Waiting around for a near-completed application to test is so 1990s. Even 20 years ago, software testers spent...
the early stage of a project writing test plans, determining test strategies and analyzing requirements. Although those weren't necessarily full-time software tester roles and responsibilities, they enabled the testing group to hit the ground running as soon as testing could begin.
Today, an increasing number of Agile projects require software tester roles and responsibilities to begin almost from the start. Often, testers sit next to developers in order to understand the design coding decisions, tradeoffs, strengths and weaknesses.
At the very least, in the early stages of a project, testers can keep busy and be prepared. User stories need acceptance criteria, and requirements need test cases. Testers need to triage test cases to determine where the highest risks are.
There are also administrative tasks to be done. You can take on setting up the Agile or Kanban project board. You may have to set up a test environment on the Web or acquire mobile devices, browsers and virtual machines for testing. Don't count on someone doing those preparation tasks for you, and don't count on them working as they should right out of the gate.
Most of all, if you are on a new team you need to understand intimately the formal and informal processes on that team, and build relationships with others. You need to establish your credibility with the team, and also understand how they plan to hand off stories and address defects. Don't stop with the documented processes; learn how they plan to work together to build the application.
It's still likely that you will be busier toward the end of the process, but any real work you can do earlier will improve application quality and make your life easier.
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