Friday, May 26, 2023

Release Train Engineers (RTEs) - The Power or the Passion


The Release Train Engineer (RTE) is a (arguably THE) pivotal role in the success of a SAFe implementation, so over the course of my book research in 2019 I interviewed RTEs at every organization I visited.  Whilst this was a great way to learn the “true state and current pain points of the implementation at the coal-face” it had the side-effect of challenging my beliefs about the characteristics of a great RTE.   As I processed my notes from the study trip I formed the idea of writing a post on identifying and selecting great RTEs but it went onto my writing backlog to collect dust during COVID.

Last week in Prague I bumped into one of the truly inspiring RTEs from my study and as we caught up on her journey since then I shared with her the concept of this post and she challenged me – “why didn’t you write it”.  Em Sperring – this one’s for you!


When I first began coaching SAFe back in 2011, I interpreted the RTE role as the “ART-level Scrum Master” so naturally looked for strong, experienced Scrum Masters.   This gave great momentum building the “high performing self-organizing team of self-organizing teams”, but in the typically turbulent early days of an ART’s life they often struggled to manage the politics and external pressure on the ART.  Building their awareness and skillset to navigate the pressure and constraints from the enterprise was a long journey and one many of them had no interest in.  

Often, technology middle management or Program Managers were perceived as the true “Delivery leads” and remained outside the “agile system of work” – relegating the RTE’s to glorified admin assistants and event organisers but excluding them from the significant decisions.  I eventually pivoted and started looking for middle management or program management candidates on the basis it was easier to coach them on the “lean/agile parts of the role” as they worked “in the agile system of work” than to grow the Scrum Masters in the “enterprise system of work” parts of the role.  Being brutally honest, many had the same lack of interest in their agile gaps as the Scrum Masters had in their strategic gaps but on balance it felt like the better approach and I stuck to it with a reasonable success rate.

The focus of my study was “organizations I hadn’t coached”, and I found most RTE’s I interviewed came from the “Scrum Master/Coach” background, were in pain, and tended to  suffer the same relegation consequences I’d observed in my early SAFe life.  However, a number of them were incredibly passionate and relentless in finding every opportunity no matter how small to nurture their teams and grow their ART – and I realised I’d adopted a blanket stance rather than looking at case-by-case trade-offs.  

Approaching the identification and selection of an RTE

I characterised the two flavours of RTE as “Power” (traditional background) and “Passion” (agile background) and developed a decision-making framework to aid in the identification and selection of Release Train Engineers.  It is based on the superlative “WRAP” framework presented in “Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work” by Chip and Dan Heath:

  • Widen your options
  • Reality Test your assumptions
  • Attain Some Distance
  • Prepare to be Wrong

“Widen our Options” when identifying candidates

Be open to candidates from both a Power and a Passion background

  • Power - Typically a Program Manager or Technology Middle Management
  • Passion – Typically an experienced Scrum Master or Agile Coach turned practitioner

“Reality Test our Assumptions” during the selection process.  

It’s useful to have a framework of assumptions to test, so in the two images below you’ll find my assumption framework:

Candidates are people, not stereotypes.  The evaluation process should be looking to either validate or invalidate the assumption framework, in particular testing willingness/interest in compensating for gaps.  Shout-outs to Simon Douglas, Antonio Gomes and Catherine Haugh as 3 standout examples of assumption busters in the Power category and Chris Innes as an assumption buster in the Passion category.

“Attain some Distance” when shortlisting

Step back and evaluate the candidate and trade-offs holistically.  Consider the mitigations you will have available:

  • Sample Power-gap Mitigations
    • Is your organization’s business agility sufficiently matured to lessen the need?
    • Will there be a deeply engaged senior leader supporting the ART and the RTE?
    • To what extent does the LACE have the toolkit to assist the candidate in rapidly filling the gaps?
  • Sample Passion-gap Mitigations
    • Do you have a strong, experienced cadre of Scrum Masters for the ART?
    • What level/style of coaching support will be available to the RTE?
    • To what extent have the LACE and the People team established role expectations and supporting infrastructure around the passion aspects of the role?
  • Sample General Mitigations
    • What is the demonstrated and validated thirst to learn of the candidate

“Prepare to be wrong” when selecting

Establish “tripwires” – conditions to be monitored which might cause you to re-evaluate your decision and likely actions to be taken if the tripwire is triggered.  

Finally, be prepared to step completely out of the box

I have observed two innovative patterns that solve very elegantly for the challenge:

The first was shared with me by a very seasoned, passionate RTE from Fedex at the alpha-test of the RTE course years ago in Boulder.  I have forever wished I had taken a note of his name and maintained the connection.  Their LACE had a program where they identified their “wunderkind RTE’s” and used them to establish ARTs.  The wunderkind would go “2-up” in the role with the new RTE, pairing with them to launch the ART, make it through the first PI and mentor the early journey, then step away to find their next ART.

The second was the solution we employed with our very first ART back in 2011 (and I’ve leveraged a few times since).  We ran with a pair of RTE’s – one outward focused from a power background and one inward focused from a passion background.  Megan Anderson (now technology COO at ANZ Bank) was our outward RTE from a Program and Change Management background and Wayne Palmer (now CDO at Tecknuovo) was our inward RTE from a ScrumMaster background.  Megan marched the halls of the waterfall enterprise in which we were attempting to be agile and kept our fledgling ART alive politically while Wayne relentlessly focused on visual management, flow, collaboration and continuous improvement of the teams.  The two had some glorious conflicts on a weekly and sometimes daily basis but we had now SAFe Fellow Em Campbell Pretty as their line manager to keep the peace and maintain the balance between passion and pragmatism and saw amazing results.

The one key piece of advice I can give if you employ the pair solution is to ensure the outward and inward RTE’s are peers from a seniority perspective.  You need both voices in any significant decision to maintain balance.


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