Jan 03 2024

What Is a Release Train Engineer?

In this critical role, an RTE manages risks and acts as a full-time chief scrum master for software development teams using the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe).

Software development is the manufacturing line of the digital age, the method by which every digital product is created. Everything you do on a screen — play a game on your smartphone, pay a bill online, write a report on a business work application or watch Netflix — is made possible by software developers who work in obscurity to write, test, debug and launch trillions of lines of code.

As you can imagine, this process is complex and often chaotic. There are evolving requirements, communication challenges, unforeseen technical complexities and rapid changes in technology that combine to make successful software development a Herculean task. Managing these factors can lead to shifting priorities, unclear objectives, and difficulty in predicting and controlling the overall scope of a software project.

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It’s no wonder, then, that so many projects fail. Although estimates vary, a Standish Group report from 2020 found that 2 out of 3 software projects fail to meet all of their objectives, and success rates decrease as projects get bigger.

Accordingly, detailed project management frameworks for undertaking development projects have been created and refined over the years. Perhaps the best known is the agile framework, which is popular for its iterative and collaborative approach to project management.

What Is the Agile Framework?

Development teams have been evolving the agile framework, also known as Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) since the 1990s, but its popularity grew with the publication of the Agile Manifesto in 2001. It articulates four key values of agile development, emphasizing collaboration, individuals over processes, functional software over comprehensive documentation and, of course, agility — the willingness to adapt to new requirements rather than sticking rigidly to a plan.

Within agile, one finds scrum, a workflow management approach that is standard procedure on most software development teams. As BizTech noted in 2022, scrum “involves enabling small, self-organized teams to share responsibility for a project and complete project tasks quickly.”

It’s tempting to assume that a scrum master is the leader of the team, but it’s more apt to describe a scrum master as a protocol director.

As Diego Lo Giudice, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, explained to BizTech, the scrum master “makes sure that the ceremonies and the practices are applied.”

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What Is the Role of a Release Train Engineer?

Large organizations need a way to scale agile development processes. Enter the release train, which is “made up of multiple agile teams” that “work on a fixed schedule and share the vision, product backlog, and roadmap defined by” the scaled agile framework under which they are operating, according to ProductPlan, a maker of product management software.

You can think of a release train engineer, then, as a kind of scrum master’s scrum master. The RTE is a key member of the agile team who is primarily responsible for facilitating program-level processes and execution, driving continuous development, managing risks and escalating impediments. The RTE manages multiple teams by overseeing the scrum masters and any roadblocks to make sure that large projects are completed on time and at scale, and that teams are aligned as they develop.

All of this is done in service of agile software development principles, which organizations have found are critical when managing complex software development projects.

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What Are the Key Responsibilities of a Release Train Engineer?

The RTE is a “servant leader” and coach who facilitates “events and processes, and supports teams in delivering value,” according to Scaled Agile Framework, a company that initially developed many of the principles of the scaled agile framework. “They communicate with stakeholders, escalate impediments, help manage risk, and drive relentless improvement,” it notes.

Some key responsibilities of an RTE include:

  • Facilitating key events. The RTE helps organize activities such as project planning meetings and so-called inspect and adapt workshops, during which the teams evaluate their overall progress.
  • Collaborating with scrum masters. The RTE works with scrum masters to address challenges, facilitate cross-team communication and support continuous improvement.
  • Clearing hurdles. The RTE identifies and removes impediments that hinder the progress of the agile release train. This may involve working with scrum masters, product owners and other stakeholders to address and overcome challenges.

Overall, an RTE’s job is to facilitate communication between product owners and among the agile teams working on the same project, to coach team members on agile principles, and to help clear any hurdles to success.

What Are the Essential Skills of an RTE?

A release train engineer is a leader and an organizer. A good one must be an expert in the principles of agile and scaled agile development and should have experience working on development projects within large organizations. They should also be comfortable leading large groups of people and have excellent organizational, communication and problem-solving skills.

A good RTE must also be comfortable managing change. In software development, requirements, timelines and demands are in a constant state of flux; an RTE must learn to embrace and be inspired by that challenge. Unsurprisingly, many RTEs come from the ranks of scrum masters; in any event, they should be intimately familiar with the agile framework of software development.

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