What is a Release Train Engineer and what do they do? Who should become an RTE? How do I get certified? How should I prepare for the course and exam?
The Release Train Engineer (RTE) is a relatively new role that is becoming increasingly in demand. In this article, I discuss what an RTE does, who might be a good candidate, and my personal experiences of the training and certification process.
What is an RTE and what do they do?
The RTE is a role at an organisation that has implemented SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework). SAFe is a popular framework used at enterprises to achieve business agility using practices from Lean, Agile, and DevOps.
“The Release Train Engineer (RTE) is a servant leader and coach for the Agile Release Train (ART). The RTE’s major responsibilities are to facilitate the ART events and processes and assist the teams in delivering value.”
© Scaled Agile, Inc.
The RTE is a role at the Program level that is sometimes described as being the ‘Chief Scrum Master’ for an Agile Release Train (ART). The RTE collaborates closely with Product Management and System Architect/Engineering to ensure they are building robust technology solutions that meet customer needs.
An Agile Release Train is a cross-functional team of agile teams that are organised around delivering shared value streams. Each agile team consists of a Scrum Master, a Product Owner, and team members. The teams collaborate with other teams on their ART in a Program Increment (PI) — typically an 8–12 week period — in which they are responsible for collectively delivering a continuous flow of value.
The RTE has a wide range of responsibilities. One of the core responsibilities is facilitating a two-day event called PI Planning, during which the teams plan their work for the upcoming PI. They also facilitate additional program level and synchronisation events such as System Demo, Inspect & Adapt, Scrum of Scrum, etc.
As well as facilitating these events, the RTE is responsible for ensuring strategy and execution alignment, encouraging cross-team collaboration, helping manage risks and dependencies, coaching leaders and teams in Lean-Agile practices and mindsets, and driving relentless improvements.
Ultimately, the RTE is focused on managing and optimising the flow of value through the ART.
Who should become an RTE?
People come to the RTE role from a range of backgrounds. Some of the most common are:
- Scrum Masters
- Lean-Agile coaches
- Program and Project Managers
The most important things to have are the right mindset and a strong understanding of Lean-Agile.
Something that I feel isn’t emphasised enough is that the RTE role requires advanced facilitation skills and/or a commitment to acquiring them. ARTs consist of up to 125+ individuals, and facilitating productive and engaging events with that many participants takes both learning and practice.
How to become a Certified SAFe Release Train Engineer
To become a Certified SAFe Release Train Engineer you must first attend a 3-day course where you will gain an in-depth understanding of the role, and learn how to plan and execute a PI.
After the course, you are invited to join the SAFe Community Platform, giving you access to the SAFe RTE exam and related preparation materials, including a practice exam.
The Community Platform also provides you with access to SAFe toolkits and templates to help you facilitate SAFe events, online SAFe assessments to help measure your portfolios’ progress towards business agility, training videos, a forum, and other useful resources.
The course is considered advanced level and assumes a general knowledge of SAFe. There was a wide range of experience levels on my course, from people who were pretty new to SAFe to an attendee who was already a SAFe Program Consultant (SPC). I personally attended the RTE course having worked in SAFe enterprises for 2 years, first as a Scrum Master, then as an RTE for the past 6 months.
You can find a course provider on Scaled Agile’s website.
How to prepare for the RTE course
While there are no prerequisites for attending the course, it is generally recommended that you have:
- launched or participated in at least one ART and one PI
- hold at least one current SAFe certification.
This will allow you to participate more fully in the activities and group discussions that ask you to reflect on your own personal experiences of SAFe and as an RTE.
If new to SAFe, I would recommend attending the Leading SAFe course. This foundational level course is technically aimed at people in leadership or management roles. But it is also probably the best introduction to SAFe as it provides a good overview of SAFe’s competencies and principles as well as a PI Planning simulation.
To help you get the most out of the RTE course I would also recommend you:
- Read the main articles on SAFe’s website. Become familiar with the 7 Core Competencies of the Lean Enterprise by reading the articles linked to this page. You can skim over the Enterprise Solution Delivery and Lean Portfolio Management competencies if pushed for time, as they are less relevant to the role of RTE so only referenced briefly in the RTE course and exam. Also, read the articles on business agility, the RTE role, PI Planning and DevOps.
