because the highlight of this post is the roles and responsibilities of an RTE.
But before getting to that part, let’s do some catching up on SAFe and what it is about its architecture that requires an RTE.
What Is SAFe?
When product development started, people needed an approach that was quick to get work done. Agile is one such development approach. Agile is a mindset that focuses on the near future and works toward that goal. If you’re developing an application using an agile mindset, you’d think about what the application should be in the next few months. You won’t think of what the application would look like after two decades just yet. As time passes, you keep on making changes to the application to make it suitable to the needs of its users. This is the iterative approach agile takes in development. Typically, a group of five to 15 people headed mostly by a “scrum master” would work on particular tasks of development. This was great for small and simple products. But it was at a team level.
As products became more complex, agile couldn’t keep up with being effective. So agile evolved into SAFe. SAFe, or scaled agile framework, is agile’s big brother. SAFe is an approach that takes agile’s principles and values and applies them across the organization. SAFe’s purpose is to allow various agile teams in the organization to collaborate and develop products quickly in an iterative manner. And to achieve this, SAFe uses the agile release train.
What Is an Agile Release Train?
An agile release train (ART) is a group of self-organized agile teams that work together in delivering the final product. The ART typically consists of five to 15 agile teams, which means a total of around 30 to 150 people working on different parts of the same product. But why am I talking about the ART when the topic to discuss is the RTE? It’s because an RTE comes in when there’s an ART. The RTE is a servant leader who works on providing what the ART needs to get the job done. Now let’s get to the topic under the spotlight.
The Release Train Engineer’s Role
An RTE is a person who facilitates program-level support to the ART. Every agile team in the ART has members led by a scrum master. The RTE is above these scrum masters and can be thought of as the scrum master of the scrum masters, aka the super scrum master. The RTEs drive the ART by helping teams deliver their task and increasing the value of the process. RTE is a key role that acts as a mentor that the scrum masters consult with. In the ART, there’s no one above an RTE. An RTE has to understand the requirements of the ART and make sure they provide them. Agile teams are self-organized and self-managed, and the RTE brings them together. They act as a guide to the agile release train to ensure the train’s moving in the right direction.
Since the RTE holds such a key position in SAFe, let’s now look at what an RTE’s job involves.
The Release Train Engineer’s Responsibilities
An RTE has to do anything and everything to provide what the ART requires to get the outcome. Hence, specific tasks are subject to use case. But here are some general responsibilities of an RTE.
The RTE has to support all the teams in the ART to make themselves better. Nobody is perfect, and nobody can become the best version of themselves overnight. An RTE should continuously support the teams to take steps in improving and adding more value to the complete process. And because SAFe follows an iterative approach, the RTE should support the teams in understanding how they can be better with every iteration. They should motivate the teams and also provide valuable feedback, training, and guidance regularly.
RTEs should be well prepared for events in SAFe. There will be many instances in the process that will take a lot of time and effort. The RTE should consider all this and prepare to come with efficient and coordinated action plans. Proper preparation and planning results in quick decisions, which results in quick actions and smooth flow of the process. And when the RTE is prepared, there’s no room for chaotic situations.
As mentioned, SAFe takes the iterative approach. And with every iteration, the value of the outcomes should be incremented. The program increment (PI) is a timeboxed event in which the ART provides incremental value in the form of working and tested systems or software. These increments are typically eight to 12 weeks long and have five iterations. PIs can only be successful when they’re planned right.
The RTE should properly create timelines and a calendar for iterations and PIs. While doing this, they should consider all the factors that could affect the deadlines and set realistic values. It’s a good thing to keep enough of a buffer just in case of unexpected delays.
We’ve all heard the saying “too many cooks spoil the broth.” When there are so many teams working on the same product, you should definitely expect challenges. These challenges could be related to the employees, such as lack of resources, dependency issues where one team is waiting for a resource from another team, or technological challenges such as system failures. The RTE should help in resolving these challenges in a timely manner to make sure the PI isn’t affected. Resolving impediments doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to come up with the solution. It also means that the RTE has to provide what is required to solve the challenges.
When implementing agile on a large scale, there’s a chance for communication gaps. The RTE should be able to deliver valuable messages to the team. The communication should be transparent and done in a professional way. Agile teams work on different parts of the same products. The RTE should conduct regular sync-up sessions for scrum masters so that they know what’s happening in the other teams. This helps in building good relationships among teams.
With so much on their plate with providing support to the teams and resolving problems, the RTE shouldn’t compromise with the engineering aspect. The RTE should also focus on code-review, test-first development because they result in better products. Automation is something that would speed up things in the development process. The main focus of the RTE here is to deliver real value in the development. Value stream management is a great way of understanding what value each part of the process is adding to the outcome. Due to the division of work between multiple teams, an RTE can use value stream mapping to get complete visibility of the process and further work on optimizing it. So SAFe and value stream management (VSM) make a great duo.
Summing It up
SAFe takes agile to the next level by scaling it to the complete organization. To make sure this scaling works well, someone should take responsibility. The ART is the most important component of SAFe. A release train engineer helps the agile teams in various ways to improve themselves and also the product. The RTE is the overseer of the agile release train, continuously facilitating its needs and also driving to make it better.
In a nutshell, the RTE has to make sure the product development goes smoothly. Doing this would also require optimizing teams, processes, workflows, etc. And value stream management can be of great use because it helps the RTE plan what part of the development to optimize and then prioritize these areas. Therefore, the synergy between SAFe and VSM takes agile to the next level.