|Published on 2022-10-01 by John Collins.|
Hero-driven development refers to a team having an over-reliance on star performers to get the job done, rather than having a stable, reproducible process in place that anyone can implement.
While it can be exciting to work in such a mode, it does not scale and will eventually lead to the burnout of the heroes in question, and a slower skills ramp-up for the remaining team members who rarely get exposed to harder topics.
In addition, heroes inevitably become knowledge bottlenecks in the team, which becomes a major problem when the heroes quit, or even just go on vacation. It is for this reason and many more that I refer to hero-driven development as an anti-pattern:
"An anti-pattern in software engineering, project management, and business processes is a common response to a recurring problem that is usually ineffective and risks being highly counterproductive." 
Time and again, I find myself exposed to hero-driven cultures in the technology industry, let’s look at some of the common signs next.
The following represent some red-flags for hero-driven behaviours in a team, but there are many others:
A hero does well in these environments, because they are able to react quicker than those around them, and they don't mind not having a life outside of the project, at least while they are young and single. Eventually it catches up with them however, and resentment can kick in which is frankly justified.
I once worked with a brilliant principal engineer, who was so sick of fire-fighting he used the children's character "Fireman Sam" as his official company avatar, but sadly few got the joke.
Technology projects should be stable and predictable however, allowing for sensible work practices that do not burn people out, while also allowing for planning schedules that actually reflect reality. Working in a hero-driven environment can be fun for a while as the adrenaline kicks in, but a prolonged adrenaline rush will quickly result in frayed nerves.
Staking your future on heroes is a high-risk/high-reward endeavour. While the rewards are quite obvious, the risks are less so and require some explanation. Let's look at some of the common risk factors:
If you are a hero, you probably already know by now that being a hero in a dysfunctional organisation sucks. You spend your day constantly fire-fighting, with new problems being presented to you left and right, while your regular project work suffers.
I once said to a team of talented French engineers I managed: "If you are the only one that knows how to bake baguettes, that sucks for you because everyone will come to your desk for bread. It's better to teach others how to bake baguettes". That's the secret to getting heroes to scale: they need to nurture other heroes in the team, but sadly most don't do that, as they are too busy just fixing stuff directly.
Remember if you are a known hero in your organisation, everyone is going to keep coming to you with their problems to solve, until you either burn out through exhaustion, or you train them to fix it for themselves.
For managers, remember once again to ring-fence your heroes by for example ensuring that all ad-hoc requests for their time are made through you, to give you the ability to make priority calls on their behalf. To use an analogy, your top engineer should not be busy fixing someone's printer.
I once knew a senior business analyst who told me early in my career that "many organisations strive to shoot from the hip more effectively". These organisations are perpetually stuck in tactical, reactive mode, and rarely have time for strategic planning as they are just too busy getting things done. Sadly, those things getting done are often the wrongs things, due to a lack of careful planning in the first place. It becomes a vicious circle.
Hero-driven development is an anti-pattern: remember if you need a hero, something has already gone wrong.
Lets recap what we have covered today:
I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I look forward to covering the next topic in this series with you! In the interim if you want to follow me online, you can find my blog at TechLeader.pro, or follow me on Twitter @TechLeaderPro.
Thanks for your time, take care and have a great week!
: Wikipedia entry on "Anti-pattern" - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-pattern
 : My original 2013 blog post on "Hero driven development" - https://techleader.pro/a/423-Hero-driven-development
File details: 15.4 MB MP3, 10 mins 41 secs duration.
Title music is "Still Cold" by Crystal Shards, licensed via www.epidemicsound.com
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