- Understand Lean, Agile, and Servant Leadership. Lean-Agile and Servant Leadership mindsets are integral to SAFe. It’s important to understand the principles of the Agile Manifesto and Lean Thinking, as well as the concept of Servant Leadership and coaching.
My experience of the RTE course
The RTE course is a three-day course. I attended a course in May 2021 and it was delivered remotely. The instructor used a digital workbook, Mural, Zoom, and Mentimeter to facilitate online activities and breakout sessions.
- Day 1 was mainly theoretical and covered the basics, with a high-level overview of SAFe and the RTE role. Most of the material was familiar but it was a good refresher and had a really strong focus on the ‘why’ behind the theory.
- Day 2 was more practical and was probably my favourite day. It focused on how to facilitate PI Planning, how to execute a Program Increment, managing ART flow, metrics, and building a Continuous Delivery Pipeline with DevOps. It was great to hear and discuss other RTE’s experiences and learn from their insights and perspectives.
- Day 3 covered the Inspect and Adapt event, systems thinking, servant leadership, facilitation, and coaching, before closing with a section on continuing your own learning journey. The material was great but facilitation and coaching are such big subjects in their own right that these lessons inevitably felt rushed.
I really enjoyed the 3 days of training. It is a well thought out course with a strong practical focus on the RTE role and understanding the rationale behind the practices.
The online delivery was expertly done and I would not hesitate to recommend the remote option if in-person training is not possible. I did feel slight ‘Zoom fatigue’ at the end of the days due to the increased cognitive demands of all-day group video calls, but frequent breaks were scheduled and the course was well-paced.
How to pass the RTE exam
After completing the training course you have 30 days to attempt the exam. The exam is taken online in your web browser via Scaled Agile’s Community Platform. The current RTE5 exam’s duration is 2hrs with 60 multiple choice questions and a passing score of 75%. If you don’t pass on your first try you can resit the exam for $50.
The Community Platform includes a practice exam that replicates the real exam in both format and difficulty. I found it gives a pretty good indication of what the actual exam is like and is a strong predictor of your likely score. I had a 3% difference in score between my practice exam and my actual exam score. The general advice is to aim to score around 90% or above on the practice test to feel confident before attempting the actual exam.
The questions were mostly scenario-based and do a fair job of testing your knowledge of the RTE role and responsibilities. There is a particular focus on PI Planning and PI execution.
The Exam Study Guide provides an approximate percentage breakdown of the topics that appear in the exam (i.e. 7% of the exam is focused on SAFe Principles).
It is important to pay close attention to the Reading and Reference List sections of the Exam Study Guide as it lists the articles on the SAFe website that you need to read in addition to attending the course. Some material in the exam is not covered in the course so you need to read these articles, especially if you are new to SAFe.
Areas of SAFe that are mostly outside of the RTE role’s remit, such as the Lean Portfolio Management competency or advanced DevOps knowledge, were either not in the exam or limited to one question. In hindsight, I spent too much time on some of these areas in my pre-course preparation and should have focused more on the RTE-specific areas.
After passing the exam you will receive a digital certificate (like mine below) and an email to activate and claim your digital badge, which you can use to share and verify your achievement with your professional network.
I hope this article has given you some understanding of what an RTE is and how you can become certified.
If you are thinking about attending RTE training and becoming a Certified SAFe Release Train Engineer, some of the key benefits are:
- It’s a great learning opportunity, regardless of your experience level. Attendees who are new to SAFe will gain good insight into the RTE role and its responsibilities. Experienced RTEs will still find plenty of new things to learn, and enjoy the opportunity to reflect on their own work and hear new perspectives.
- It is a well-recognised certification that can help with your employment opportunities.
- It’s a good chance to meet new people, expand your network and engage with the SAFe community.
Ultimately, the training can help you become a better RTE and improve how effectively you serve and coach your ART. But it’s important to remember that attending the course is just one step in a continual learning journey. The RTE is a relatively new role and is evolving along with the Scaled Agile Framework and you need to keep learning and adding to your skills and knowledge.
Thanks for reading 😀 I hope you have found this useful. Please feel free to get in touch with me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/tom-boswell/ if you have any questions, feedback or if you would like to connect.