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Role of Testers in Agile Teams

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Karen Greaves and Sam Laing will give a keynote titled "testers are dying" at the Agile Testing Days 2015, which will be held from November 9 to 12 in Potsdam Germany. InfoQ will cover this conference with news, Q&As and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Greaves and Laing about how agile impacts the role of testers, what testers can do to shorten the lead time of testing, collaboration between testers and other team members in agile teams, and the value that testers can contribute in agile teams.

InfoQ: My experience is that the wider adoption of agile is impacting the role of testers. Do you also see this happening?

Greaves: Yes we do, but it’s actually more of a problem when we see teams that have adopted agile and haven’t changed the way they test. There is no way that traditional testing approaches can keep pace with teams that are delivering new functionality every week or two. Unfortunately at first it often takes it’s toll on testers who end up working overtime at the end of the sprint to try to catch up. Sometimes they even think it’s their fault or problem that they can’t keep up. That’s something we want to change, which is why we keep talking about Agile Testing at conferences and community events.

Laing: As Karen mentioned above, changing how you think about testing is the important part. Our keynote at Agile Testing Days is all about how good agile testers are often a limited resource. This means that the role of a tester changes from the person doing all the testing, to the person who is educating the whole team about good testing practices. It becomes more of a leader and influencer role than the more traditional role which is often more hands on execution.

InfoQ: People sometimes say that traditional testing takes too long for agile. What can testers do to shorten the lead time of testing?

Laing: Testers should be involved much earlier in the process. They need to be asking questions whilst the requirements are being discussed. The goal should be to make sure everyone has exactly the same picture in their head about a feature before any code gets written, this helps prevent bugs from ever being created, since many bugs are due to misunderstandings.

Greaves: To me agile testing is infusing everything you do with a testing mindset. It’s not really about shortening the lead time of the testing phase, it’s eradicating even the idea of a testing phase and making sure testing is central to everything you do.

InfoQ: In agile testers often aren’t the only ones who are doing testing. In your experience how do testers feel about this?

Greaves: At first some testers don’t like this, but it’s usually because when this has happened in the past others haven’t been as thorough, and the testers still end up being held responsible for other people’s work. When a team decides everyone is going to test, then the responsibility for quality should be shared too. If customer finds a bug in production, people shouldn’t be asking the tester why they missed it, but rather the whole team.

Laing: Sometimes it can be threatening. Some testers feel it’s their job and the only way they can control quality is by being a gatekeeper. We work with them to show how they can exercise more control over quality by helping the whole team think about testing. Some testers also think there jobs might be at risk, because developers can do their job, but they can’t do a developer’s job. We help them understand how the role of a tester is so much more than just executing the tests, and that their way of thinking about things is a valuable contribution to the team.

InfoQ: Do you have suggestions what testers can do when they are joining an agile team? How can they collaborate effectively with other team members?

Laing: Testers can ask clarifying questions throughout the process. Often these are seen as the "dumb" questions, because most people just assume they know they answers and so never discuss them. This is how bugs and features creep in. Testers are in the perfect position to ask these questions and ensure everyone in the team in on the same page.

Greaves: I think the most important thing for testers to do when joining an agile team is to keep an open mind, and remember you are on the same side as the developers. For a long time there have been walls built between developers and testers and a lot of blame between the two. In an agile team this can be really destructive.

InfoQ: Can you share your ideas about the value that testers can contribute in agile teams?

Greaves: As Sam mentioned earlier. The most valuable thing is to ask lots of questions, especially stupid questions right from the very beginning. Ask WHY. If you can’t figure out why you are building something and how you will test if it serves that purpose, you probably shouldn’t be building it. In agile testers change from the people trying to execute every single path through a system, to the people helping remove unnecessary paths before they even get created. If you build less stuff, and you know exactly how you will test it before you build it, then testing (and development) becomes much easier.

Laing: The testing mindset that testers bring to a team is super valuable. Simply asking "How can we test that?" forces the whole team to think about testing and starts to bake in quality early. Also testers communicate in language the users understand, they tend not to use technical jargon. This makes them great communicators, and collaborators with the users and business people.

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