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Why testers make better feature leads in agile teams

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Ori Bendet Inbound Product Manager, Micro Focus

Much has been written about feature leads in agile teams. They are the team members whose job it is to be the customer proxy for a feature, defining what is important to the customer and owning implementation end-to-end. They are assigned these roles because of the number of features that exist in a typical product. Being a feature lead takes both attention to detail and orchestration capabilities in order for the feature to be well defined, implemented, and delivered. Matt Chamberlain’s article “Feature Leading in Agile Teams” includes a good working definition of the role.

Where do feature leads come from? In my experience, they are usually lead developers who are part of a team working on an overall product and who take on the added responsibility of feature lead. This is far from a perfect scenario and, in my opinion, can cause technical tunnel vision, a bias toward less resource-demanding work, and loss of efficiency in the total process. I think testers make better feature leads, and here is why.

Using testers as feature leads—a better solution

In my article “6 ways QA can work better with developers,” I described how testers can work more effectively in agile teams. But I’d like to take that notion a step further and claim that testers who have experience working in agile teams make pretty good—and sometimes better—feature leads. 

  1. A user's point of view: Testers take on the customer view as part of their job description. They test and use products just as customers would, all day, every day. Devs might be more technical, depending on their job demands, but they might sometimes lack that instinctive customer viewpoint.

  2. A systemwide perspective: Testers take a wide view of the flow, looking at the whole customer experience (see another of my TechBeacon articles, 9 UX tips and strategies for developers) and seeing each feature within that context. Devs, by nature, are more specialized and focused on their piece of the bigger puzzle, which can lead to technical tunnel vision, as well as missed opportunities to make the whole flow better.

  3. Objectivity: Testers have the freedom to ignore how much time development will take or how many extra resources will be required. Instead, they will always put customer requirements first, prioritizing tasks based on customer impact, not impact on resources.

  4. Detachment from the team: Another aspect of being in their own sub-unit within the agile team is that testers can care slightly less about organizational dynamics within that team and can avoid groupthink more easily.

  5. Project management chops: While today’s testers are more technical and can live well within the development environment, a tester's domain is still the project management tools and frameworks. Often they are enforcers, not just followers, of the process. Testers understand multilayered processes and how to work across functions, which can be very useful when seeing a feature through development and delivery.

Serendipity: An example

A colleague of mine was appointed to be a feature lead on my team while I was a team lead. He was chosen for this task because the feature in question was similar to another one he had tested before. Based on his previous interaction with a user on the feature in the previous project, he knew what needed to be checked and paid attention to, and what users would be looking for.

Our hypothesis was that nobody else on the team at that point in time had the right combination of detail, context, and process. Sure enough, at the end of that sprint, the devs told him that, without his input, they would have never thought of so many aspects of their product and how it would be used. He saved customers significant time and effort in production, they added.

After that, the team and our management stakeholders understood that many of the characteristics they saw in my colleague could easily be generalized to testers and began to include those characteristics as a key consideration for the testing role. These same characteristics are what make a good feature lead.

Next time you're looking for a feature lead, think about offering the position to one of your testers. As someone with a deep understanding of the feature from both a business and technical perspective, they will appreciate the trust you put in them and will do an effective job of helping your team deliver the quality software your customers need.

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