As a Release Train Engineer, you need to make sure your teams are ready for PI planning. You need to make it happen… but where is the line?
A bit more than three months ago I stepped into an interim role as a Release Train Engineer from my original position as a Scrum master at Arm. Alongside my partner-in-crime Sophie, who made the transition much easier, we organised a PI planning last October that has now come to an end. And now, we all embark a new PI, but this time there’s much more weight on my shoulders, and with the expertise of barely three months trying to do my best to make a difference in our ART.
My mission this time has been clear: not giving myself any importance, but trying to empower the teams as much as I possibly could. This can be perceived as some as not caring as tend to leave decisions to the teams themselves, but that is far from the truth. I am always there. I always pay attention. I always try to help. Sometimes I have to put the foot down. But I never spoil or provide misleading education. I am an RTE (which is essentially a seasoned Scrum master on a different level in the SAFe framework), and I have big tasks to resolve for my teams, but common sense tells me as a Scrum master that they need to be self-sufficient and I’m there only to help with the logistics, provide the right kind of leadership and, most importantly, being helpful and not a constraint.
During this PI I’ve done all the usual tasks that any RTE should do:
- Engage with product owners and Scrum masters as much as I possibly could, knowing they are also busy.
- Listen to my peer RTEs and their advices.
- Make myself as much available as possible to ANY team member, not just the leadership. And this is not always possible, sadly.
- Lead and track the Scrum of Scrums ceremonies.
- Track the progress of all the initiatives and keep them up to date.
- Communicate all progresses and constraints with transparency and exposure.
- Receive constructive criticism about my ways with no ego leading my actions and act upon these observations, with the double purpose of growing as a professional and help my ART becoming more efficient.
- Report and observe anything beyond delivery.
- Trying to keep a casual, informal attitude with my people. This is sometimes perceived as a lack of professionalism… but I honestly could not care less about stereotypes of what a so-called professional should be. I know I am, and whoever knows me and works with me knows I am.
I’ve clearly failed partially in some. I’ve become a relatively unavailable person, and there are many days where I am drowned in meetings. I sometimes struggle to keep my naturally cheerful behaviour. Sometimes I’ve slipped on a report, and sometimes I’ve been unable to meet the high levels of quality that I demand of myself when I embark on any task. But overall I’m satisfied and thankful of all the support from my teams.
Now, what about the next PI? It’s around the corner!. Gosh, what should I do as an RTE to make it a success?
Well, here’s a list of the essentials:
- Ask all product owners for the proposed initiatives with as much time in advance as possible, even if just in a draft status, and publish them in a fully transparent way, demanding all teams to provide feedback and insights on these proposals. Discussions about them should be fluid between the team and the PO, as they’re the ones who will develop them. What’s the cost? What are the constraints? What’s the business value? The model should always be a negotiation between the business and the teams.
- ESSENTIAL: Communicate the dependencies to the different teams the moment they’re identified, not waiting for PI planning. This is massively important, as in avoiding last-minute surprises and foresee capacity for all teams.
- Demand a backlog cleanup. We cannot start a new PI if we don’t clean up the house first. Thanks Marie Kondo for this valuable lesson.
- Ask Scrum masters to calculate the estimated capacity of the teams for the next PI.
- Confirm the teams shape for the next PI. Are there changes? Are people still in the same place? Did people leave? Did people join? This is very important, as ambiguity with cross-functional members can be considered “available” for sharing in different initiatives, and this should be by default a big fat “no”, while not impossible.
- Organise all the digital logistics: are all the initiatives logged in JIRA? Do we have a cadence of releases? Is the new set of reports prepared? Are we digitally ready to crack on once PI ends?
- Prepare a master deck with a presentation of the teams, initiatives, PI logistics, Dates (including holidays, half-terms, platform freezes), responsibilities and best practices, so it can be shown on the planning days. This is incredibly time consuming but a fantastic added value.
- Define the physical spaces where people will be planning.
- Redefine time, cadence and rationalise of all Scrum and SAFe meetings: people who might have left, joined, new stakeholders needed, etc.
- Normalise JIRA workflows and Kanban boards (if needed)
- Confirm assistance of invitees to PI planning.
- Run an inspect-and-adapt session in an open way, giving room and space for everyone to provide feedback. And once the new PI planning has started, with time, act on this feedback towards ART practices improvements.
- Ensure teams have reviewed their definition of ready and definition of done, and their quality standards refreshed and in order. Even if this means a simple “oh yes, we have”.
- Map initiatives with teams, people and technologies.
There are bits here that are more ensure they happen rather than making them happen. Teams are responsible for their own backlog, improvements, meetings and routines. The labour of the RTE doesn’t mean imposing anything, but making sure the SAFe framework is followed diligently in a non-dogmatic way, but in a way that is useful for the whole ART. I would never dare to tell any team how they need to work or how they need to provide feedback, but rather convincing them of the value of the different actions done at a Program level and try to align the interactions inside and outside the ART.
It isn’t an easy work, I can tell you that; rewarding and exciting, by all means, but not easy. The key is imposing yourself a really diligent organisation, saying no to meetings where your presence will not add value, focus in inputs and outputs, in the most problematic areas, and most importantly, trust that your teams will be doing the right thing, listening to the voices of those who are crying for help (because that happens too) and address those problems.
Last but not least, something I believe it’s very healthy for me as a professional and also a personal important professional point for me: REST. Don’t burn out your stamina on a daily basis. Focus on the important to-dos every day and then go home and have a bit of a personal life. Sleep. Go to the gym. Come back the next day to the office with truly renewed energy. If you feel like you are just too distracted or you can’t focus properly on the task, stop working and log off. Have a hot drink. Read a comic. Do some meditation. Or just go home: your desk will be there tomorrow.
- Prepare your PI tasks diligently and organise your time.
- Make sure your teams are aware of their to-dos and make them happen. Help wherever needed.
- Balance your work and personal life. And RTE is a human being too!
- Trust the self-organising capabilities of your people.
With all above, you’re all set for an amazing PI. The last bit is the best one: ENJOY the energy of the two planning days ahead of you! Good luck, RTE!