Tech Leader Pro podcast 17, Hero driven development

Published on 2022-10-01 by John Collins.


Introduction to hero-driven development

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." [1]

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.

Common tell-tale signs

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.

The problems with heroes

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:

The problems with being a hero

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:

  1. 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.
  2. While hero-driven development might be fun in the beginning when the adrenaline is flowing, it will burnout the heroes in question over time and is therefore not sustainable.
  3. Put simply, hero-driven development is an anti-pattern and should be avoided.
  4. There are many warning signs for this anti-pattern, and as a leader you need to watch out for these.
  5. Heroes work well in a chaotic environment, for example at a start-up, but as a leader you need to ensure such chaotic environments stabilize over time.
  6. Heroes are great fire-fighters, but it is much better to prevent fires in the first place.
  7. To prevent such fires from occurring in the first place, technology projects should be stable and predictable. Predictable, realistic delivery goals is the safe objective.
  8. There are many problems with heroes that you need to be mindful of, for example:
    1. They are expensive.
    2. They can burn out and quit.
    3. They can be head-hunted out of your team.
    4. They can have big egos, and cause friction in your team.
    5. They struggle to say no to new requests.
    6. Their estimates are often too optimistic.
  9. Fundamentally, the biggest issue with the hero-driven anti-pattern is that it does not scale: you cannot build a whole organisation exclusively full of heroes.
  10. Being a hero long-term sucks, because everyone will come to you with every fire that they want you to put out. If you are a hero, learn to knowledge-transfer and delegate as much as you can.

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, or follow me on Twitter @TechLeaderPro.

Thanks for your time, take care and have a great week!


[1]: Wikipedia entry on "Anti-pattern" -

[2] : My original 2013 blog post on "Hero driven development" -


File details: 15.4 MB MP3, 10 mins 41 secs duration.

Title music is "Still Cold" by Crystal Shards, licensed via


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